Boulder Colorado is embarking on a hyper-local neighborhood-based approach to climate action. We interview Boulder Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Vasatka, and climate activist David Takahashi, about an exciting new program to get residents involved and create social capital in the process.
Boulder Colorado is embarking on a hyper-local neighborhood-based approach to climate action. We interview Boulder Sustainability Coordinator Elizabeth Vasatka, and climate activist David Takahashi, about an exciting new program to get residents involved and create social capital in the process.
Abby Finis 00:02
Cities produce more than 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Big cities get a lot of attention, but most household emissions in the US actually come from communities outside urban cores, making them critical players in climate mitigation and climate justice. City Climate Corner explores how these small- and mid-sized cities are tackling climate change and moving toward an equitable and sustainable future. I'm Abby Finis.
Larry Kraft 00:22
And I'm Larry Kraft. We're co-hosts for City Climate Corner.
Abby Finis 00:22
Larry Kraft 00:30
Abby Finis 00:32
So St. Louis Park has a Climate Action Plan and you're in the implementation phase. It's no big deal, right? It's pretty easy?
Larry Kraft 00:39
Oh piece of cake. Ha! So many challenges: funding, how to get businesses and residents involved, how to start achieving energy efficiency, renewable energy, transportation, all kinds of things.
Abby Finis 00:54
Yeah, it's undoing everything that the city's done basically for its existence, right? So it's no small task. And St. Louis Park is a city of about 40-45,000 or so, right? And as cities are, you know, there's more people there, they're bigger, they're sprawled, that becomes an even bigger problem. What are some of the challenges that you face?
Larry Kraft 01:18
A key challenge we face is working with people - getting the message out. People often ask, okay, I buy into it, what can I do? Businesses, residents, you know, how do we get involved and take action and be part of it?
Abby Finis 01:34
Yeah, and there's a lot that the city itself can do in the way that it's delivering programs and services and its functions. But a lot of it comes down to what residents and businesses are doing in that community as well. And I think that might be one of the harder challenges is changing those behaviors, getting people on board with the changes that the city's implementing. And so we're starting to see more cities come up with creative solutions to that challenge. And today, we talked to a couple folks from Boulder, Colorado, who have taken a different approach that they're piloting to see if they can get some more community engagement.
Larry Kraft 02:23
Yeah, I think it'd be really interesting to listen to because the city is a small part of the overall emissions of the community. And so how do you emanate outward from the city?
Abby Finis 02:37
Boulder has been at this for a while. They are a city of a little bit over 100,000, just northwest of Denver at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. And they've tried a number of tactics through the years and are moving into this kind of hyper-local approach to climate action planning.
Larry Kraft 02:58
Abby Finis 02:59
Let's do it.
Abby Finis 03:03
Today we are here speaking with Elizabeth Vasatka and David Takahashi from the city of Boulder. Welcome to you both. Can you each introduce yourselves and tell us how you are involved with the city of Boulder? We'll start with Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Vasatka 03:18
Yeah. Hi. I am Elizabeth Vasatka. And I'm a sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder's Climate Initiatives Department. And I have been with the city over 20 years working on a lot of different environmental and sustainability programs. And today we're here to talk about a specific one.
Abby Finis 03:42
David Takahashi 03:44
Yes, I am David Takahashi. I am a public activist, community organizer. And I became active in climate work through - I'm actually I married into one of the first families of climate science, and it rubbed off on me.
Abby Finis 04:07
So David, why don't you tell us a little bit more about that because you were not always active in the climate space, but something happened to change you and get you more deeply involved, what happened?
David Takahashi 04:20
So what happened was, my late father in law predicted massive climate disruptions, which I found no evidence for. But in the year 2010, there was a local wildfire, a predicted wildfire, which I watched unfold from my front yard. It happened on Labor Day in 2010. And I watched this thing unfold and I thought to myself, this is not only frightening, but it is I'm hearing the echoes of my late father-in-law describing the kinds of things that were going to happen. And then, three years later, we had floods, which actually reconfigured the landscape in my mountain neighborhood. And at that point, I had the epiphany that my doubts about the large effects of a small concentration of a greenhouse gas were hasty, and that I really needed to figure out what I was gonna do about it. So I became a convert, if you will.
