Engaging NYC Community Groups to Promote Sustainability Initiatives
Over the last year, this blog has explored ways that community-based nonprofit organizations (CBOs) could earn income from promoting sustainability initiatives. Government leadership on sustainability is centrally important, of course, but enlisting the active support of community organizations is potentially powerful. Because CBOs can reach out to neighbors and networks of close relationships, they can be very effective marketing partners in sustainability projects. The articles in this series draw on interviews with many sustainability program providers and advocates in NYC, and on our direct experience promoting a range of services in western Queens at Long Island City Partnership.
In fall 2012 we published a report looking into potential projects in composting, urban agriculture, energy efficiency retrofits and solar power for CBOs with more local contacts than cash. Here's our updated results: there's probably no opportunity for CBOs to earn income through compost, and probably not through urban agriculture either. The good news: CBOs can earn money from promoting solar energy systems right now. It's easy and we'll show you how, on request.
Lessons from the City's white roof painting program
Here's an example of a sustainability initiative that's great for the City as a whole, but insufficiently appealing to would-be participants. Highly reflective white roofs are much cooler in summer than NYC's standard black tar roofs. Through promoting the NYC program to paint roofs white we learned that savings to individual building owners from lower electric bills were too small to induce owners to pay for the cost of paint, even if the City took care of labor costs. The City sensibly upgraded the building code to require that new and repaired roofs meet minimum reflectivity standards - which will gradually and unobtrusively cool more of NYC roofs. Without enough incentive, voluntary programs don't work.
Case study: community group promotes energy efficiency upgrades, participation goes way up
Common sense might predict that community based nonprofits can effectively promote sustainability initiatives. We proved this in Long Island City. Con Ed's Green Team energy efficiency retrofit program is a great deal for businesses but it's still a tough sell. When LIC Partnership promoted the program to our constituents, the businesses we referred participated in the program at a much higher rate than when contacted only by program contractors. Could other nonprofits do the same? Yes, but they don't have the incentive. We did it as part of our advocacy agenda. Promoting energy efficiency retrofits. Easy income from urban agriculture? Not so much.
Despite all the buzz, there's actually very little urban agriculture in NYC considering the vast amount of rooftop and backyard space available. It's very hard to run them as businesses: their start-up costs can be high, and the profit margins are usually low. Projects with enough money to build high-end rooftop greenhouses that enable year-round production of high end greens and tomatoes can do well, but where cash is limited, options are fewer. However, we found some opportunities for groups more concerned with hunger, nutrition and environmental literacy than cash profits.
Groups could aggregate vegetable production from multiple parcels in a neighborhood, either selling it or giving it to food pantries. The Food Bank for Westchester set up farms on the sites of five nearby nonprofits and donates the yield to food pantries. That model could be applied to NYC, if community groups were to use vacant public lots.
The City is already working to identify vacant public lots and get residents to turn them into community gardens. Even more potential garden space would be available if one were to add temporarily vacant private lots. Temporarily vacant lots are usually not considered for gardening, as no one would want to build permanent raised garden beds on them. But add low-cost, portable planters, and temporary gardening use of lots becomes more feasible. Just move the planters to new sites each year. Or use planters that are temporary themselves - straw bales. There's not much cash income here, but the most important benefit from urban gardening is probably environmental education.
NYC generates massive amounts of food waste. Instead of paying to haul it away, could it be collected by community groups, composted at neighborhood facilities, and sold at a profit? No, they would face profound operational, legal and financial obstacles. Only massive municipal action can make a dent, and fortunately that's what we're getting. New City plans to scale up food waste collection and composting deserve our support.
Here's the money: solar PV system installations
LIC Partnership created referral agreements with solar installers. The group's outreach to its clients resulted in two solar system installations, and earned referral fees for the group. We'll show you how any group can do the same in its community.
The 1% is blocking the transition to a renewable energy economy. The fossil fuel industry and its allies are fighting to maintain the status quo, even though it's destabilizing the climate. As published in Resilience.org. An expanded version.
People impacted by weather disasters or economic crisis will need counseling and support services. Joanna Macy and the Transition movement consider group programs to be just as important as making physical infrastructure more resilient as these disruptions increase. In this report I interview over twenty therapists for pragmatic tips on what such group events might look like.
This report encouraged NYC officials to add the topic of fuel price and supply volatility to policy discussions. Specifically the report requested that the City (1) revise all planning and budgeting decisions to include scenarios of higher energy costs, (2) create contingency plans for price spikes, and (3) promote sustainability initiatives as a way of buffering future volatility in energy costs. Similar reports on municipal preparation for fuel depletion and energy volatility have been published by the cities of San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, and Bloomington, IN.