Good Ideas: Local Efforts Can Induce Policy Change

Did you ever wonder why innovative responses to problems in one city or town spread so slowly (if at all) to other cities or towns that have the same nagging conditions?

Notwithstanding an era of rapid communications, the tendency for one community to utilize effective reforms developed in another seems bogged down. So much of the expectation of change is focused on vertical–that is, top down–policies from governmental and corporate power centers that we need a historical reminder.

Early in our history, by mail or word-of-mouth, community successes spread horizontally. This is how the volunteer fire department, the public library and many other good ideas caught hold from community to community. Even though, or perhaps because, communications were so less developed, there was a more deliberate, if unorganized, diffusion process at work that still is too little studied and understood by historians.

Now when local problems exist nationwide, the political and corporate focus is on the national government in Washington. The local, political and corporate governments for the most part, and for different reasons, have seemed to accept this bucking upward of the problems to Washington.

One does not have to go to the extreme of repudiating any Washington role to recognize that local initiatives possess administrative, cognitive and imaginative advantages. After all, that’s where the people are.

I am prompted to make these observations by a forthcoming book called “Energy-Efficient Community Planning,” by James Ridgeway. This is not your ordinary book tour of interesting grass-roots America. Ridgeway did travel to these communities, but his purpose was broader than reporting. For the volume also contains reproductions of ordinances, codes, drawings, photographs and plans out of these various efforts to advance energy self-reliance and efficiency. His aim is to fuel emulation, not just provoke curiosity.

His travels take us to Seattle, Wash., where an enlightened citizenry and local government developed a program of energy conservation through new building codes and a revised mass transport policy instead of immediately succumbing to a proposed nuclear plant. The city is beginning to investigate the potential of biomass (such as waste wood) and combining solar power with already-existing hydro-power facilities.

Ridgeway writes that what is unusual about Seattle is that “it has been largely a political process, not a technical one.” In other words, there occurred some informed citizen action allied with understanding political representatives.

Related is the story of Davis, Calif., a university town of 36,000 people in a farming area. With 28,000 bicycles, tough new building codes, retrofitting of existing buildings and a variety of other energy-saving policies, Davis is one case study in this volume that has received significant national publicity.

To minimize use of gas-fired clothes dryers, the city passed an ordinance in April 1977 which nullified a regulation (common to many towns) that had banned the use of clotheslines as unsightly. Today the technical jargon would call clotheslines a form of “passive solar” energy.

The “let’s do it ourselves” efforts range across the entire nation. Ridgeway writes of an emerging water policy in Northglenn, Colo., that saves energy by using waste water to fertilize farmland and preserve open space. He describes a regional food policy in Hartford, Conn., which generates jobs, cuts consumer costs and saves energy. The resurgence of wind power is underway in Clayton, N.M. Household energy audits are lowering energy consumption in Greensboro, N.C. Energy from garbage is being tried in Ames, Iowa.

Such foundations can make flagging federal policies, which parallel these efforts, more likely to find roots when confident local efforts connect with what the federal resource base has to offer.

Ridgeway’s book could have devoted more space to answering these questions: Just how do the right combinations of local efforts come together to produce such initiatives? What is the source and nature of this civic chemistry, and how can it be reproduced?

Nonetheless, readers will find this descriptive resource book to be a valuable sparkplug in itself. For information on how to obtain “Energy-Efficient Community Planning,” write to The JG Press, Inc., Box 351, Emmaus, Pa. 18049.

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