Abby Finis 05:43
Sure. I think it's really important to share those kinds of stories, because sometimes it feels like it's far away. Either it's not happening where you are living, or it feels like it's far into the future. But once you start to experience that, it really changes how you might feel about climate change and how you want to get involved and push.
David Takahashi 06:06
Anecdotally, I hosted the viewing of a movie called from Paris to Pittsburgh, up at our local Chautauqua. It's like a community house. And there were like, 50 people that I really didn't know at all. And after the movie, I asked the audience, how many of you have personally experienced or have close family or friends who have experienced climate disruption? And all the hands went up. So, anecdotally, it's not as rare anymore as we would imagine.
Larry Kraft 06:53
No, definitely not. But David, can you mention who your father in law is for the climate nerds out there this would be important.
David Takahashi 07:04
Yes, my late father-in-law, my wife's dad was Charles David Keeling, who maintained the data that blew the whistle on global warming,
Larry Kraft 07:19
Right, the famous Keeling Curve.
David Takahashi 07:20
The famous Keeling Curve. The jagged, upward data curve, if you will. It's really great, because he explained to me -- it's kind of jagged, like a sawtooth. And that is actually the seasonal fluctuations of summer and winter. And he described it as the earth respiring. It was really beautiful. I mean, the way he described the science, as the earth was actually breathing in and breathing out. And the data, if you look closely, it is like the sawtooth and that is what is going on year after year, and it is slowly rising to a most dangerous level.
Larry Kraft 08:14
Well, Elizabeth, you work at the city of Boulder, can you provide us with some background on previous climate action in Boulder? And also like, what have you found to work and what needs need some additional focus?
Elizabeth Vasatka 08:30
Well, that's a big question, Larry. And the city of Boulder, I think is known nationally and internationally for its climate action. We've been actively participating in trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for 20 years. But prior to that, in the 70s and 80s, we did our first kind of energy inventory. And that was to look at our residential and commercial and transportation sector. And we kind of use that as a fundamental.
I'll just point out a handful of landmark milestone efforts that the city, how they got into climate action, and then some of the big milestones that have progressed our efforts. You know, in 2002, that's when it really took off. So it's been about 20 years. And our mayor at the time signed on to the Kyoto Protocol. And so that's fine, but no one had a roadmap, right? We didn't know how to meet the Kyoto Protocol. And then in 2005, we had a new mayor and that mayor signed on to the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. If you remember that. The mayor of Seattle at the time, Greg Nickels brought in five other mayors, Mayor Hickenlooper, John Hickenlooper, at the time, the Mayor of Boulder Marc Ruzzin, there was three other signatories, and they sent that letter to all the mayors across the country to say, we need to do something about the climate, climate change and global warming, you need to sign on. Well, I think mayors signed on, but the effort was will you do something? Can you do something?And our council at that time, you know, we've been very lucky in Boulder, where we've had the political capital to work on climate. And we've been fortunate enough that, you know, we were the first city in the nation and maybe the world to tax itself, businesses and residents voting to tax themselves for a Climate Action Plan tax, so we could fund climate action. So that happened in November of 2005. Since then, we've had a revenue stream of about $1.8 million to do climate action. And then in 2015, voters approved to extend it, the tax to 2023.
And then, you know, we've been fortunate enough with Boulder County, our partners, we're the largest city within the county. The county was the recipient of the Obama administration - if you remember the ARRA funding -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We received a $25 million grant - the county did. And the city already had programs running. And so with ARRA grant, we were able to put programs in place that are still withstanding today. They were Energy Smart for the residential sector, and Energy Smart for the commercial sector, which were helping businesses and large property owners reduce their energy use. And that grant helped fund those and institutionalize those.
