Sunday, December 9, 2012

building community the Seattle way

Jim Diers, a former Director of Neighbourhoods in Seattle, presented in Hamilton last week encouraging us to unlock the energy, talents and resources of people in their local communities in partnership with the city.

He gave the example of his own community which was run-down, suffering from increasing crime and loss of local businesses.

Many ideas came from a neighbourhood gathering, these included:

  • painting empty shops so as to look like thriving businesses.  They became attractions in their own right and businesses moved back in.
  • The worst shop on the block was done up and turned into a bike shop which became a community hub to which people gave their old bikes, volunteers did them up, taught others and donated them to locals (and sent 500 to Africa).
  • They purposely increased the number of places where locals met up -  e.g. well placed seats, letterbox libraries, a tea van which visited various localities

Matching funds: the City of Seattle supports neighbourhood initiated projects by "community match" -  matching community funds, in-kind support and costed volunteer hours.  The city requires an inclusive neighbourhood approach for projects and has had demonstrable success in involving otherwise marginalised groups.  "Everyone has something to contribute".

Initially modest and tentative, over the last 25 years Marching Funds has grown into a well-accepted and well-supported programme which has generated over 3,000 projects many of which would not otherwise have been possible.  More importantly, the neighbourhood groups have been empowered and encouraged to continue on to do more.  "Bringing people together is as important as the result.  They have reasons to come out of the house." 

In a three-tier approach, from "small sparks" to large projects, Seattle's Matching Funds have supported community initiated projects ranging from park developments, playgrounds, community gardens, public art, trail development, neighbourhood plans, stream clean-ups, events, oral histories, classes, facility development, cultural celebrations and much more. 

While Hamilton City Council already embraces aspects of this approach, we do not have consistency or guidelines around matching funds.  If we do so, we will still need skilled staff to work with community groups in this way. We could make a start through a pilot project.

Matching Funds would enable us to do more than we are otherwise able to do through valuing local knowledge, passions and skills.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Framing the future - the end of growth?

Richard Heinberg from the US Postcarbon Institute sees an inevitable end to the exponential growth we have seen in GDP per capita, population and energy consumption since the start of the industrial revolution.  He sees the present global financial crisis with its unsustainable debt levels signalling a sobering new economic reality. 

In considering the impossibility of continued growth, he examines three major factors: energy, debt and climate change. 

Developed countries spend only 10% of their GDP on energy, but everything in the modern world depends on it: as he notes, once you’ve turned off the petrol pumps and cut off the electricity, everything stops in first world countries. Since the start of the industrial revolution we have substituted the use of renewable sources of energy with the use of immensely energy–rich but unrenewable fossil fuels, on which we rely for transport, trade, and this has generated the ensuing “economic growth” we have all been led to believe is essential. 

More people plus more consumption leads to more energy use which is unsustainable.   Spikes in oil prices are usually followed by recession which then chokes economic growth.   We are faced with a Catch-22 situation in which, because oil is becoming increasingly difficult to extract, the industry needs high prices (over $100 US per barrel) to justify its continued production. However, if the oil price stays over $100 US per barrel, economic recession results, as transport is affected and trade slows or stops.  

He regards global debt as a direct consequence of the oil boom which allowed mass production of all kinds of “stuff” at cheap rates. In order to sell the products, artificial needs and systems to support the fulfilment of these needs were created: advertising, planned obsolescence and consumer credit.  In order to support the interest payments on the growing debt, endless economic growth became a necessity. 

Richard gave a graphic illustration of the impossibility of sustaining growth indefinitely. He cited the “impossible hamster” example. Hamsters double their body weight on a weekly basis in infancy. If a hamster continued to do this for the whole first year of its life, it would weigh several billion tons by the end of the year as a result of its exponential growth. Until recently, China’s economy has been growing by 10% per year. This represents a doubling time of 7 years. In other words, in seven years, China would need twice as many resources as it does now. In fourteen years, it would need four times as many. Played out in every world economy, the impossibility of sustaining this on one finite planet becomes very obvious. 

We are now facing the limits of cheap oil and debt.    Water is increasingly becoming the true ‘blue chip’.  We are seeing increasing inequality which in some countries is already leading to social instability.   

Heinberg regards GDP as a perverse indicator of economic success as it measures consumption which may be detrimental to the environment and could be the result of war or natural disaster.  Sovereign Assurance is developing a well-being index for New Zealand which better measures aspects such as environmental impact.  

Climate change is linked to our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels with GHG emissions continuing to increase. Global warming is well documented and there is an increasing incidence of severe weather events, with all their associated costs to society.  

So this is the global picture which will impact on New Zealand -  and Hamilton - over the next few years.   

What might we do to anticipate the future  - to be proactive rather than reactive? 

