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January 5, 2011

To get the year started, I want to take a few minutes to think about community, and what that has to do with sustainability. In 2001, Robert Putnam wrote the now-classic Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, and the interest in community revitalization has only grown. Countless articles and books have been written since then about places that have novel (and sometimes recently re-discovered old-fashioned) ideas about how to foster a sense of community where that has been lost.

The question is, is there a link between a sense of community and the environmental impact of a group of people living in one place? I think this certainly can be the case, although it’s not a given — like everyone else, communities collectively need to work at living a more sustainable life. But certainly community gives us great opportunities to work collectively and lower our impacts both individually and as a group.

Last month, the students in my sustainability class had to give oral presentations on the service learning projects they participated in (basically, a semester-long internship). A lot of the students worked on campus, and many worked in pairs or larger groups. One of the common themes that these students brought up during their talks was the sense of community they received from working with others, whether with dining services (looking at strategies to cut down food waste) or in the campus’s organic vegetable garden. I know many of these students are planning to continue with their projects next semester, at least in part because they were so enjoyable. Although there is inherent satisfaction in working in a garden, my bet is that the sense of belonging to something larger and working with others is one of the reasons they want to continue their work.

Recently, some neighbors and I gathered to start a new community initiative, the Cleveland Park Energy Coop (CPEC). There are now about eight other energy coops in the city, so this is a growing movement that we’re proud to be a part of. CPEC will be a community-driven organization, so exactly what projects we undertake will depend on what interests members have, but we have some exciting ideas to start. I think many of us would not take on these projects if we weren’t acting in a collective fashion — even weatherizing your own house or installing solar panels on your own roof can seem less daunting if you have neighbors who have already been there and are willing to help. Projects like CPEC and the campus vegetable garden have dual benefits: They create stronger bonds within our communities, and as a result they make it easier to create more sustainable neighborhoods.

The always-useful Grist had a good article on New Year’s resolutions with a twist: make a resolution to make your community a better place to live.  I think this is a great idea, and by working with CPEC I hope to do so.

One of my other resolutions? To post at least once a week on OUJ. I usually think up enough material for several posts a week, so in theory this should be easy 🙂

Happy New Year!

A reminder of what my neighborhood looked like last winter, during Snowmageddon 2010!

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