And then really, it was in May 2017, we upgraded or we revised our climate action plan. And it became Boulders Climate Commitment, because during those last 10 years of implementing programs and getting each homeowner and businesses to upgrade to efficient equipment, we realized we were never going to meet this climate challenge, right? We knew that our energy efficiency programs weren't going to get us to where we needed to go. And so we were really looking at everyone, all hands on deck. Everyone needs to contribute to, you know, stabilizing the climate. And so we're really looking at our energy systems, our ecosystems, and resources. And what do we need to do in those main categories to change systems. We also realize that this isn't just the city's job. You know, as David said, he's a climate advocate, we have a very aware and engaged community. And we couldn't just make the city the center of climate action. So everything shifted in 2019. And that's where we are, because 2020 was all pandemic. But there's a lot of exciting work happening now. And that was in development over 2020.
Larry Kraft 13:19
But it's so interesting, because I do think Boulder is one that's been ahead of many on the path you've been on, on climate action. So it's very interesting to see about all these programs that you've put in place, and I imagine they've seen benefits from it, but you're realizing that it's not fast enough that you have to accelerate them, which if a city is not yet in that position, so this is a chance for them to learn from you to accelerate as soon as possible, I guess.
Elizabeth Vasatka 13:52
Yeah. And I think we realized that we were tracking and we have a greenhouse gas inventory, and we're following national or international protocols on that. But we realized, you know, we wouldn't have the funds to help all residents upgrade or electrify their homes and our businesses to electrify their home, that it was going to take a while for all of that to happen and a lot of money upfront. And what we've seen with climate justice and all the inequities that we've seen in the pandemic, that's the exact situation we're seeing with climate disasters, right? That the people least responsible for the climate crisis are going to be most impacted. And so really looking at how do we center all our work on creating more adaptation of climate, how do we stabilize it and how do we continue to thrive in the community so building resilience with, you know, making sure people have access to what we can provide them but creating networks and creating safety within our communities. And so that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to change systems that need to be changed. And we're also trying to lift up voices and ensure that historically excluded neighborhoods and communities have a voice in the process of climate action.
Abby Finis 15:22
I really appreciate how you frame it up in thinking about systems now and bringing in more voices to have a say on what climate action looks like. And it is a really big problem, right? And it's fundamentally changing how cities deliver their services and how you implement different practices. And so what we really want to talk to you about today is this concept of accelerated neighborhood climate action plans and taking the elephant and taking out smaller bites and really getting people more involved on kind of this hyper local level. And, David, we spoke to you about this a little bit previously. And can you give us a little bit of background on how you came about this program, and this concept to approaching climate action?
David Takahashi 16:14
Absolutely, it really stems from the fact that the federal level is kind of at loggerheads. And the state is almost too large to take into account local nuance. And that the city level has been recognized through the mayors and through the city organizations as large enough to have impact but small enough to really know the local nuances and be small enough actually, to be able to innovate and actually act. But if you break it down even a little bit more, that city is really based on your neighborhoods. So through work that I have been doing interfaith, I happen to sit down at an interfaith climate justice meeting next to a woman who actually was a volunteer with an organization called Accelerate Neighborhood Climate Action. The acronym is ANCA. And me being me, it's just like, oh, that's interesting. How does that work? And I, you know, figured out that this is a way for neighbors to voice their concerns, and actually find a way to turn these concerns into affinity groups. The affinity groups are charged with, during a ANCA workshop, with creating an annual action plan. And because they are neighbors, the beautiful thing is, is that they hold each other accountable. So there isn't so much of this forgetting curve, where you make these promises, and then then you go to sleep and forget about them. You're actually working with your neighbors, which is actually creating this this wonderful fabric, resilient fabric of community interconnections, which is the real goal. The real end result is we get to know our neighbors, we get to know how it is to actually work together and accomplish things that we could not do on our own. And that basically, is what ANCA is.
