Come Together: How to Build Sustainable Communities

Seeking sustainability doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor. Joining with others in our neighborhoods can help us meet new people, accomplish more and build sustainable communities.

  • Community members work in the Little Sugar Creek Greenway Community Garden in Charlotte, North Carolina, part of Mecklenburg County’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway and Stream Restoration program and the Scotts Miracle-Gro “Give Back To Gro” national gardening program.
    Photo Courtesy Action Sports Inc
  • The garden provides organic food to the community and serves as a teaching facility, with classes on gardening, responsible earth stewardship, composting, biodiversity, plant and insect identification, and more.
    Photo Courtesy Town of Apple Valley
  • In New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, Groundswell Community Mural Project—a group committed to bringing together artists, youth and community organizations to use art as a tool for social change—partnered with the Community League of the Heights and American Friends Service Committee to paint the “Weaving Change Beyond the Shadows” mural. To learn more about Groundswell or to sponsor a youth muralist, visit
    Courtesy Groundswell
  • By spending more of our dollars locally, we keep more of our money within our communities, supporting local businesses that support us in turn by creating local jobs.
  • At Harvestvale, a “slow-food Vermont community harvest potluck” in Burlington, participants are encouraged to bring dishes made from produce grown in their gardens, old family recipes or new recipes they’ve been meaning to try.
    Photo By Shayne Lynn

A few years ago, a friend of mine was sitting in her quiet suburban neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, when she had a sudden thought: She barely knew her neighbors. With winter approaching, she decided to try to improve the situation by inviting everyone on her block to a holiday potluck. The response was enthusiastic, as if everyone had just been waiting for an opportunity to get acquainted. Friendships were launched, phone numbers exchanged and the seeds of possibility planted. Years later, the potluck has morphed into an annual progressive dinner, with festively dressed neighbors strolling from one house to the next.

Enriched neighborhood ties led to new projects. A group of neighbors launched a local chapter of the citywide COPE program (Citizens Organized to Prepare for Emergencies), building teamwork and increasing neighborhood preparedness for earthquakes, floods, fires and landslides.

Some teens eyed a small empty lot, and soon a vegetable garden sprang up, with neighbors of all ages gathering on Sundays to work in the garden and socialize. When they needed tools, they borrowed them at no charge from the downtown Santa Rosa Tool Library. And when they needed gardening information, they attended free Master Gardener workshops at the local branch library.

Many of the block’s residents also have their own vegetable gardens and fruit trees, so just knowing each other led to more sharing. Come summer, it’s common to see people walking down the street carrying baskets of homegrown produce to offer their neighbors.

Build Sustainable Communities

Several of her neighbors have taken advantage of the city’s water-saving lawn replacement rebate. One family replaced their “industrial” landscaping with drought-tolerant native plants that are resource-conserving, habitat-producing and beautiful enough to attract passersby, who stop and take pictures. One woman invited neighbors to meet at her house to follow the steps outlined in the book Low Carbon Diet: A 30 Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds by David Gershon. At the month’s end, the group celebrated their collective “weight loss” of 30 tons of carbon, significantly lessening their contribution to climate change.

This is just the beginning. Every new project deepens community ties and launches new ideas. Your own community may already be acquainted, or you may be like my friend and barely know your neighbors. Either way, getting together is satisfying and fun, and by partnering together, we can accomplish more than we ever could on our own. If you’re looking to engage your community, start by getting people together, seeing what resources are available, and letting nature take its course.

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