FOCUS ON THE FUTURE, ACTION IN THE PRESENT
by Annette Mills
“Safest Small City in America”
“Best Green Place to Live”
“#1 Green Power Community”
The City of Corvallis has been named all of the above – and more.
While the word “sustainability” has only recently come into common usage, it’s been around Corvallis for some time now. In the mid-1990s, Corvallis citizens participated in a community-wide visioning process that resulted in adoption of The Corvallis 2020 Vision Statement — a broad, brush-stroke picture of what the ideal community would look like in the year 2020. Since 2003, the City Council has adopted a sustainability policy and sustainability goals, as well as approved funding to hire a full-time sustainability supervisor to develop a sustainability management plan for city government.
At the same time, Corvallis residents have increased their understanding of the long-term impacts of individual and collective decision making, and there have been dozens of organizations in the community working on different aspects of sustainability. So it has come as no surprise that Corvallis has spawned one of the most dynamic grassroots sustainability efforts in the country.
Birth of a Movement
In January 2007, representatives from 25 local organizations gathered at the invitation of coordinators of the Corvallis chapter of the Oregon Natural Step. The task of those assembled was to respond to one simple question: “How can we move more quickly toward becoming a sustainable community?”
The collective response was, “We need to create a network of organizations, so we can communicate better and collaborate on projects.” Out of that meeting, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition was born.
The Coalition operates under the auspices of The Natural Step (www.thenaturalstep.org) and counts nearly 150 partner organizations among its ranks – businesses, non-profits, faith communities, government agencies, and educational institutions. It includes partners as diverse as the League of Women Voters, OSU Housing and Dining Services, Corvallis-Benton Chamber Coalition, and the Beit Am Jewish Community. Volunteers range in age from 17 to 77.
The primary purpose of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition is to enhance communication and collaboration among people and organizations, so they can work together to accelerate the creation of a sustainable community. The Coalition’s vision is: “Corvallis is a community in which the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is a flourishing and thriving city with a vibrant economy that respects, restores, and cares for the community of life.”
Four Sustainability Guiding Objectives serve as a lens for the Coalition’s decision-making process:
1. Reduce and ultimately eliminate our community’s contribution to fossil fuel dependence and to wasteful use of scarce metals and minerals. Use renewable resources whenever possible.
2. Reduce and ultimately eliminate our community’s contribution to dependence upon persistent chemicals and wasteful use of synthetic substances. Use biologically safe products whenever possible.
3. Reduce and ultimately eliminate our community’s contribution to encroachment upon nature (e.g., land, water, wildlife, forests, soil, ecosystems). Protect natural ecosystems.
4. Support people’s capacity to meet their basic needs fairly and efficiently.
The first major project of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition was to partner with the Energy Trust of Oregon to launch the Corvallis Energy Challenge, a year-long campaign to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Concurrently, the Corvallis City Council adopted a goal to develop a community-wide sustainability initiative, and they enlisted the help of the fledgling Corvallis Sustainability Coalition to lead that initiative.
The Public Process
In 2008, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition launched a nine-month public process to create a sustainability action plan for the Corvallis community. At the first of three town hall meetings, the 500-seat ballroom at the CH2MHill Alumni Center on the OSU campus was alive with energy as participants gathered in small groups to respond to two questions: “What would a sustainable Corvallis look like?” and “How will we get there?”
Interest in the Sustainability Town Hall meeting was so strong that an overflow room was added to accommodate 100 additional attendees. The meeting drew a diverse crowd, including an unusually high number of high school and college students. “Focus on the Future, Action in the Present” was the theme, and participants were asked to aim high in their goal-setting. At the close of the gathering, attendees were asked to sign up to serve on work groups and meet for the next six months to formulate target goals, measurable objectives, and action strategies in a variety of topic areas. Nearly 200 people responded to the call.