So I went to my first ANCA workshop and when you voice your concerns, my concern was, could I bring this program, this process to a new city, whose name is Boulder, Colorado. And the organizers were "yeah, yeah, we've heard all this before." But they humored me and said, "yeah, you know, we're interested." So I had kind of built some relationship with the city of Boulder. And the city of Boulder, like Elizabeth has mentioned, was looking for a way to engage the public in this big problem, which we all own. And so when I approached the city and said, "how about a process that would bring in the public and give them ownership of climate action," ears kind of perked up. So when I was able to go back to the organizers of ANCA and say, "when are you available for a meeting with the city of Boulder?" They just went "what?" and it happened. So it's kind of being in the right place at the right time is all I can say.
Larry Kraft 20:23
That's great. I love that. Reflecting on the city that I live in - St. Louis Park, where there is a pretty good network of neighborhood associations. So I'm super excited to hear from you, Elizabeth asked this next question of how is this being implemented right now, as you're rolling it out.
Elizabeth Vasatka 20:40
We are just launching three pilot neighborhoods. And David's neighborhood, Martin Acres, is the first one to launch. And how you launch it is that we had back in November, we had a demonstration forum. So the ANCA colleagues that are in Denver that David was speaking about, came up. And we had a planning committee, with David being on our planning committee, a couple city staffers and other climate advocates and champions from neighborhoods. We planned for about five or six weeks to do a demonstration forum and invite as many neighbors as we could. We got it out on social media and the website and a press release. And they could come and experience what an ANCA forum would be like. And if they were interested, they could bring it back to their neighborhood associations or their HOA, or whatever kind of affinity group, neighborhood group, they had to see if those folks were interested in doing their own forum.
And the forum is to brainstorm and vision what climate action looks like and resonates for that neighborhood. And then you implement it. And as David said, you're bringing people together, you're creating connection, and you're creating common interest to create sustainability and climate action within the neighborhood that you live within. So there's such a connection, because it's your home, it's your neighbors, it's your neighborhood. And so the city contracted, they're a nonprofit, so it was a small contract to help with the planning with each neighborhood group. And then they would hold a forum, and there's ANCA facilitator. And it's about a five hour forum on a Saturday. So they organize an agenda. They get guest speakers, there's breakout rooms, ANCA organizers, they use pretty cool online visualization. If you've heard of Mural, it's a really cool engagement tool, where you break out into rooms, and you brainstorm and you use sticky notes, and then you come back together and discuss, you have presentations, you share. And then you kind of wrap it up and the ANCA folks will put everything together and provide a report like this is your draft neighborhood Climate Action Plan. And then it's up to the neighborhood to organize and implement thereafter.
So the city again, we're pulling ourselves outside of it, we're supporting, but it's the ANCA folks and the neighborhood groups that are creating this to really build ownership within their own local community. And so we had an application process to solicit interest. And we only had funding for about three pilot neighborhoods, but we received five applications. So we had decided we'll do two phases, we'll do the first three neighborhoods over two months. And then when those are finished, we'll do the second two neighborhoods. So we have five neighborhoods that we'll be doing ANCA forums. And then we'll come together after they're all finished, we'll get feedback and see what the direction is if they think this is a worthwhile program for the city to fund in years to come. So this is really a pilot year.
Larry Kraft 24:17
Does the city come in with ideas to help the group get going like, here's a menu of things that you could generate ideas you could start thinking about? Or is it entirely a blank slate when they get together?
David Takahashi 24:31
We know that there are certain patterns that are going to emerge. We know that recycling will be an affinity group. We know that energy efficiency, energy production, micro grids, that whole we live in a very tech savvy city. So we know that that's going to show up. Transportation is going to show up. Bicycles, bus passes, food security is going to show up, local production of food, the transformation of the landscape into food scapes. The ideas about having community farmers markets, community art and craft fairs, community outdoor night at the movies. Or the idea of having the food truck night where in our neighborhood park, the food trucks show up and we all bike in, and we get to sample food and listen to music and talk to each other. These are the kinds of things that we know are going to show up. So what we do is we kind of curate very short bursts of inspiration. And in the morning, what we will do is mix generative thinking with this, here's some things that other people are actually doing. In brainstorming, when you hear ideas, it sparks ideas. So we look at this, like, we're kind of lighting the kindling, and we're blowing a little air on it. But that's all we're doing. And people will take that ball and run down the field with it.
