Renewable Energy: Grassroots organizing for sustainability: Evanston as a model

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11914442705921.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘In the late 1950s, hydropower became increasingly controversial for environmental and aesthetic reasons in Sweden. In 1969, Sweden decided four major rivers in the north would stay free of hydro-electric dams, while at the same time, increasing renewable energy resources as oil has decreased. Sweden plans to go “cold turkey” from oil within the next 20 years.‘);

The theme for this year’s energy fair was Local Sustainability. Presentations about Racine, Wis., Evanston, Ill., and municipalities in Sweden were included. Steve Perkins’ presentation about Evanston focused on how they organized themselves and developed community interest and support. This may serve as a model for other communities.

Perkins had spent years with a religiously diverse group discussing sustainability from a religious perspective. They produced a document titled “One Creation, One People, One Country.” It is a sustainability theology that includes statements about ecology, economy and community.

After completing the document, the group sponsored a meeting in 1999 to discuss how to make their community more sustainable from a religious perspective. About 20 people came to the session in which they discussed each other’s faith traditions, sustainability and the challenges and opportunities for sustainability in Evanston.

Their voluntary effort progressed without any formal structure, rules, staff or fund-raising. They chose energy as a topic, researched its role in the community and identified a few achievable actions. They wanted to be in a position where they could say that they had studied the issue, identified some actions and needed the help of others to implement them.

They sponsored another meeting inviting others to join their efforts. About 100 people attended, and the project known as Evanston’s Energy Future evolved. At this point, their base of support became more secular.

The following year, another group formed around Evanston’s Transportation Future. It focused on making the downtown more pedestrian friendly, improving bus transportation, developing a biking plan and establishing another elevated train stop in Evanston.

A third group was established to develop an Inter Religious Sustainability Circle. A fourth group focused on Evanston’s Affordable Housing Future. Considering the economics of housing, this group set up a 501(c)(3) organization to act as a land trust to hold real estate in perpetuity and reduce the impact of speculation on land prices and home construction.

Eventually, an annual event seemed warranted. One focused on food was known as the Evanston Food Policy Conference. From this came the determination to develop a statewide agricultural policy initiative to increase the amount of Illinois-produced food consumed by Illinois citizens. A state representative introduced legislation that was passed in 2007. A state task force is being established to determine how to achieve the goals of producing more food in Illinois for consumption by Illinoisans.

Another formal nonprofit organization evolved to secure land and produce organic food within the city. The idea was endorsed by the city council, and a 3-acre parcel is being purchased. The urban organic farm will serve as an educational center as well as produce food for local consumption. Recently, a state grant of $75,000 was awarded to help establish a Sustainable Development Office in Evanston, similar to one in Portland, Ore.

There are now six informal and two formal task forces focused on aspects of sustainability in Evanston. They arose based on the initiative of a small number of citizens organizing themselves in ways in which they wanted to grow and serve their community. Essential to their successes is sustained effort by a motivated and skilled group, which allowed leadership to emerge from within and which focused on achievable actions.

Six years after their initial effort, the group gained support from the City of Evanston. When a new city manager attended one of their community meetings, she recognized the potential economic benefits to Evanston that could come from the group’s efforts to make their community sustainable.

Perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from the Evanston model is that a dedicated group of citizens trusting their own abilities can organize themselves into an effective force for sustainable development in their community.

Based on a presentation by Steve Perkins at the Sixth Annual Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are also active in preserving natural areas. They are retired professors from Northern Illinois University.

from the Oct. 3, 2007, issue

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