In Baltimore, neighbors worried about the fate of Mount Vernon Place, a four-block inner city park that sat neglected and little-used. It seemed the symbol of a once-vibrant neighborhood in danger of losing its economic and social footing. But instead of giving up and moving out, local citizens founded Friends of Mount Vernon Place to revitalize the park. They started with a few clean-up days, which led to bigger things, such as a flower market and a book festival. And that brought greater attention from city maintenance crews and, finally, a new master plan for reviving Mount Vernon Place. The park’s turnaround has increased neighborhood pride in a place now referred to as the “heart of Baltimore.”
Welcome to the new world of environmentalism. We think of greens rallying to protect rainforests, coral reefs, deserts and other distant yet critical ecosystems. But that’s just one aspect of protecting the planet. Many activists are now working close to home, too, joining up with neighbors to restore and preserve their own communities.
These new environmentalists make streets safe so children can walk to school. They lobby for sidewalks and benches and neighborhood parks. They transform outdated shopping malls into neighborhood centers complete with housing and lively public squares, sidewalk cafés and convenient transit stops.
You find them everywhere from Hollywood, where the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative turned a forlorn northern bus stop into the gateway for a vital urban village, to Philadelphia, where a gang-infested stretch of vacant lots in West Kensington was transformed into community gardens. This kind of down-home activism ultimately preserves wild places at the same time it revitalizes urban and suburban communities. Improving quality of life in neighborhoods means people feel less urge to abandon existing communities for brand-new homes in sprawling subdivisions carved out of forest, marsh, desert or farmland. And neighborhood environmentalists” efforts to reduce traffic and renovate existing homes and infrastructure make substantial contributions to halting global warming and minimizing energy use.
Jonathan Porritt, former head of the British Green Party and now a leading advocate for sustainable business, declares, “Most people think the environment is everything that happens outside our lives. We need to acknowledge that the environment is rooted in our sense of place: it is our homes, our streets, our neighborhoods, our communities.”
Thinking globally and working locally has long been a mantra for the environmental movement. To join this emerging movement, look around your neighborhood to see what places—parks, gathering spots, natural amenities, quiet nooks, play areas, walking routes, commercial centers—could be protected or regenerated. Think about what changes could be made to reduce pollution and environmental degradation. Here are a few ideas for you to get started in bringing the green movement home.
1) Team up with your neighbors
When you get a half dozen or so heads together—especially folks who are united by a commitment to the place they live—there’s no limit to what can be accomplished. This principle has been proven in neighborhood after neighborhood as people join forces to spruce up, clean up and green up their communities.
The idea of forming Eco Teams—five to 10 households taking steps together to live more ecologically— has taken root globally with more than 40,000 people in 18 countries joining with their neighborhoods to make a difference.
Jennifer Olson and Per Kielland-Lund, who joined one of the eco-teams sponsored by government agencies and local businesses in Madison, Wisconsin, enthuse, “We were able to implement many changes in our daily lives that we wanted to
It feels good to be part of the solution and not only the problem.”
In Golden, Colorado, a dozen people from the Harmony Village community meet monthly over breakfast to explore local and environmental issues. Member Dan Chiras, who hosts the discussions in his kitchen, says the group proposed that “residents install solar panels on the roofs of their homes, and that the village use energy-efficient compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs in outdoor fixtures. They routinely write letters to politicians, and recently saved a nearby piece of land that was slated for development.”
More than 100 residents of the Boundary Street neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, have become in-volved in a project to restore native plants along the banks of a local creek. “We’ve tapped into neighborhood expertise—one guy has a Ph.D. in biology,” notes Dick Roy, one of the leaders of the restoration project. “We’ve taken advantage of all the good energy to make our neighborhood more environmentally stable.”
2) Think globally, eat locally
Mealtime in modern society raises a host of serious environmental, social and nutritional issues. The vegetables on our plates may have traveled more than a thousand miles across the country and the fruit halfway around the world, while our meat and dairy products were likely produced at a factory farm. Each bite we take was probably doused with pesticides, antibiotics or preservatives along the way, and massive amounts of fossil fuels were burned in growing and transporting the food to our table. And, of course, packaged food shipped from far away never tastes as good as a meal made from locally grown ingredients. Happily, the last few years have seen a boom in local, organic foods. Whether it’s from a backyard garden, a public market, a community-supported agriculture program, or truck farmers in the area, local food nourishes our souls as well as our stomachs.