And so the answer is, we gently infuse the idea that some crazy ideas have actually happened. And that we shouldn't think, because an idea is crazy, it will never happen. So we encourage people to think big, and we encourage people to really get creative. And just to see what happens. Not all ideas are going to land, you know, I compare our process to throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing it that sticks. The morning has a lot of spaghetti tossing. Some of that is planned and most of it is not.
Elizabeth Vasatka 27:24
When David talks about the morning, he's talking about the forum, and the agenda for the forum. And the city isn't gonna be present. I mean, we will be there to support myself and my colleague, one or the other. But we are not, we're not running it. We have, as David said, a very engaged climate-action-focused community. And so I think whatever resonates with that community, and whatever sticks on the wall, is we want their buy in. So they're creating it and crafting it for their own neighborhood. The city has a huge website with a plethora of everything that we do. And our Climate Commitment explains the focus areas in which we know climate action has to take place. And so I think it's within those focus areas, what do people really want to do? And I think getting creative is really helping people feel empowered, like they can do it, it can be fun, and it can make a huge difference.
Abby Finis 28:34
Right. And that's happening, you know, both with these ideas of individuals and neighborhoods that will spread throughout Boulder, hopefully, if the pilot is successful. And how do you take this hyper local approach to climate action and scale it? What do you see as different ways that other cities can learn from Boulder as you go down this path?
Elizabeth Vasatka 29:05
Well, you know, telling our story, and as you know, there's national organizations that cities are part of like USDN, Urban Sustainability Directors, Network, where we don't all have to do the trial and error, right? We all want to be innovative, and if that innovation works, then we share it with our cities across the country, and internationally, right, with other organizations. And so I think climate action, I think has happened and we thought it would scale and it'd be transferable and other cities would do it. But it's really the systems that need to change. It's our politics, our laws, how we design land use, how we design transportation, our circular materials economy, you know how we have to keep materials or we should be keeping materials within our system for a lot longer than we do to get away from the extractive economy. And so there's so many pieces that I think we need to engage in empower individuals. At the same time, we're changing big laws and rules. You know, unfortunately, that has created the climate situation we're in right now, those have to change at the same time that we understand that communities need to be more connected, because you have to be resilient, to be able to withstand and hopefully survive and thrive, with the climate crisis coming our way. Because if something were to happen, you know, it's your neighbor that you're going to be reaching out to if you're, you know, electricity is out, it's your neighbor that you'll be looking for help, or you'll be helping. So this is where I mean, it's challenging, right? Because we're trying to give voices to people that haven't been part of this particular climate action. We're trying to engage neighborhood level engagement. And we're trying to change huge societal global systems all at the same time.
Larry Kraft 31:08
You know, I understand the initial forum and the brainstorming. I imagine, Elizabeth, you haven't seen these yet, but maybe, David, when you were at the one in Denver - how does it get tracked? After the initial plan? How does this roll into something that can be kept ongoing and tracked as how that neighborhood is doing and then refreshed over time?
David Takahashi 31:32
Yeah, so ANCA has built in the retrospective, so as the year progresses, there are check-ins, with the groups through people like myself, they're shepherds more than micromanagers. And there is the idea of the annual review and celebration for what has been accomplished. And so they found in Denver, that their ability to hold on to the interest through the year and stretch it out, is quite high. And I think that is a testament to getting things at the neighborhood level, where there is some kind of stability, continuity year over year. So I think it's a good match.
Larry Kraft 32:39
All right, is there anything else either view would like to add, like to share?
David Takahashi 32:45
I'd like to add one thing and that is, we talked a little bit about resilience, I think resilience is really important. At the end of the day, one of the products of ANCA is the fact that when a disaster hits, we've started to knit together that resilient web that allows us to bend without breaking, and to know that we're in this together. When the heat waves hit Chicago, they found neighborhoods with high death rates. But then they started to notice these underserved communities, which actually survived very, very well. And what they discovered is that these were neighborhoods where the social capital had been pre-created, because of the challenges that they were facing every day. And that is what I am hoping for our neighborhoods to recognize the power of being connected. And as Elizabeth said, when the disruptions happen, and they're going to, that there are communities that will do quite well. And perhaps those are communities that have actually run the ANCA kinds of programs that are starting to build in that social flexibility.
