Changing the Game Around Climate Action, One Block at a Time

by Dec 11, 2017Resources, Society

Sue Lebeck

Sue Lebeck is the Chair Emeritus of the City Protocol Task Force (CPTF), an open collaborative R&D community hosted by the City Protocol Society (CPS) to help create the Internet of Cities. Sue is also technology advisor to the Cool City Challenge,  creator of InnovatingSMART, and contributor to GreenBiz.

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In 2016 a big idea began to unfold. That dream-coming-true is The Cool Block – a way to operationalize the modest goal of keeping the planet viable into the long-term future while improving the quality of life for humanity.

Three world-class cities in California: Los Angeles, San Francisco and Palo Alto, from January 2016 to June 2017 piloted this program on 45 blocks. Each city experienced The Cool Block program successfully addressing two massive unmet societal needs: a scalable solution to address climate change, and overcoming the social isolation people feel living in our urban-centric world. Doing the right thing for our children’s future on the planet in collaboration with neighbors proved to be a winning formula.

Cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon footprint and citizens represent 70% of these emissions. Empowering cities to empower their citizens to reduce their carbon emissions and scaling this process around the world would change the game around climate action. All the more so since driving climate action from the demand side activates the supply side of policy, market and technological solutions. The Cool Block is a rare whole system solution and based on its early success, it just could achieve its lofty ambition.


Behavior Change and Community Engagement at Scale

Savvy cities have been adding climate action leadership to their policy playbooks. But not until The Cool Block has there been an effective and scalable way to enable the residential sector to substantially lower its emissions and achieve greater climate resilience. Explains Cool Block creator and social architect, David Gershon, “The Cool Block provides cities with the tools to engage and empower their citizens to live low carbon lifestyles. But it is much more than that – it is a disruptive social innovation that fundamentally reinvents the very relationship between cities and citizens and neighbors with neighbors.”

The program consists of four major topics (carbon reduction, disaster resiliency, water stewardship and neighborhood livability) divided up over nine bi-weekly meetings led by different neighbors living on a block (corner to corner) or within a multi-family building. Participants select from a menu of 112 action recipes. Some actions are done as individuals, and others are collective and carried out by the team of neighbors that forms on the block. Behavior change is achieved through a combination of action recipes, a peer support system and self-directed meeting scripts supported by a trained volunteer coach who has been through the program.

A web-based support system helps households plan and take action with the help of local resources. It also helps them track their progress and shows their drops filling the bucket so they are inspired to sustain their commitment.

“I really liked that there were step-by-step, clearly stated action recipes for the program,” reports San Francisco Cool Block participant Shannon Wells. “That helped a lot in figuring out what to do, what would make the most difference, set priorities, and do it.”

“Neighbors learned that they can take actions in their homes and have the power to lead a meeting,” reports Lisa Hartmayer, San Francisco Cool Block leader.

Transformation Through Social Connection

At the core of this social innovation is the simple and profound power of neighbor-to-neighbor connection. The desire to connect with one’s neighbors in a meaningful way is a potent activator. And once neighbors come together and become a peer support system, it creates the motivation to take action and sustain new behaviors over time.

Reflects Cool Block participant Wells, “I learned through The Cool Block program that my neighbors are more like me than I thought. We share a lot of the same goals for our community, and these goals cross cultural and ethnic lines.”

“What I saw was that people are hungry for community and that’s what the Cool Block offers. But it is so much more,” agrees Lorrie Castellano, Palo Alto Block Leader and Coach. “We helped each other go through lowering our carbon footprints as individuals and as a group. And once we learned we’d need each other in an emergency, we prepared our block by stocking food and sharing information about who has a generator, tools, and other things needed to survive.”

Wells summarizes, “We helped rewrite the social blueprint of our neighborhood. We showed how to be a community which makes it easier for others to do the same.”

This short video, A Deeper Dive, shows The Cool Block transformational process in action. 


An Innovative Public-Private-Civic Partnership

The Cool Block is a non-profit initiative of Empowerment Institute, where Gershon is co-founder and CEO. Gershon facilitated a three-way partnership between his non-profit, the three cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Palo Alto, and LA-based natural cosmetics company, Josie Maran Cosmetics. The goal of this private-public-civic partnership was to leverage and create synergy between each entity’s core assets – empowerment expertise, community credibility and financial resources.

For Josie Maran Cosmetics, it was an opportunity for CEO and business visionary, Josie Maran, to further what she calls corporate social engagement. She states, “I went into business to change the world and have my company be a force for good. To do that we needed to develop a more dynamic approach to social change beyond just minimizing our environmental and social impact and providing philanthropy to good causes. We call this the shift from corporate social responsibility, which is about minimizing harm, to corporate social engagement, which is about maximizing good.”

