Eight Chapters, Thousands of Members, One Voice

Inclusive Decision Making

A vibrant and engaged community is more likely to be safer, healthier, resilient, more economically sustainable and economically robust. Civic input has a profound impact on the policies that drive the decision making process in all neighborhoods and communities in California.

Civic input is highly valued by elected officials, in part, because the Administrative Procedures Act of 1946 codified the process for public participation in terms of regulatory rule making. This means elected officials are required to solicit public input. But that is not the full story of why elected officials seek civic input and appreciate high levels of public participation.

MLK Park OaklandThe key reason decision makers love for residents to be engaged at the very beginning and through every step of the decision making process is that it provides ownership to the community. MLK Park in Oakland is a great example of this notion. The soccer/football fields are 3 years old and are still in pristine condition. Since the community designed it, they take care of it.

The current model in many communities throughout California relies on a ‘traditional’ set of tools to engage residents, among these more traditional tools, public surveys, visioning workshops, town hall meetings and public hearings are most frequently used. In theory, these numerous tools all sound like fine engagement strategies, but anyone who has sat through one of these traditional meetings knows…well…that they are not always fun. Moreover, they are often scheduled inconveniently, making it difficult for the community members to show up. Hence, this model of public participation processes can be exceptionally disengaging, even for those who care deeply about the issues involved.

Cities throughout California have identified this problem and begun to move to a more digital form of engaging readily available, they are often challenging to locate and understand. More usable interfaces are needed, as well as broader web-based on the record communication between governments and citizens. Simply put, the power of networks and the web have not reached their full potential, yet. social media icon images

The time has come to transition from yet to now. In doing so, the public participation processes ought to be reformed to accommodate more extensive and effective participation pertaining to all community stakeholders. Making the engagement process fun and more effective through the use of creative civic engagement tools is the next watershed breakthrough in community decision-making.

By introducing more public participation opportunities, decision makers and organizations alike can offer communities the opportunity to find the most appropriate method of involvement and participation for each individual stakeholder. This can be done by using innovative visual-art techniques, social-networking, smartphone apps, computer simulation games, exhibits, music, performances, festivals and community gatherings to engage residents and spur them to share their thoughts on civic issues.

Creating simple, engaging, and easily available updates fosters a greater possibility and likelihood of ongoing participation. This is extremely important when implementing statewide policies, such as SB 375 the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act of 2008.  As the implementation of state policy rolls out, tools such as ISEEED’s Streetwize platform presents a significant opportunity to digitally engage residents, especially youth!

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Streetwize, as well as a myriad of other software programs, such as Community PlanItNeighborhland, and Texizen, offer residents the ability to connect to their local governments. An added benefit of utilizing digital tools, such as these or others, is that they ought to allow residents and decision makers the ability to benchmark building and neighborhood performance data. This fosters an implementation process that ensures outcome-based approaches

While the digitizing of civic engagement creates opportunities for expanded public participation in the decision-making process, this does not mean that a complete tradeoff ought to be made. Yes, communities should carefully examine what technological tools are available to spur civic engagement. Notwithstanding, they should also continue in-person meetings for those residents who prefer talking in person. The prime goal ought to be to increase stakeholder participation, not trade one input segment of our communities for another.

Designing Resilient Food Systems

Current environmental conditions are catapulting community resilience to the forefront of the public agenda.  Because of climate change, extreme weather conditions have made food security not just a problem faced by the “Third World” (IPCC, 2007), but now an impending issue faced by all members of the globe.  Unsustainable water consumption, pollution from nitrates and pesticides, as well as GHG and particulate matter air pollution have become widespread and resulted in adverse, cumulative impacts.

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Thankfully, legislatures have recognized the need to incorporate innovative food production systems into urban settings and are finding ways to stimulate this sector. In 2014, California passed AB 551 permitting counties to establish “Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones.”  These zones allow private property owners to receive property tax incentives in exchange for restricting the use of their property to urban agriculture for 10 years.  Additionally, San Francisco recently opted in to the AB 551 program and passed a land use and economic development ordinance that further “connects City residents to the broader food system.”  There is no question that this new policy environment will enable local food production to proliferate throughout the Bay Area as well as in other cities that opt into the Incentives Zones initiative.