Elizabeth Vasatka 34:35
If I could share one thing, you know, the city really prides itself on innovating and piloting, hopefully creating programs that are transferable. And so I really hope that this program is a way to connect folks that have been living next to each other, maybe don't know each other so well. So you know, it's going to be multifaceted, where folks are gonna get connected and they're going to feel safer hopefully in their neighborhoods. And they're going to be doing good work and coming together in a way that creates more of a sustainable community. So all hands on deck for the next foreseeable future. And so we will stay connected and share everything that we learn.
Abby Finis 35:18
Thank you both.
Larry Kraft 35:19
Larry Kraft 35:23
All right, Abby, what did you think of that? What were your takeaways?
Abby Finis 35:27
It was just a really great conversation. And I enjoyed listening to the different actions and initiatives and programs that Boulder has run through the years. But the thing that stood out to me and it's a little bit nerdy, but the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. When that Act was put into place, you know, that was me fresh out of grad school and my introduction into the energy world and working with local governments on climate and energy. And it was something that had a huge impact on me. And I also think that it was a really pivotal moment for local governments. Boulder already had been prepared to receive the money and implement, because they had been working on climate energy issues for a while. But this was something that I think triggered a response in local governments across the country where they started to see the economic benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy and what that can mean for their cities and their residents and what they pay in taxes. And it's interesting because we're recording this on the day that Joe Biden announced the American Jobs Plan. And so this is, you know, if it's implemented in the way it's envisioned, is going to dwarf the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And so I think that's really exciting. That's really exciting about the possibilities that exist for cities across the country.
Larry Kraft 37:07
Yeah, I also was really struck by David's discussion at the end of communities, and how that the hope for this is not just that it comes with ways of reducing emissions and getting more people involved, but that in doing it, it builds social capital. And that in itself, makes us all more resilient.
Abby Finis 37:34
Yeah, that really resonated with me as well. And I think that's something that doesn't quite hit with people until they experience those disruptions and those shocks. And another kind of major thing that's going on right now is the trial of, excuse me, Derek Chauvin who killed George Floyd two blocks away from where I live. And that was a major disruption to our community, to my neighborhood. But it's something that has built up the resolve of our neighborhood. And for those of us who went outside, got to know our neighbors, we have created a community space that for the most part I think feels safer for a lot of us because we know our neighbors, we know we can rely on them. We know if something comes up, that's who we're going to first and I think that people who experience floods, who experience tornadoes, wildfires, the first people that you're going to connect with are going to be your neighbors. And the better you know them, the more prepared, you're going to be for those situations and the more resilient you'll be in those situations.
Larry Kraft 38:51
Yeah, you know, it made me think of something else too, in many things, the most valued messenger for trying something new, or when you're in a crisis is someone you know, someone in your neighborhood. So not only can this make you more resilient, but also, you know, I read that the number one reason people get solar energy on their roof is because their neighbors have. You also hear, hey, we're beyond where individual actions matter. But what I like about this is it's individual actions on a across neighborhood approach that can hopefully scale from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Abby Finis 39:36
Right. And so we have this hyper local initiative that's happening that is knitting together neighbors within neighborhoods, neighborhoods across the city, and then you know, hopefully, it can latch on and we can have other cities expand upon that and just have a better, more connected more trusting communities in places where that's implemented.
Abby Finis 40:06
We hope you enjoyed this episode of City Climate Corner. If you like what you're hearing, make sure to subscribe and give us a review. If you're able, become a monthly supporter through Patreon. As always, you can find more information on this topic and resources from each episode's guests on our webpage cityclimatecorner.com. If you have an idea for the show, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Larry Kraft 40:30
City Climate Corner is produced by Abby Finis and me Larry Kraft, edited by me music by
Abby Finis 40:36
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.
Larry Kraft 40:38
Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.