For all the work that goes into building climate action plans, cities often run up against one problem: Many well-meaning residents are stuck in the same old habits, unsure of how to make meaningful change.
In Vancouver, the solution is starting small. About two and a half years ago, some residents in the Riley Park neighborhood wanted to put the city’s Greenest City Action Plan to work in their community. With support from Evergreen and a grant from the city, they created the Green Bloc initiative and set an ambitious goal: to decrease the ecological footprint of participating households by 25 percent.
Neighbors organized educational projects, getting together to learn more about their transportation and energy habits as well as effective ways to change them. They held a DIY bike repair workshop to help some commuters make the switch to cycling, and vegan cooking classes to understand more about the link between food choices and their environmental impacts.
So far, Riley Park participants have cut their overall ecological footprint by 12 percent, including a 50 percent reduction in their transportation footprint. Between the social incentive of comparing footprints with neighbors and the collaboration toward a common goal, they’ve seen that their mission is as much about strengthening social ties as it is about encouraging a greener lifestyle.
“While it is very much about the ecological footprint, it’s also a collective action project,” says Robyn Chan, the project coordinator of Green Bloc. “Just to get enough households signed up, people have had to go door to door and meet new people in their neighborhoods. We’re hoping that this is a catalyst for creating more community resilience.”
As that project continues, Green Bloc is taking its program to three more neighborhoods for the next year: South Cambie, Dunbar-Southland, and Kensington Cedar Cottage. In addition to the educational projects, like Riley Park’s bike repair and vegan cooking classes, residents in the new neighborhoods will choose physical projects, like planting community gardens or building tool libraries.
In 2012, the Vancouver Foundation surveyed locals about the issues weighing most heavily on their minds. The top concern wasn’t poverty or housing, but a growing sense of social isolation. That can take a real toll on a community’s resilience—especially after a disaster, but also day-to-day on a personal level.
“If something happened to you, [it helps] knowing that you could go next door or a few houses down and find someone who knew you who could help,” Chan says.
To this end, Chan says, Green Bloc tries to make the workshops projects visible and welcoming in the neighborhood, so that passers-by who haven’t participated know they can still join in. In Riley Park, for example, they painted a big street mural in an intersection. “It took all day, it was huge and colorful and we had 40 families come out,” she says. “Even people that hadn’t taken part in other Green Bloc programming wanted to come out and paint a little with their kids, and do something that was going to brighten up their neighborhood.”
Daniel Ward is one of the people spearheading Green Bloc in the South Cambie neighborhood. A recent planning school graduate, he teamed up with his landlord, a roommate, and a new friend to recruit households to join the initiative. He joined to help encourage more sustainable practices in his neighborhood, and it has helped him meet new people in the area, too. “Outside my landlord and my friends down the lane,” Ward says, “I don’t really know anyone in the neighborhood. I think Green Bloc can catalyze new connections and create new opportunities for social interaction.”
Ultimately Green Bloc strives to fill a gap between the kinds of change individuals can make and the kind of change that takes place at the city level. They’ll be refining an online toolkit that anyone can use as a resource. In the meantime, in Vancouver, they hope to build the capacity for change, starting in just a few neighborhoods.
In the three new neighborhoods, efforts will begin by calculating participants’ current ecological footprints. (That’s about 85 households total, with 25 to 30 in each neighborhood.) Green Bloc will guide participants as they carry out sustainable living projects along with their neighbors. They’ll start by discussing the neighborhood’s needs, and then develop plans for targeted improvements: perhaps reducing meat consumption, or fuel consumption for transportation, depending on what the neighborhood wants to do and what’s possible.
“What we’re hoping to prove this year,” Chan says, “is that it’s a model that can really be taken anywhere.” In Riley Park, participants were mostly inhabitants and owners of single-family homes. Selecting neighborhoods for this round of Green Bloc, Chan says, “we were really looking for a diversity of housing types. We were looking for people who live in apartments, specifically renters, people who might live in basement suites, or coach houses, in addition to single-family homeowners or single-family renters.” With Vancouver’s spiking housing costs and rapidly changing in neighborhoods, the programs serving them also have to be flexible.
Ward says the initiative’s benefits could even go a long way to addressing other issues in the community. He recalls a story of a recent kerfuffle in South Cambie over rezoning a church into a multifamily housing development. “There was a lot of tension created in the neighborhood,” he says.
Several people put up lawn signs opposing the rezoning, while other supported it, but Ward says he didn’t hear much conversation between people on opposite sides of the issue. “I kind of see the Green Bloc initiative in the neighborhood as having the opportunity to have these conversations,” he says. “As a bridge between two groups that aren’t seeing eye to eye but could come together on community-building components of this project.”
CORRECTION: This article originally said Green Bloc set out to decrease households’ carbon footprints. The goal is to decrease their ecological footprints, which includes carbon footprint as well as demand for food, timber, and space for infrastructure.