Dreams Come True on the Cool Block
Ten years ago, a Big Idea constellated in the mind of pro-social behavior change researcher and innovator David Gershon, CEO of the Empowerment Institute. The idea was to operationalize the modest goal of keeping the planet viable into the long-term future and improving the quality of life for humanity at the same time.
“What if there was a program that could achieve measurable and substantive behavior change and at scale around the most critical issues affecting the wellbeing of [urban citizens] and our planet? What if it could empower households to voluntarily take actions that could achieve a…
- 30% reduction in water use
- 25% reduction in carbon emissions
- prepare families and their blocks to become resilient in the face of earthquakes and other natural disasters, and
- make city blocks safer, healthier, greener, friendlier, and a more beautiful place to live?
And what if this program could engage the participation of at least 25% of the people living on any block across a city? What would be the implications of this social innovation for the quality of life in a city? …for the future of cities in America? …around the world?”
Making Dreams Come True
Gershon is a dreamer and this may seem like merely a dream – but it is beginning to happen in the real world, on-the-ground in multiple cities, as we speak.
The author of thirteen books and developer of proven programs, Gershon integrates key learnings into a program now being piloted in three world-class cities in California – San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto in the Silicon Valley. That program is “The Cool Block”.
Describes James Keene, City Manager of Palo Alto, “Cities are the platform for change in our world today. The Cool Block links the challenges facing our planet to the intimate, personal, social scale of the city block as the way we can meet the environmental, safety, and social connectedness challenges of our times.” Continues Keene, “The psychologist Carl Rogers said, ‘The personal is the most universal.’ This program starts and ends with that premise and promise—that the individual, household, and neighbors are the way forward in the face of seemingly insoluble global problems.”
The “Cool” in Cool Block
The concept of “Cool” originates from the critical challenge we face in stabilizing the earth’s temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, a goal agreed as essential at the most recent United Nations Conference on Climate Change, COP21. According to UN-Habitat, cities represent 70% of the planet’s carbon emissions, which scientists agree contribute to this temperature rise. Moreover, citizens’ daily lifestyle choices represent 70% of these emissions.
As a result of the large carbon footprint of cities and citizens, they provide a key leverage point for addressing the climate change issue. Experts from the National League of Cities explain “Cities are the places where we live and interact. We expect our city leaders to keep [us] healthy, safe and vibrant… The nation’s mayors are leading the charge to develop sustainable, livable, smart cities.”
The Cool Block begins with a grassroots focus on this challenge. Observes Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California and Author of Citizenville, “The Cool Block is an exemplary how-to guide for local communities to make a significant impact on climate change. When added together, the effort of thousands of individual communities is what will allow us to tackle climate change at scale. This program demonstrates the untapped potential of citizens to engage in this grassroots initiative in an effective and achievable way.” Adds Newsom, “Very cool, indeed!”
World Class Pilot Cities
Three world-class cities in California are currently piloting the program on the ground in their communities. These cities see the Cool Block as a way to help achieve the goals of their climate action plans. Keene in Palo Alto has taken on the program as a tool in achieving the city’s sustainability and climate action goals (S/CAP). San Francisco’s Department of the Environment has linked it to San Francisco’s climate action initiative (0-50-100 Roots). And in Los Angeles, the City Council is partnering with the Cool Block and the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance to make Los Angeles the largest city to take on the challenge.
City Councilman Paul Koretz aims to spread this ground-breaking program across LA, and help it accelerate across the country: “In addition to strong and binding emissions reductions targets set by local, state, national and international government bodies, there needs to be in place a robust and scalable grassroots model to engage residents on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, house-by-house level if we are to truly turn around a rapidly worsening climate crisis. As many pundits in the climate movement have suggested that the world looks to California for leadership, the City of Los Angeles then is in a unique position to lead California and therefore the world by establishing a model grassroots effort which we are calling ‘Cool Blocks LA,’ that can be shared and spread worldwide.”
The Cool Block taps intrinsic motivators, and is delivered through a block-based peer support group. It consists of a book, website and block-based meetings with neighbors that empower participants to take action that can be brought to scale. A larger initiative called the Cool City Challenge will enable that program to go to scale.
The value proposition offered to Cool Block leaders and participants is this: Take a journey to become more planet friendly, disaster resilient and community rich. Experience greater meaning, purpose, community and the ability to make a difference.
Explains Sandra Slater, Northern California Director of the Cool City Challenge, and Palo Alto Program Manager for the Cool Block pilot: “Getting to know your neighbors is one of the best benefits of [this innovative program]. Participants select from a menu of 112 action recipes that include carbon reduction, water conservation, resiliency and livability. They… track their progress through a web platform that has [a wealth of local] resources necessary to help achieve the actions they choose to complete. Some actions are done as individuals and others are collective and carried out by the Cool Block team.”
The program provides the structure that enables households to confidently act to keep the planet viable and improve the quality of life for humanity, and to empower others to do the same. It includes the meeting protocols and action recipes necessary to engage neighbors, adopt pro-social behaviors and empower others.
Smart Citizens Key to Building Smart Cities
Smart City builders embrace the point of view that citizens are a smart city’s best partners. Say Jennifer James and Steph Stoppenhagen of Black and Veatch: “We are now realizing that if we don’t involve citizens, and actually empower them with the ability to both access and provide data… then we are missing a very substantial step … We need to design technology offerings to better enable the citizen, to empower them with what is meaningful, making them part of the solution.”