Work groups were formed in 12 topic areas: Community Inclusion, Economic Vitality, Education, Energy, Food, Health and Human Services, Housing, Land Use, Natural Areas and Wildlife, Transportation, Waste Prevention, and Water. Volunteers met intensively for two months between the first and second town hall meetings to review all the ideas that had been collected, to gather information about local sustainability efforts (as well as those in other communities), and to select long-range, visionary goals.
At the second town hall meeting, work groups shared their proposed goals with participants and solicited input to determine whether the work groups were moving in the right direction. Town hall participants met in small groups, organized by topic areas, and shared additional ideas for action and indicated those they might be willing to commit to carrying out. Work groups continued to meet between the second and third town hall meetings, revising their goals (based on the input they had received) and selecting actions to meet those goals.
The third and final town hall meeting presented the work group proposals and engaged attendees in committing to action. Electronic keypad polling was utilized to introduce participants to the topic area goals, gather some demographic information, and register participants’ opinions regarding which goals from each topic area should be addressed first by the community. The results of the polling provided an interesting snapshot of participants and their preferences. For example, 63% of the participants were between the ages of 36 and 65. In the areas of Economic Vitality, Food, and Land Use, participants showed a strong preference for the goals related to local products and businesses.
The keypad polling information helped stimulate and inform the table conversations during the remainder of the meeting. Participants moved from one topic area table to another, using individual “passports” to write down the actions they committed to taking. In addition, dozens of attendees responded to an invitation to sign up for topic area action teams, indicating their interest in collaborating with others on implementation of the forthcoming Action Plan.
A Framework for Action
This highly participatory public planning process resulted in the development of a Community Sustainability Action Plan for Corvallis (www.sustainablecorvallis.org/actionplan). Since December 2008, this plan has provided a framework for action for the all-volunteer, grassroots efforts of the Coalition. Action teams in the 12 topic areas are working toward implementation of long-range, measurable goals, some of which will take decades to achieve.
For example, one of the goals of the Energy Action Team is, “By 2020, Corvallis will reduce per capita consumption of energy in buildings by 50%, using energy conservation. Remaining energy for buildings will be supplied using renewable energy.” To reach this goal, the team is building on the Corvallis Energy Challenge by recruiting, training, and coordinating a corps of volunteers who provide energy audits and assistance to residents and businesses. This project received a major boost from the Corvallis City Council, which supported two Energy Action Team proposals for federal funding through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program – $250,000 for a revolving loan fund that will allow property owners to borrow money to make energy-efficiency improvements, and $50,000 for a paid staff person to coordinate the volunteer corps.
One of the primary goals of the Food Action Team is to increase consumption of local food to 60% by 2020. Currently, it is estimated that just 2% of the food consumed by Corvallis area residents is grown in Benton, Lincoln, and Linn counties. To begin work toward this goal, the team has launched the “Local 6 Connection” – a promotional campaign that encourages restaurants, institutions, and retail markets to identify local foods and encourage customers to purchase products that are marked with the “Local 6” logo. (“Local 6” refers to Benton, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, and Polk counties.)
One of the most ambitious and longest-range goals in the plan is that being pursued by the Water Action Team: a 50% reduction in water flow through the Corvallis municipal water systems by 2050. The group is working to achieve this goal through a combination of water conservation tools and techniques and through development of alternative water sources. Water Action Team members are working on a public-private water demonstration project in a highly visible area. It will provide local residents and businesses with a real-life, large-scale view of alternative water sources.
These are just a few of the scores of projects that are under way and are anticipated to continue for years to come. The Community Sustainability Action Plan that stimulated all this activity is a “living document” that will be changed by the community over time, as new ideas emerge. The work of the Sustainability Coalition continues because there are people in Corvallis and Benton County who are passionate about sustainability – and who are having fun working together.
No one knows for sure what a sustainable community or a sustainable world will look like. But, for those who are part of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, the promise of low-impact, high-quality lives for our children and grandchildren is too important an opportunity to pass up.
As of September 2009, at the time of this writing, Annette Mills was a member of the Steering Committee of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition.