18 Steps to Build a Sustainable, Resilient Local Community: Choose One

The sun sets over the melting artic sea ice

On August 27 NASA announced that the Arctic ice cap was now smaller than ever recorded since consistent satellite measurements of the ice began more than 30 years ago. It continued to shrink as the summer waned. Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

While the arctic ice cap is melting faster than anyone predicted, the rate of social change also seems to be speeding up.

And it needs to.

But for change to happen fast enough to give us significant resilience to the changes that are coming, we need to act.

Why do we need resilient, engaged communities?

We are facing a future in which cheap energy is no longer available.

Whether because of peak oil, or because we finally mobilise globally to reduce climate change, this future is coming, and seemingly much faster than most of us expected.

I don’t want to be caught short in that world, unable to afford to eat well or feed my family because the cost of food has sky rocketed; unable to get around in a life designed around a petrol driven car; unable to warm my house because it is designed to be warmed by burning fossil fuels.

And more, I don’t want my children to arrive at adulthood without the skills required to flourish in this new world.

But the fact is, while equipping myself and my family with practical skills, insulting my house, and growing my own food may all help, they are not going to slow down climate change. Nor will they  insulate us sufficiently from the economic and social turmoil that the end of cheap energy is likely to cause.

Acting alone will not be enough (so let’s act together)

I am realising that becoming as sustainable as possible on my own little suburban patch is never going to be enough.

Rob Hopkins wrote in The Transition Handbook “If we wait for the government, it will be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might be just enough, just in time.”

If we act as communities, it might be just enough, just in time.

It won’t stop climate change, but it might be enough to help us all adjust with a little more resilience.

You may be focussed on food security in the city, safe neighbourhoods, effective schools or energy independence.  You may be concerned with living in a more engaged community now, or more concerned about future resilience.

Whatever your focus, building resilient and engaged local communities is something best done by people within the community.

So you can start small, or you can start big. The important thing is to act.

Here are fourteen steps you can take right now to make a difference, and four inspiring projects that take it to the next level. Why not choose one, and get started right away? (Click to tweet)

14 Easy Ways You Can Build Your Community Now

    1. Organise a street BBQ. This is a great way to get to know your neighbours at this very local level. And it can be the first step to more exciting things.
    2. Join a local group. Joining any kind of local group, be it a church group, scout troop, gardening group or singing group, will increase your involvement in local community, and any involvement is a good place to start.
    3. Shop at your local farmers’ market & chat to people. You will be directly supporting local growers instead of the multinational conglomerates who own the major supermarkets; you can get to know the farmers and find out what’s in season, what’s good this year, and even how best to store or use the produce. And, you can get to know other like-minded people in your area who attend the markets and perhaps stop for a coffee after shopping.
    4. Plant a fruit tree on your nature strip/verge. This can start a conversation with your neighbours, as well as improving your own food security. The conversation may not even be verbal – the tree is just there, making a statement.
    5. Plant vegies in your front yard. This doesn’t only make a statement, it means you are in your front yard, visible and more likely to actually see the people walking by in your street. Stop working and have a chat.
    6. Start a conversation with your neighbour. Perhaps make a point of going for an evening stroll at a time when you know people in your street are outside and stop to chat. Hint: if you don’t know them already, this is a lot easier after you have a street BBQ.
    7. Start car-pooling. Is there are a local car-pooling group you could join? Or, could you just car-pool with someone in your street? Or perhaps your place of work has a car-pooling program? Joining can be another good way to get to know people who live nearby, as well as reducing your carbon emissions.
    8. Get involved with your local school community. Hint: You don’t necessarily have to have kids at the school to volunteer there.
    9. Join a local community supported agriculture (CSA) program
    10. Join a LETS group near you. Local Energy Trading Systems allow members to exchange a variety and skills and goods for units of a local LETS currency, rather than money.
A basket of bunches of basil on a table with few fruit, sprigs of rosemary, and bottled goods in front of the basket.

Produce at a community food produce swap. Photo by Takver (Flickr).

