The Glorious Neighbourhood

March 7, 2009

First published in Common Ground Magazine

When I am engaged in world-changing, I start by visualizing a future where we have created solutions to our various problems. The future will happen. Our use of fossil fuels will end because they will run out. I visualize how our world will be when we no longer use fossil fuels, and when we have learned to live within the limits of planetary sustainability.

It is easy to picture colourful neighbourhoods connected by pedestrian and bicycle trails and comfortable electric buses. If you need a car, you book one through the Co-operative Auto Network, powered by the sun, wind and ocean and bio-fuelled from sewage and waste streams. I picture thriving, local economies supported by community banks, efficient homes heated by the sun and earth, neighbourhood councils where people plan the future.

With the vision firmly in mind, I ask myself “How did we get there?” I use my imagination to identify the policies, pathways or initiatives that might have led to this turn of events.

Was it city grants for home retrofits and solar panels? Was it the success of the cycling community to win support for more cycle lanes? Maybe, but it would likely take far more to motivate a whole neighbourhood to change. Was it funding for pilot projects in which neighbours had to work together to win a prize, with goals and benchmarks to judge their success? Yes, that would be effective.

And then my mind strikes gold. It was a reality TV show called The Glorious Neighbourhood, in which neighbourhoods across Canada competed for a $1 million prize. The winner was the neighbourhood that over the course of a year succeeded in persuading the greatest number of people to work together to make their homes more efficient, reduce their waste, grow more local food, leave their cars at home, install solar panels, get their children walking and cycling, establish sociable meeting places and create places of beauty where there used to be neglect. City contestants had to live within a 10-minute walk of each other; rural contestants within a 10-minute bike ride.

After the elimination rounds, 26 neighbourhoods were given $10,000 each to plan their activities and film their progress and every week the nation tuned in to watch.

As the competition increased, local businesses chipped in with gifts of equipment and cash. School children volunteered to dig people’s gardens and city engineers offered to help redesign local roads to make them safe for bicycles. Churches opened their doors for Sunday community feasts, regardless of faith, and teenagers created ride-sharing websites. City councillors were astounded by the enthusiasm with which people offered their help and the speed at which drug dealers were driven out, homeless people were found places to live and plots of vacant land were converted into flourishing gardens.

After six months, a group was eliminated each week until a neighbourhood in Ontario that had involved more than 2,000 people won the $1 million prize. It then invested it in a trust fund to pay for scholarships and grants for the children of their neighbourhood.

The TV contest was repeated, but the impulse had been sparked. All across Canada, city challenges were initiated and neighbourhoods competed for prizes donated by businesses, councils and the elderly. The country was afire with change – but why?

It happened because the greatest secret of sustainability had been revealed: that the process of becoming sustainable was enormous fun. It brought people together and restored a deeply missed sense of community. It also reduced crime.

But above all, it gave people a sense of hope. No longer passive onlookers at their own collective funeral, people were active and engaged. They abandoned their TVs for the pleasure of rebuilding their neighbourhoods and crafting a world in which their children could live with similar hope. And in so doing, they changed everything.

It’s a good approach because it starts with the belief that success is possible. Now, does anyone know a TV director who might be inspired to take this on?

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