Come Together: How to Build Sustainable Communities

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Community members work in the Little Sugar Creek Greenway Community Garden in Charlotte, North Carolina, part of Mecklenburg County’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway and Stream Restoration program and the Scotts Miracle-Gro “Give Back To Gro” national gardening program.
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The garden provides organic food to the community and serves as a teaching facility, with classes on gardening, responsible earth stewardship, composting, biodiversity, plant and insect identification, and more.
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In New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Groundswell Community Mural Project—a group committed to bringing together artists, youth and community organizations to use art as a tool for social change—partnered with the Community League of the Heights and American Friends Service Committee to paint the “Weaving Change Beyond the Shadows” mural. To learn more about Groundswell or to sponsor a youth muralist, visit
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By spending more of our dollars locally, we keep more of our money within our communities, supporting local businesses that support us in turn by creating local jobs.
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At Harvestvale, a “slow-food Vermont community harvest potluck” in Burlington, participants are encouraged to bring dishes made from produce grown in their gardens, old family recipes or new recipes they’ve been meaning to try.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was sitting in her quiet suburban neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, when she had a sudden thought: She barely knew her neighbors. With winter approaching, she decided to try to improve the situation by inviting everyone on her block to a holiday potluck. The response was enthusiastic, as if everyone had just been waiting for an opportunity to get acquainted. Friendships were launched, phone numbers exchanged and the seeds of possibility planted. Years later, the potluck has morphed into an annual progressive dinner, with festively dressed neighbors strolling from one house to the next.

Enriched neighborhood ties led to new projects. A group of neighbors launched a local chapter of the citywide COPE program (Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies), building teamwork and increasing neighborhood preparedness for earthquakes, floods, fires and landslides.

Some teens eyed a small empty lot, and soon a vegetable garden sprang up, with neighbors of all ages gathering on Sundays to work in the garden and socialize. When they needed tools, they borrowed them at no charge from the downtown Santa Rosa Tool Library. And when they needed gardening information, they attended free Master Gardener workshops at the local branch library.

Many of the block’s residents also have their own vegetable gardens and fruit trees, so just knowing each other led to more sharing. Come summer, it’s common to see people walking down the street carrying baskets of homegrown produce to offer their neighbors.

Build Sustainable Communities

Several of her neighbors have taken advantage of the city’s water-saving lawn replacement rebate. One family replaced their “industrial” landscaping with drought-tolerant native plants that are resource-conserving, habitat-producing and beautiful enough to attract passersby, who stop and take pictures. One woman invited neighbors to meet at her house to follow the steps outlined in the book Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds by David Gershon. At the month’s end, the group celebrated their collective “weight loss” of 30 tons of carbon, significantly lessening their contribution to climate change.

This is just the beginning. Every new project deepens community ties and launches new ideas. Your own community may already be acquainted, or you may be like my friend and barely know your neighbors. Either way, getting together is satisfying and fun, and by partnering together, we can accomplish more than we ever could on our own. If you’re looking to engage your community, start by getting people together, seeing what resources are available, and letting nature take its course.

Community is a major component of sustainability. Strong neighborhood ties don’t just make life more pleasant; studies show they also improve safety, increase personal longevity and allow for resource sharing.

Start with fun, easy, tried-and-true social connectors such as neighborhood potlucks, block parties and walking groups. Form a Neighborhood Watch or an emergency-preparedness group. Or just introduce yourself to neighbors.

Don’t overlook another neighborhood standby: your library. In the age of the Internet, when information is easy to come by, libraries are becoming centers for community sharing, offering classes, workshops and cultural events, and lending toys, tools, sheet music, chess sets, child-development materials and more.

Work Wisely

Once the bonding has begun, you can start planning neighborhood projects based on mutual interests and needs. Perhaps you could clean up a neighborhood park or stream, plant a veggie garden, install a drip-irrigation system or replace a lawn with native plants. Hold a neighborhood toy swap or garage sale. Form or join a neighborhood council or sustainability group. How about hosting educational events on composting, beekeeping, gardening, energy efficiency or renewable energy?

Create a neighborhood resource map to inspire sharing and trading. Start by enlarging a map of your neighborhood, then throw a party and invite neighbors to write their names, interests, skills and other resources at their address. You may find babysitting swaps, garage bands and work trades springing up.

Team Energy

Consumption of fossil fuels, with its attendant issues of climate change, pollution and resource depletion, ranks high on any list of sustainability issues. How can your community help?

Start with tricks that cost nothing–or even save money–such as ride-sharing. You can coordinate the old-fashioned way, talking to neighbors and finding out who’s going your way, or you can create a community email list to find someone to share the journey, or use the websites listed at right to link up with people in the broader community.

The next level is car-sharing. By joining a car-sharing company, you can avoid the expenses of owning a car while having the use of a car when you need it. Check online or call your local government offices to find ride-share and car-share services specific to your area.

You and your neighbors can also pool time and skills to make your homes more energy-efficient. A Massachusetts group called Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) pioneered free energy-upgrade work parties to teach volunteers hands-on skills to lower their energy bills and carbon emissions. Visit HEET to learn how to replicate their success. (Learn more about sealing homes and improving efficiency in Sealing Air Leaks for Increased Home Efficiency.)

