Educating and Engaging the Public Local Agenda and Community Based Initiatives

The case cities examined in this book provide a wealth of examples of ways of involving, educating, and engaging the public in the mission of local sus-tainability. This can happen at several different levels and by several means. One of the most significant ways in which participation has occurred in the last several years, specifically around the issue of local sustainability, is through the emergence of local Agenda 21 (LA21) efforts. Many local Agenda 21 programs have followed a similar process and structure. Typically, there is a citywide steering committee, with representatives of major community interests (e.g., government, industry, and NGOs). (In the United Kingdom, these tend to be referred to as "environmental forums.") Frequently, there is a series of more specific task groups or work groups, organized around more specific issues or policy sectors. In Leicester, which has adapted a strong partnership ethos, much of the work of LA21 happens through its "Specialists Working Groups." In Den Haag, similar task groups were established to address the following eight issues: international efforts, energy, waste, traffic and transport, nature and landscape, building and living, communication, and neighborhood initiatives. Lahti's process is similar with seven "cross-sectoral working groups" created. The LA21 process typically involves one or more public meetings or conferences, and some cities have gone through a community visioning process as part of Agenda 21. Common projects and activities undertaken in the local Agenda 21 process include the development of a set of community sustain-

ability indicators, a vision statement, and the preparation of a local sustainability action plan.

In another of the U.K. environment cities, Middlesborough, the LA21 process has also included the convening of a series of specialist working groups, focused on analyzing specific sector or policy areas and developing visions and action programs in each area. As in Leicester, an explicitly partnership approach was pursued. Creatively, the vision statement prepared by each working group was published in the local paper. Community involvement was also solicited through the city's network of twenty-six community councils (neighborhood groups). Eventually, these various initiatives led to the convening of a community vision conference and the publishing of an LA21 Action Plan for the Community (Forum for the Future, 1998). The creation of an ongoing Community Environment Forum is also planned. As an example, the following succinct vision statement produced by the Environmental Quality special working group was published in the local newspaper:

Industry is organized on a more local basis than it used to be, with companies producing whole products (rather than components) for local distribution. Companies have also taken advantage of clean technology and are removing and reusing chemicals that were previously discharged into the River and atmosphere. (Forum for the Future, 1998)

In addition to the community process, there is frequently also a pro c e s s more specifically directed at local government employees and agencies, encouraging them to find ways to modify their behaviors and policies to reduce environmental impacts and consumption (and addressing many of the subjects discussed under the ecological governance heading). As part of its internal LA21 process, the city of Helsinki engaged in an extensive p rocess of involving and consulting with a large portion of its 40,000 employees. Some nineteen departments (out of thirty) in the municipal government participated. A contact person was designated in each department, and through extensive department meetings employees were asked to consider how sustainability could be incorporated into the work of their respective departments. The process generated some 1,000 suggested changes, with 300 immediately implemented (Association of Finnish Local Authorities, 1996). These suggestions addressed such things as waste rec y-cling, energy savings, using more environmentally-friendly ways of getting to work and the need for environmental purchasing policies, among others. This internal initiative is generally seen as a success: "The network of contact persons has proved to be an active force in other projects as well" (Association of Finnish Local Authorities, 1996, p. 24). Interestingly, in Middlesborough, the Environmental Sustainability Strategy prepared within the local government itself was coordinated through an interd ep a rtmental group called the "Environmental Sustainability Officer G id u p . "

The local Agenda 21 initiatives have placed a great importance on community participation, and local governments have utilized a wide variety of process, participation, and visioning tools along the way. Gloucestershire's (United Kingdom) LA21 has used a creative visioning process called the Time Machine. Described as a "guided meditation," a trained facilitator takes groups of eight to ten people through this process of imaging the future of their community. "The intrepid time travelers are asked to close their eyes and imagine themselves in the utopian Gloucestershire of 2030. The groups then look at the aspects of future life (health, political systems, landscapes, etc.) that they (would like to) see. After being returned to the present, participants reflect on their experiences individually and then discuss what would be contained in their group vision" (Forum for the Future, 1998).