However, legislatures are not the only ones who recognize the need to change common practices.  One innovative response driven by agricultural entrepreneurs is taking root in the urban setting. These community-oriented actors are working to localize food supply chains using aquaponics.  Their hope is to create resilient and sustainable food systems with minimal environmental impacts.  For them ‘business as usual’ is off the menu.

AquaponicsTraditionally, there have been two main barriers to efficient urban food production; insufficient yield to meet local demand and the inability to financially break even.  According to Aqua Gardens Family Farm, a leading aquaponic grower in Northern California, the advantages of aquaponics over conventional practices address these barriers.  Aquaponic systems yield 4 to 10 times more produce per acre than field grown methods and, because of the contained nature of aquaponic systems, have lower operating expenses and use significantly less resources.

Given the many positive environmental benefits associated with aquaponics, such as 90% less water consumption and zero water and air pollution, when compared to conventional agricultural practices, Aquaponics is clearly the sustainable food production system for the future.  Hopefully, given the shifts in public policy, such systems will go from being innovations for the future to the reality of today.

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USGBC+ Looks at California in Latest Issue

Yeah, that’outfront-outwest-headers me doing the old folded arm thing in front of what you have to admit is a pretty cool sign. USGBC+, the new USGBC magazine (http://plus.usgbc.org/), focuses on our changing climate this issue. Unfortunately, if things continue the way they are currently going, Redwood City may have to reconsider their famous motto, derived from the observations of both the American and German governemtns in an era when such determinations were based on whoknowswhat.

While all the attention of the article is quite flattering personally, and Vice Chair Wes Sullens does refer to this org as “my baby,” I know it really takes a virtual village. The true story is much more about all the good, public-spirited USGBC people across California that have made this organization into a recognized source for forward-thiking policy squarely aimed at an audacious undertaking: the transformation of our built environment for the benefit of all through a carbon-free California economy much more prosperous, healthy, and equitable. We face a few tons worth of challenges moving towards this goal, but what choice do we really have? We know the most dangerous thing we can do when our world is so dramatically changing is to stand still; we need to build consensus, foster innovation, make markets, and then achieve and surpass our climate goals.

All of us involved in the coalition of eight chapters that is USGBC California need each other to get thigs done. Candice Wong, chair of the California Central Coast Chapter (they call it C4), says that the creation of our state org has helped connect her chapter to other chapters and speak with one stronger, collective voice in Sacramento. Our issue portfolio spans quite a few areas like water and energy efficiency, building codes, green schools, finance and resilency/adaptation. Alongside the USGBC+ issue was the recent release of Safeguarding Califonia, the state’s far-ranging guide on climate risk management headed by Natural Resource’s Ann Chan (http://resources.ca.gov/climate/safeguarding/).

But the single bggest area, the one that cuts across everything, has been the evolving understanding around health impacts, whether inside buildings or across climate zones. Northern California Chapter Executive Director Dan Geiger puts it plainly: “If you say, ‘Green schools have cleaner air, more daylight, less absenteeism,’ people get it right away.” Dominique Smith, executive director of USGBC’s Los Angeles Chapter concurs, noting a “huge movement” toward including human health issues as part of environmental advocacy. USGBC California has been quite active on making our furniture and insualtion safer. Technical Bulliten 117 has been updated fro 1975 and Research head Paul Werrmer has been leading the regualtory grind of implementation for last year’s landmark Assembly Bill 127.

So we hope that this USGBC+ issue is the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship chronicaling the exploits of our continued advocacy. It is certainly something worthy of your topline bookmark.

PS: USGBC+ also has an article on the San Diego’s Chapter Green Assistance Program (GAP) and the work done in Balboa Park with the Worldbeat Center. Hats of to Renée Daigneault and Ravi Bajaj and Doug Kot.