  1. Join or start a food swap group, to swap your extra produce. In Australia, check out http://swapshuffleshare.com.  In the Northern Hemisphere (though mostly North America),  check out http://community-food-swap.meetup.com/.
  2. Host your own food swap with your friends. See How to Host a Food Swap for ideas for how to set it up.
  3. Look for an existing group in your area like a Permablitz group or Canberra’s SEE change groups, and get involved.
  4. Host a “Recipe for Change Girls Get Together”, or (if you are not a girl, or not available that weekend), host your own individual version of that event with your neighbours or friends (see the fourth project below for more details).

Take it to the Next Level: 4 Inspiring Projects

So you’ve had your street BBQ – maybe you even host one every year – you’ve planted your front yard orchard, you shop at the local farmers’ market already and there’s no local car-pooling group, so you take the bus to work. But your local community is still fragmented and a long, long way from being Totnes.

It’s time to take it to the next level; to really get your community moving. But what more can you do?

Here are four real life community building projects that someone else has started, plus resources to help you make a start with something similar.

The Canberra & Surrounds Urban Homesteaders Club

If I want it, I might just have to create it for myself.” (Bec Pollock)

This is a regional group which meets monthly, but also includes a Facebook group where members chat, ask questions, post links and generally share their knowledge, every day. It was started in 2011 by Bec Pollock of Eat at Dixiebelles, after she was approached by a local reader of her blog who knew she’d tried to start a group previously.

This is a group of like-minded people who come together for support and inspiration. There’s no formal agenda, no insistence on skill sharing, no requirement that online members even attend physical events. None the less, in the 12 months since the group formed, there have been workshops on breadmaking and beer making, and plenty of produce swapped and skills shared and even a winter soup swap.

I asked Pollock why she thought the group was so successful this time, and she put it down partly to the social aspects.  “The first time around it was maybe a bit too strict,” she said, “The social focus and [seed swap] focus, rather than ‘you have to come and teach us a skill’ works so much better.”

Having the Facebook group to allow members to share tips and links and ask questions between meetings, had also been a real boon, she said.

To get the group started Pollock left messages about it on local blogs and forums, emailed and messaged people on Facebook, promoted it on her own blog, and made sure people knew it was open to a wide variety of people doing all different things, from growing food or keeping chooks to preserving their own food, practicing crafts or even brewing their own beer.

Bec has a recently published a post on her blog with more information and tips on how to start your own group.

The Incredible Edible Todmorden

Three and a half years ago a group of friends sat around a table and asked “What if…” They followed their conversation up with a public meeting in a café, and now their town has fruit and vegetables and herbs “sprouting up all over the place” and every school in the town is involved in growing and learning about local food.

The group that eventually formed as a result of that first conversation, Incredible Edibles, promotes food based learning for the whole community. They’ve planted orchards, run four annual harvest festivals and invented “vegetable tourism” in their town, Todmorden, in the UK. And they’ve done it all, says Pam Warhurst in a recent TED talk, “without a flippin’ strategy document”.

Could you do this in your town or suburb? How would you begin? Watching Warhurst’s talk, The Power of Small Actions: how to eat your landscape, is an inspirational beginning.

On the Incredible Edible website there is stack of good information, from these 17 tips for getting thing done locally, including dealing with local government, to information on what plants and places worked well for them, and their Incredible Edible starter kit page.

Maybe you could hold your own public meeting, or organise a showing of Warhurst’s TED talk (download a copy here) or maybe you could make a small start by getting together with a neighbour and planting a community herb garden on some public land near you.

Transition Streets

When I meet people in town who were part of Transition Streets, they don’t enthuse about how much carbon they saved, they talk about the new social connections they have made” (Rob Hopkins)

A Transition Streets program just needs a group of people from six to ten households in a street who are willing to meet together roughly monthly for six or seven months. The idea is to work through a series of discussions around their use of energy, water, food, packaging and transport.

Transition Streets started as a Transition Town Totnes initiative in a couple of streets of Totnes in the UK. It has now spread as far as Newcastle in Australia, and hundreds of people have been involved.