To this end, on-the-ground Cool Block program is supported by a website, currently in early pilot state, which provides intelligence and support to citizens on the Cool Block journey and collects participant-provided action-achievement data.
Using the website, participants share the data on their actions taken, contributing their “drops in the bucket” which collectively can make a difference in the world. Through this feedback loop, citizens can see their own direct impact, and spread their social impact across their neighborhood, their city and beyond.
Action data will be aggregated, gathered and analyzed by the initiative, and also made available to the research community. Behavior data can be correlated, for example, with hard data on energy, water, technology uptake and more.
Says Max Wei, Program Manager for the Sustainable Energy Systems Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “Lawrence Berkeley Labs can really contribute to the Cool City Challenge in terms of providing research and development methodologies and also a framework for collecting the data, and then also doing the modeling and the data analysis itself.”
Activating the System
The website also connects participants with powerful local resources to help them succeed with their Cool Block action plans. These resources — data, tools, assessments, training, discounted equipment and more – are provided by their city, NGOs and the business community. Action by action, the demand and supply sides of a sustainable local economy are connected, and the overall system of public and private players are activated.
Engaging citizens can serve as a demand-side driver to increase the pace of renewable energy, energy efficiency and new technology adoption.
Observes Stuart Bernstein, Global Head of Clean Technologies and Renewables at Goldman Sachs, “There are a number of very smart people focused on the supply side of the equation. But that’s going to take a long time. We’ve got to also focus on the demand side of the equation. What we find very interesting about the Cool City Challenge is, it does just that.”
Neighbors across our three pilot cities have found the Cool Block value proposition to be compelling. The invitation to participate is delivered by block leaders, on the ground and door to door. Of those neighbors who answer their door and receive a personal invitation, over half agree to join a Cool Block team.
Reports Annette Isaacson, Block Leader from Palo Alto, whose block was recently the first to complete the alpha pilot: “Last summer, we came together as individuals who wanted to do something about global warming while getting to know our neighbors at the same time, and we have morphed into a neighborhood group that is making our street and our planet a better place for all of us.” Elaborates Issacson, “As a team, we’ve taken a whopping 178 actions to help us save resources like energy and water, get prepared for emergencies, and help make our neighborhood friendlier and more resilient.”
Agrees Lisa Dossey, Block Leader in San Francisco: “I love the bottom-to-top approach of this amazing program. Making a difference in our homes and on our blocks is the foundation to making a difference in our city and our world.”
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Read more from the CityMinded.org Blog
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.
Unsafe drinking water is an urgent problem that disproportionately affects low‐income communities of color in California and across the U.S. In California, we’ve learned that the right environment and policies inspire stakeholders to come to agreement on prioritizing solutions that provide the best results based on each system’s unique problems. Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, political willingness, and mutual agreement are all critical elements that, when combined with the right technical solutions, allow systems to thrive. In parallel with ensuring the right institutional and funding support systems are in place, we also need to choose and implement the most viable technical solutions for each system (which may in turn inform the support systems).
SFPUC’s Green Infrastructure Grant Program uses green infrastructure to combat CSOs and safeguard its watersheds. Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) installations are engineered stormwater management tools that slow down, clean, and route stormwater to keep it out of a sewer system. Simultaneously, GSI provides native habitat, beautiful landscaping, groundwater recharge, and non-potable water reuse. Through this program, SFPUC encourages landowners to build GSI on their property by providing grants that cover design and construction. “Green stormwater infrastructure is one way that we can invest in our community, efficiently manage rainfall, and ease the burden on the City’s sewer system,” said SFPUC Utility Specialist Sarah Minick.
Data concerns are not going away. Data sharing and open data initiatives will likely become even more important as the transportation industry grows more interdependent among citizens, public agencies, cities, and private companies. In an internal context, de-identification of data allows data to be shared across an organization, allowing all users to access insights, and a common picture of demand and service performance across the network. This allows marketing, planners, and operations teams within transit agencies to access the same secure data when doing short term and long term planning. This also enables data sharing between agencies and transit operators which have adjacent service areas, and allows them to optimize timetables and typical transfer points. In an external context, de-identification allows for safe data sharing across different public, private, and community stakeholders, and lays the foundation for collaboration, interoperability, and common understanding, while putting privacy first.
I spoke last week with Krishna Desai from Cubic Transportation, and we discussed three big problems facing transportation, and the ways that Cubic is approaching these challenges:
1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.
I spoke last week with Njogu Morgan, a post-doctoral researcher specializing in transportation equity in Africa, specifically South Africa, where he is based. As a historian, his research centers around how we can use historical context to better understand current transportation system inequities and access. He’s starting a new research network of emerging and developing scholars who are interested in mobility issues from a historical perspective.
At Connect the Dots, it is our mission to build better cities, towns, and neighborhoods through inclusive, insight-driven stakeholder engagement. We help community, private, and public sector partners to develop creative solutions that move projects and cities forward. Engagement is at the heart of this pursuit, which is why we are sharing our practices with you.
When you decide to take your engagement activities online, we encourage using tools that are functional on a wide range of devices including basic smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers. We have also developed remote but non-virtual options to bridge the digital divide.
As cities continue to fight against COVID-19, citizens are changing their commuting preferences to adjust to a new way of life. Cities across the globe have experienced significant increases in the number of pedestrians, cyclists, and private cars on the roads as a result of public transport restrictions and social distancing requirements. This has created many new challenges, as cities previously dependent on public transport must now adapt to accommodate more vulnerable road users, such as pedestrians and cyclists.