Finally, through solar-share programs, neighbors can even invest together in solar power, reducing costs, encouraging shared solar arrays and allowing renters to participate. In some solar-sharing programs, neighbors may invest together in an offsite solar array, then receive credits on their utility bill for the power the array produces. In other iterations, neighbors might team up to reduce costs of materials and installation on several homes by qualifying for group discounts. For example, the program One Block Off the Grid helps negotiate group discounts for neighborhoods where several households are interested in photovoltaic systems and installation. Visit the website to see if there’s a group in your area, or start one of your own.

Food for Thought

Buying food grown in your region is a no-brainer. You can support local farmers, lower the amount of fossil fuel embodied in what you eat and get fresher, more nutritious food. Weekly farmer’s markets have taken off in the last decade. Joining a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, in which subscribers receive weekly loads of food in exchange for a weekly or monthly fee, is often a less-expensive way to enjoy organic, local produce, and it gives farmers a reliable income source.

In your neighborhood, you may want to join (or start) a community garden or engage neighbors in a garden- or produce-sharing network. Or consider space- and chore-sharing. Perhaps a person in a small apartment with no yard would love to garden, while the working mother down the street has a huge yard but no time to tend to garden plants. By pairing up, these two can share costs, resources and the benefits of fresh food. When the harvest is in, hold a recipe-sharing potluck or throw a canning party to share the labor of preserving the bounty for winter.

The Big (and Small) Picture

As you make use of community resources, keep both the large and the personal picture in view. The vitality of the living world underlies all other sustainability. Become more familiar with your larger community–the local flora, fauna and waterways. The more you learn, the more naturally you’ll feel drawn to participate in conservation efforts such as cleaning up a creek or preserving a sensitive habitat.

At the personal level, take care of yourself. If you tried to take on all these activities at once, you’d probably get overwhelmed fast. That’s not sustainable. To build sustainable communities, start with something that feels exciting to you. See where it leads. Take on what you’re comfortable with. No matter where you begin, you’ll eventually find yourself connecting with everything else. And that is the basis of true sustainability.

Money Matters: Collaborative Consumption

We’re increasingly aware of the power of our dollars in sustainability: Where we bank, where we spend and how we invest all influence the national financial system. By spending more of our dollars locally, we keep more of our money within our communities, supporting local businesses that support us in turn by creating jobs in our communities. This encompasses shopping at locally owned stores, moving your savings into a local institution and investing in local businesses. “Collaborative consumption” is a way to take a step outside the money system, giving away and getting stuff for free (or close to it). It gets us beyond the pattern of buy, use and discard that leaves us with bulging landfills–and empty wallets. To start collaboratively consuming in your neighborhood, consider the resources at everyone’s disposal and how you might share them. Perhaps everyone has tools they are willing to share such as wheelbarrows, ladders, power tools, lawn mowers or snow blowers. Make a list of who has what and when they’re available for lending, then use a neighborhood email list to communicate. You might arrange a child-care swap, a kitchen supplies exchange or pool money to purchase shared facilities such as storage sheds or guest houses. The possibilities are nearly endless.


Building Community

City Repair
Community building and ecological improvement through projects that honor the interconnection of humans and nature

The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking by Jay Walljasper, a Project for Public Spaces publication

Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Strategies, models and information to support environmentally sound community development

Project for Public Spaces
Helps people create and sustain public spaces 

Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann

YES! magazine’s “A Resilient Community” issue

Car/Ride Sharing

Supports car and vanpooling, biking and public transit; maps, commute log and savings calculator

Car Sharing
An introduction to car-sharing, and a directory of services and resources

eRide Share
Find riders or a ride anywhere in the country, for short or long trips

Ride Share Online
Connects car and vanpoolers; tips on biking and public transit

Zip Car and Relay Rides
Car-sharing companies

Home Improvement

Home Energy Efficiency Team
Start community energy efficiency-upgrade parties

Community Solar

A Guide to Community Solar
Community solar project models

One Block Off the Grid
Helps neighborhoods pool resources to install solar power

The Vote Solar Initiative
Works to bring solar into the mainstream


American Community Gardening Association
Enhancing community gardening in the U.S. and Canada

Eat Well Guide
Find local markets, restaurants

Information about grass-fed food and links to local farms

Connects consumers with small, local farmers

Pairs people who want to garden with people with gardening space

Find local farms, farmer’s markets, CSAs and more

Neighborhood Fruit
Matches people who have fruit trees with people who want fruit

Pick Your Own
Find a you-pick farm near you


Find a reuse network near you

Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It by Amy Cortese
Building healthy communities while earning a profit

Move Your Money Project
Move to local banks and credit unions

Helps neighbors lend, rent or sell seldom-used items to each other

Resources on sharing, alternative currencies and more

Slow Money
Learn how to invest in small, nearby food enterprises

Local Ecosystems

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Native plant database and recommendations all over the U.S.

National Audubon Society
Online bird guide, education, conservation news and activities

National Wildlife Federation
Wildlife education, regional projects and backyard wildlife habitats

The Sierra Club
Working to protect communities and wild places; information, programs and projects

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368