3 Tangible Ways to Engage Your Community and Tackle Big Problems
From Amsterdam to Cleveland, cities are experimenting with tactics that bring community members into the conversation and empower them to make positive change.
As more people migrate to urban areas at risk of climate disaster, cities are increasingly thinking and working outside the traditional toolbox when tackling sustainability problems. The growth of chief heat officers across global cities and counties — from Melbourne, Australia, to Miami-Dade County in Florida — is an example of this urban rethink to reflect new climate trends and better serve society.
Within the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, we’re witnessing new approaches — specifically geared toward shifting power to the community — that are worth highlighting and replicating where possible. While there are many ways for cities to engage and shift power, these three approaches below give us tangible case studies to scale elsewhere.
One type of “action network” was created in Amsterdam in response to the energy crisis resulting from Russia’s war with Ukraine. Early in the war, Amsterdam’s former alderman Marieke van Doorninck called for action to get off Russian gas, which created a community-wide effort — called 15% GasTerug, or GasBack — to reduce gas use across the metropolitan area by 15% by the end of this year and then to keep it reduced long term.
The resulting network, which has already cut gas use by 11%, is packed with partners from the private and public sector. And it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach with tasks assigned across the network. The GasTerug effort has one team devoted to offices, another team for neighborhoods, and teams for companies and healthcare institutions, data monitoring, campaigning, and sharing knowledge. In their words, it now “stands or falls with the partners in our network.” They’re in it together, and their success depends on everyone’s active participation.
In building this network, Amsterdam first brought together over 600 individuals representing businesses, churches, and Schiphol airport management to brainstorm ideas that could significantly cut gas usage. They did this in 28 days and created a tangible and targeted road map for community action, with regular reporting out on progress. (They even created a video about it, featuring the community proudly coming together in this effort.) The model is so successful in Amsterdam that they’re now thinking about how to recreate similar networks and tackle challenges after this 15% reduction goal is met.
Takeaway: The team effort across the whole of society, around a shared short-term goal that was responsive to the moment, captures many of the successful ingredients. Most people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and this network model creates that with a winnable goal that isn’t 2040 or 2050 oriented. It’s happening this year and there’s momentum behind it.
“APPRECIATIVE INQUIRY” PROCESS
The City of Cleveland has been using this for over a decade. Created by David Cooperrider and Ronald Fry of Case Western Reserve University, the intent is to involve the whole community in the cocreation and codesign of an organization or larger system’s future, which, in this case, is the City of Cleveland. This means inviting to the table a broad swath of institutions and individuals invested in the city’s future.
For Cleveland, that brought 700 people into the room, representing hospitals, universities, businesses, community-based organizations and nonprofits, parks, museums, unions and workers, and youth leaders, as well as external stakeholders from other cities and countries. For several days, they were all involved in Appreciative Inquiry’s cocreation process on the city’s sustainable future, with the task of “creating an economic engine to empower a green city on a blue lake.” That was the goal of the summit, with prompts to discover and dream “what could be.” As Cooperrider describes it, the act of being at the real power table moves the city from just having conversations with community members to actually involving those people in the brainstorming and design process. This is the critical work of participatory justice.
Takeaway: Yes, a process like this takes time, patience, and careful facilitation, as well as human resources. But the return on investment is high, and by shifting power throughout the process, the product is more durable, and the path forward more sustainable, not just environmentally, but also socially as well.
Many communities across the country have rolled out resilience hubs, from Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. These are buildings that aren’t just focused on physical needs — like backup energy, food, water, temporary heating and cooling, and access to power — but also social needs like after-school programming for students, activities for elders, and job training.
In orienting around social needs — and in contrast to a typical evacuation center or cooling center — resilience hubs are multipurposed so that “we’re shifting the approach from the hazard to the human,” notes Kristin Baja, who has been working on resilience hubs for a decade and is leading USDN’s work in this space. This isn’t just about backup energy or emergency food and water, it’s also about quilting, community movie nights, and conversation with friends, which helps reduce the stigma associated with requesting help. Importantly, people enjoy using the building, too.
Resilience hubs are built around five foundational areas — services and programs, communications, buildings and landscapes, power, and operations — and they can come in three different modes: base, optimal, or ideal. (A guide to get started is available at resilience-hub.org.)
The essential ingredient driving these hubs is that they’re trusted, organized, and operated by the community. If they’re not, they won’t have staying power or be successful in meeting people’s actual needs. That trust-building happens slowly and requires an intent to repair, care, and shift power over time. And it comes with continuous and reliable commitment. This shift in approach is a critical first step in how cities can better shift power to communities.
Takeaway: This is a model that cities can pursue tomorrow. It’s an easy way to get a people-centered process going, working with a community to retrofit or locate a site and create programming for everyday use, as well as use during disruption and/or recovery. The road map is ready to use and it’s all available here.
Michael Shank is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and teaches sustainable development at New York University.