The report from the initial project in Totnes, which eventually included nearly 500 households, found that while each household saved on average around £570 and 1.3 tonnes of CO2 per year, people highlighted the social engagement as the best part of the program. Having new connections with neighbours and feeling more a part of their local communities were more valuable than the individual savings made.

Do you have a Transition Initative in your area? If you do, you could easily hook into it to start a local transition street project (and if you don’t, you could start one!).

Transition Streets projects have also been successfully run by other community groups, and in the UK, they can get full support from Transition Streets. The workbook is also available for individual purchase, but does need to be adapted to local circumstances outside of the UK.

The 1 Million Women “Recipe for Change” Get Togethers
November 16-18 2012

A plate of Chocolate Chip cookies looking delicious.

Why not bake a plate of delicious biscuits (yes, I will publish the recipe here soon) and have your neighbours over for afternoon tea?

Recipe for Change is about women and girls getting together over a meal, a cuppa, or a drink, and sharing “ideas, question and solutions for saving energy, cutting waste and pollution, and saving money at the same time.”

1 Million Women will then be putting together a free e-book – “one giant Recipe for Change” – based on the ideas that come out of the Get Togethers, and launching it for International Women’s Day in March 2013.

Women and girls can register to host a get together here (there are great prizes available for both hosts and guests too, from a worm farm to a fully installed solar electricity system). If you’re not of the female persuasion, why not host a get together that weekend anyway? Get some neighbours together and have some fun.

1 Million Women is an Australian initiative, but I got in touch with Natalie Isaacs, the founder, who said women outside of Australia were also welcome to register a Get Together (though they may not be eligible for the prizes). If you are in another country, why not promote the Get Togethers in your local community. If you are part of an existing local group, maybe the group could even organise some local prizes.

This is a movement of women and girls around Australia “getting on with practical action on climate change – to save energy, cut waste and pollution, and save money too while living more sustainably.” Started in 2009, it now has around 77,000 members, each of whom has committed to trying to save 1 tonne of CO2 from their daily lives.

The 1 Million Women website has information on saving money and energy on food, transport, power, clothes and more, to help members achieve that goal.

Get to it

Engaged communities respond better to natural disasters and with more resilience than other communities.

Sustainable, resilient communities include people with diverse skills and experiences, who can share their knowledge and expertise with each other, both in the good times and the tough times. They also include people who are socially engaged with one another.

Paul Gilding tells us in The Great Disruption that strong communities develop because of behaviours that create “social capital” – “connections and relationships that can then be drawn on when needed.” If we’re heading into tough times, better connected and more resilient communities “will be better, stronger and safer places to live.”

October is a great month to get community building, whether you’re enjoying the energy that comes with Spring, or the quieter Autumn period that comes before things really slow down.

I’ve given you 14 great ways of building sustainable communities plus four extra cool projects. Which one will you try this month?

  5 comments for “18 Steps to Build a Sustainable, Resilient Local Community: Choose One

  1. Plaxy
    October 9, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Hi, thanks for this inspiring article! I had written you a great long comment about all my plans but my phone lost it so now I’ll make do with, Yes! I’m onto it. Will be door-knocking (or letter box dropping at least) to get something started ASAP. 🙂

    • October 10, 2012 at 10:43 pm

      Oh how I hate that. Phones! Thanks for bothering to comment still 🙂

      And, on ya! me too 🙂

      • October 10, 2012 at 10:46 pm

        Haha, linking back to the same article. Clever 🙂 Now I’ll link to to something different 🙂

  2. November 7, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    “1. Organise a street BBQ.
    4. Plant a fruit tree on your nature strip/verge.”

    Too right. One of our neighbours created something of a community garden in a vacant lot on our street and it has sort of just grown from there. And it has lead to an upcoming street BBQ this December. It’s amazing how effective little things like that can be.

  3. October 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    “Plant a fruit tree on your nature strip/verge / Plant vegies in your front yard”.

    This absolutely works. More often the not the response from your neighbour will be “That’s a great idea. I want to try that too.”

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