We should be developing economic resilience to absorb shocks: a ‘steady state’ economy.  This would involve a move away from the long supply chains of globalisation towards more local and more dispersed systems. We should use our renewable energy sources wisely and reduce our reliance on non renewable energy.  

·         As fewer people are able to drive cars due to cost and unavailability of fuel, we will need walkable cities and public transport systems.

·         We need to encourage the building of homes and commercial buildings that heat and cool themselves – passive structures that need little or no external  energy input. 

·         We should be developing small-scale local food systems, and training our citizens in the arts of food production and preservation. 

·         We should be encouraging alternative currencies, worker cooperatives, and any other options that produce stronger, more self-sufficient communities.  

We have many positives to draw on, including our innovative can-do approach, community spirit, creative people, and temperate climate.  

Questions from the large and attentive audience included querying the government’s lack of leadership and action on these issues. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Caring for the earth one week at a time

Economist Gareth Morgan challenged New Zealanders this week on national radio to act to stop degrading our environment . 

Across the Tasman the Lock the Gate farmers and  activists have  blocked mining companies from accessing their land to extract gas from coal seams.  Although legally entitled to do so these companies have withdrawn in the face of concerted, widespread community opposition. 

Drew Hutton from the Lock the Gate movement spoke in Hamilton this week of the impact and risks of large scale coal seam gas extraction. The most observable impact is the loss of productive farmland to gas fields on a massive scale.  Less apparent but seriously concerning is the risk of contamination of water supplies, the dangers of acid waste water post extraction and the escape of methane to the atmosphere. 

A local group has now formed to monitor these technologies in the Waikato. 

At the Waikato Interfaith Forum on Tuesday night representatives of several faith communities linked their religious teachings to caring for the earth.  It is encouraging that a group from widely varying backgrounds should do so with such a degree of consensus.   This week the Federation of Islamic Associations in New Zealand  mark Islamic Awareness Week with a focus on the environment.  This Saturday  our Interfaith Forum will  demonstrate their practical commitment to the environment at a community planting at Lake Waiwhakareke to continue the restoration of this area. 



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Creating solutions - yes we can!

When the government cut the funding for community education most programmes in the country disappeared.  Not so in Golden Bay - a resilient, co-operative community with a tradition of alternative approaches.  Their Local Enterprise Trading Scheme, HANDS, uses 'local dollars' as currency in addition to New Zealand dollars.  The evening class teachers accepted a pay cut and were paid in a mixture of both currencies.  Evening classes in Golden Bay have continued and flourished.

Laurence Boomert from Golden Bay spoke in Hamilton recently.  He established the Environmental Business Network which became the Sustainable Business Network.  An engaging, generous and positive speaker, he spoke of creatively re-thinking how we get our needs met and making small changes which could lead to radical transformation.  He cited a number of such initiatives where people share and co-operate and in the process build stronger communities.  They include pooling savings through credit unions; local money systems such as 'green dollar'; local food projects and time banks.

Lyttleton's TimeBank proved invaluable after the earthquake in bringing help to people quickly.  It could do so because it already had a co-operative network of 400 people.

Hamilton is planning a TimeBank.  Members will earn hourly credits by helping another TimeBank member with something they need.  They can then draw on their credit for a service they need or they may donate their time.  This enables people to contribute to their community outside the cash economy: ' re-connecting communities, sharing resources and enhancing the quality of life one hour at a time.'

Elsewhere in New Zealand, Wellington City Council plants tomatoes and peas in Civic Square, councils plant fruit trees in parks and on streets, Palmerston North's Green Bikes recycles and gifts donated bikes, international travellers are hosted through Couch Surfers or Servas, Freecycle allows you to donate stuff you don't want but someone else could use; www.let'  enables you to share the costs of the ride to work.

In Hamilton community gardens across the city encourage more people to grow food, the Enderley tool library lends out motor mowers etc., the Milk and Honey cafe operates on a koha basis, Claude Street has a produce exchange table in the street and neighbours combine to restore gullies.

The global financial crisis has caused us to question the current financial system and to look for alternatives.  When times get really tough we could move to Golden Bay or we could build on what is already happening in Hamilton and create our own co-operative solutions.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Not English again!

Some years ago my roommate was from Argentina. Each morning she would wake up, see me and groan, "oh, no it is English again!"

I thought of Maria recently when a woman said to me that she should not be expected to sit and listen to lengthy speeches in a language she doesn't understand.

Here in New Zealand those of us whose mother tongue is English, understand almost every word we hear, the jokes, the allusions, the shades of meaning.

Occasionally we may be in a situation where the predominant language is not English: on a marae or at an ethnic function.

We have some choices.

We can relax and enjoy not needing to pay close attention to what is said, though we do appreicate a brief summary.

We may enjoy hearing a more musical language than the clickety clack of English. We can surely enjoy the singing and the atmosphere.