There are many ways in which a public sense of ethical commitment to the future and to an expanded moral community flows from these many local initiatives. We should not underestimate the power of such expressions of commitment, and the long-term force they may have in shaping perception and behavior. One small but potentially powerful example involves the public planting of trees. In the United Kingdom, as part of millennium activities there, a program called Trees of Time and Place has been initiated. Under this public campaign, citizens are asked to select a tree that has had some importance in their lives, collect seeds from the tree, grow them to seedlings, and then plant them as an important gesture of leaving a legacy to the future. "When the new millennium comes, they will rise up, and plant their trees on dedicated sites in public parks, on urban wasteland, around schools and hospitals, behind pubs, beside community centers and in private gardens" (Baines, 1998, p. 2). In Lahti, participants in the LA21 process are encouraged to make declarations of the things that they plan to do to live more sustainably and to hang the written declarations on a tree in the city hall—a cumulative (and visual) declaration of commitments to a more sustainable future there.

Among certain countries, there has been a high participation rate in LA21. In Sweden, nearly all local governments are in one stage or another in the LA21 process. In the United Kingdom, some 73 percent of the local authorities are involved in LA21 activities, with many having hired staff specifically for this program (Selman, 1998). In Finland, about one-third of the country's 453 localities are developing local plans.

The results of the LA21 process are mixed, but on the whole it has represented a considerable effort to engage citizens in thinking about sustain-ability and what it might mean for their neighborhoods and communities (see Morris, 1998). On the positive side, thousands of citizens have been involved and have had a chance to have their views and ideas heard. Also, the work and products generated from these local processes are considerable. In each city, the LA21 process has involved a large number of people and has often had very productive spinoffs. In the Den Haag LA21, for example, the process of study groups has spurred a group of citizens interested in transportation issues to develop a relatively sophisticated sustainable transport vision for the city. This "manifesto" has been distributed widely to politicians, the local transit company, and the community as a whole, and it has at least the potential of advancing new ideas and dialogue about solving the city's mobility problems.

While the accomplishments have been considerable, some problems or limitations can also be noted. Most of the local programs have been operating with extremely limited funds, which has constrained what they have been able to accomplish. Secondly, in some cities, citizens have been extensively involved without a clear sense of direction or an end goal. This has resulted in extensive meetings that have accomplished little, and which has caused frustration to some participants. The process might also be criticized as accomplishing few tangible outcomes or changes at the local level. Yet, in most cities (and countries) visited, the LA21 process was still in a relatively early stage. It remains to be seen how the ideas and creative input of the public will change local policy.

These programs do show convincingly that municipalities, through modest investments of money and staff time, can help to grow grassroots sustainability. Often, cities provide neighborhoods or community groups with funds to help them undertake various initiatives. While the level of funding in the aggregate is not terribly large, often it does provide important seed money for groups and does appear to have had positive effects in many places. The city of Stockholm, for instance, maintains a green fund, from which it provides small grants to community groups. During the first year of its operation, some sixty different projects were funded. One recent example is an effort to create "butterfly restaurants"—inner-city areas where parks or open areas are set aside and restored with plants providing necessary butterfly food sources.

Supporting local community groups and grassroots environmental initiatives can take other forms as well. Leicester has used an interesting pro gram of green accounts, where local groups can, by collecting and bringing in recyclable materials, earn monetary credits, which are paid out on a quarterly basis. Recyclables accepted and for which payment is given include aluminum foil and cans, paper, and textiles. There are now some 450 green accounts in the city and the amounts of money paid out have risen to significant levels (£11,000, for example, paid out in 1995-96; Environ, 1996). The program has served both to encourage recycling in the city and to provide a badly needed income for local organizations and charities.

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  • tom
    How are cities educating the public on process?
    8 years ago

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