To that end, Maran has teamed up with Gershon to bring The Cool Block program to scale. She comments: “I believe The Cool Block program is revolutionary for people, cities and the planet and has huge potential in addressing climate change.” She adds, “I am very excited to have my company play a part in bringing this program to scale, first in California and then around the world.”

From a city’s point of view this public-private-civic partnership model provides them with two assets essential to meeting their climate action plan goals – behavior change expertise to address the substantial climate impact of their residents and the financial resources to implement a bottom-up solution. Even though more than 100 local climate action plans have been developed in California alone, they face stiff headwinds in community awareness and acceptance, much less financing. Moreover they focus on technology-based solutions and policy adoption but generally lack strategies that address the human factors that can either drive or hinder technology and policy adoption.

James Keene, Palo Alto City Manager describes why he is excited for his city to participate in The Cool Block. He says, “The Cool Block links the climate change challenge facing our planet to the intimate, personal, social scale of the city block. It starts and ends with the premise and promise – that the individual, households and neighbors are the way forward in the face of seemingly insoluble global problems. It is rewiring our city and making it stronger. If I can play a little part in making this happen it will be enough for my career.”


The Results Are In

The pilot demonstrated that The Cool Block methodology enables substantive behavior change and participation on a block. The program achieved an average household carbon reduction of 32% with 25 actions taken. Fifty-five percent of the people on the block approached by their neighbor agreed to participate in the 9-meeting, 4 ½-month program.

The most popular carbon-reducing actions were reducing waste, using less hot water in personal and kitchen use, efficient lighting, moving toward a vegetarian diet, ensuring an efficient car, and switching to 100% renewable energy. In addition, 25% of the reporting households did household energy retrofits.

The most popular resiliency actions were creating seven-day stores of food and water and prepared for earthquakes and fires. Reducing water used in in personal care and car washing was another common household choice; many households also took action to reduce toxic chemicals they put in the environment. Block livability improvements included making their block safer, community gardening, tool-sharing, helping neighbors in need, litter cleanups and block parties.

Seth Werfel, Stanford University research partner found that, “The program increased average scores for each of the program performance indicators by an amount that was both substantively and statistically significant. Two of the most notable changes were a nearly 40 percent increases in a block’s commitment to reducing its carbon footprint as well as sharing tools and resources.” 


Victory on the Ground

The personal stories of program participants were equally impressive. “The Cool Block program has surpassed my expectations on every level,” reports Victoria Thorp, Palo Alto Cool Block Leader. “I was worried that it would be difficult to recruit neighbors, but I had more people eager to join than I could ever have anticipated.” Reflects Castellano, “My neighbors keep thanking me for taking that first step to bring them together. I’m happy I persevered and knocked on that first door.”

“The group that we have formed has supported each other to reduce carbon and energy, shared ideas for water reduction and provided helpful support for disaster preparedness,” continues Thorp. Agrees Castellano, “Cool Block has changed things in our neighborhood. Not only have we lowered our carbon footprints and prepared our block for any emergency, but we actually talk to each other, wave to each other and get together regularly even after the program is over.”

“I love seeing the growth of my neighbors and neighborhood through a program that focuses on positive change. One neighbor reminded us of a proverb ‘a good neighbor improves the value of your property’” pointed out Hartmayer. “We are still going strong with our Cool Block program; we recently had a Cool Block Halloween party!” adds Emily Richards, Cool Block leader in Los Angeles. “The folks on my block really loved the program.”

“But more than anything, we’ve built lasting relationships between neighbors who may have never otherwise met each other, allowing longtime residents to connect with newcomers,” summarizes Thorp. ”Our team, and the many others, are proving that the most powerful engine of change may indeed reside right here in our neighborhoods.”


Preparing to Scale

 “Our pilot demonstrated that The Cool Block program works,” says Gershon. “This is very encouraging as we really need effective behavior change and community engagement tools to address climate change.” He continues, “What is also promising is that this program can be immediately implemented, is cost effective and with some adaptation can scale to any city around the world.”

To those participating in The Cool Block program its hopeful future is palpable. “If only more streets felt like our street feels. Connected, safe, reliable, energy efficient, prepared and FUN,” envisions Hartmayer. “I see this program scaling up to grow into more and more cities. It has the power to connect our homes again. It is fueled by love for the community driven with empowerment tactics that work.”

“Victory is just a matter of organization,” predicts James Reichmuth, San Francisco program participant turned Cool Block coach. “And that’s what this is. It’s blocks organizing, which is the most basic way you can organize beyond your own household. It can’t be stopped!”

The next phase of The Cool Block program is to prepare it for scaling through a strategy called the Cool City Challenge. The goals of the Cool City Challenge are to engage a minimum of 25% of a city’s blocks over a three-year period to become more planet friendly, disaster resilient and community rich. And then with this carbon literate and socially connected citizenry empower the city and their fellow-citizens to embark on the great journey of becoming a carbon neutral city by 2030. Stay tuned, something is happening here…


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