Many years ago Arthur Grimble a colonial office cadet in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) commented to his superior on the protracted, elaborate and repetitive greetings of the local people.  He was reminded "we are not here to teach them our manners, but to understand theirs".

We might consider that we are fortunate to experience something of the richness of another culture with the language and ritual of formal occasions,  close to home.

We could also spare a thought for those whose mother tongue is not English and who operate here every day in our language with all of its challenges including its pesky prepositions and illogical pronunciation.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Facing Facebook

Most councillors want to keep in touch with the community’s thinking on the issues of the day. Traditionally we have done so by reading the letters to the editor in the local papers, through submissions to council and hearing directly from those who phone, email, write or chat to us. 

A more recent feedback loop is the online comment on our local paper’s website. A while back I was I was alerted to the dozen or so angry comments on the sculpture in Garden Place.  In contrast to the letters to the editor which cover a range of topics, the online comments on one issue pack a powerful cumulative punch. 

The Waikato Times now includes some of the online comments in their print version.  Reporter Daniel Adams covers council affairs and also writes a blog “off the record” - more of an opinion piece than straight reporting.  His blog, in turn, attracts feedback and so on it goes.

Comment in the public domain extends still further through Facebook.  

Last week council was to decide whether to approve an application to install a temporary artwork on the Wintec wall. The day before the meeting   I asked my Facebook ‘friends’ if they supported this.  Within two hours fourteen people had enthusiastically done so and a number offered other  suggestions for the wall.  By the next day twenty-five people had commented.  It would be difficult to obtain such an immediate response in any other way. 

I recognise that my Facebook ‘friends’ are not a carefully selected representative sample.  Knowing most of them, though, I can vouch for their sanity, public spirit and discernment.  I accept that there are unlikely to be many amongst them who regard me as a total tosser who should be gone by lunchtime.  You will find those folk elsewhere. 

My favourite feedback though comes from council’s citizens panel which is selected to be representative of the community.   From time to time we ask them questions on issues we are about to debate.  Their views were particularly helpful before the long term plan decisions as they covered the broad range of pros and cons we grapple with.  We could see where the consensus lay.  Whereas we usually hear from those with strong views, for and against, the citizen’s panel provides a voice for the silent majority. 

We can also follow comments  on Council’s website which helpfully provides links to councillors’  emails, facebook and  twitter to encourage contact from the community.

As councillors we have a choice whether to explore social media or not.   If we are concerned about decreasing  voting in local body elections  and little interest from younger voters,  social media offers additional avenues to reach people - despite the challenges for some of us in doing so. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

One week's heroes

Sunday a week ago we gathered for a poignant AIDS candlelight memorial service. Lynda Johnston organised this opportunity for quiet remembrance of those we have lost to HIV and sadly to hear from those who told us of the continuing stigma that attaches to those with this condition.

Congratulations to Dujon Cullingford, Logan Reynolds and Kylie Zinsli for sharing their inspiring stories at the inaugural Youth Chat (aimed at adults) sessions held during the week.

Jeanette Fitzsimons’ submission to the Electoral Commission last Tuesday in Hamilton combined careful analysis based on long parliamentary experience and a principled approach to the issues. I would say that the Commission will consider her submission carefully. (Jeanette has just been acknowledged by EECA - Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency - for her outstanding contribution .)

A woman in Wellington phoned to ask if I would visit Mr and Mrs Zhang to express her sadness that they had been attacked outside their shop in Melville. When I did so, they assured me that they had received much kindness from the community and that they like living here. I was greatly touched to realise that they were gently comforting me.

The Hamilton Bluegrass County Band, line dancing and a new fast food sweet treat - Hungarian twisties – pleased the crowd at Hillcrest Park on Sunday. Paula Law leads the Hillcrest Guardians who organised the event . Their response to issues on the park some time back was to bring the community together through events such as this. Paula’s energy and leadership makes a difference in this community.

This week's heroes

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The very model of a modern annual meeting

Successful learners shared their stories at the recent annual meeting of English Language Partners Waikato.

Speaking confidently, Ratana Om told of coming to the Waikato as a refugee from Cambodia. A week later he started work at the mushroom factory in Morrinsville. He had no English so travelled to Hamilton twice a week for evening classes with English Language Partners. He is now managing a mushroom factory in Mercer.

Burmese refugee Saw Khon Hmine was elected to the committee. Two years ago when his group arrived I recall being moved by his eloquent speech at the powhiri.

ELP’s committee is enviable for its strong educational and financial skills plus an admirable mix of ethnic backgrounds: Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Indonesian and now, Burmese, with both tutors and learners represented.

Simon Murray from the Talking Tech Foundation, inspired us with the company’s approach to philanthropy - encouraging a culture of generosity. (Subsequent events have tempered my enthusiasm for the CEO of Talking Tech but perhaps we need to separate philanthropy from politics).