Saturday, March 12, 2011

Organizing 500 or less

From Witold Rybczynski's City Life:
"Aristotle thought that the ideal city should contain not more than 5,000 citizens..."

From The New Economics Institute:
The Laurel Hill Association in the town of Stockbridge in the Berkshire
region of Massachusetts is the nation's oldest Village Improvement
Association. Founded in 1853 and still operating, its members pulled weeds,
laid sidewalks, installed lamps, planted trees, and helped construct the
town library. It owns the park-like Laurel Hill near the center of town and
maintains the trail at Ice Glen.

In the period following the Civil War, Village Improvement Associations were
started all over America. Small in scale, place-based, citizen driven, they
were flexible enough in structure to respond to the needs of a specific
community. The Associations might organize concerts or put up window boxes
on Main Street buildings, but just as easily serve regular meals to those in
need or build a wing on the hospital or collect supplies for distribution
after a flood swept through the town. In 1903 the Groton, Massachusetts VIA
constructed children's gardens on land loaned for the purpose.

The Associations created a way for citizens to initiate community projects
that local government and local business could not. In our age of
professionally run non-profits each focused on addressing a single issue,
VIAs might be dismissed as generalists and amateurs. But the Associations
were experts in knowing where the resources were in their communities --
human, technical, financial, and natural resources -- and they were skilled
in mobilizing these resources when the need arose.

As federal, state, and local budgets are cut, and professionally run service
programs close, it may be appropriate to imagine the emergence of modern day
Village Improvement Associations and consider what projects they would now

Westport Green Village Initiative started in 2008 with a
simple objective: to ban plastic bags in Westport, Connecticut. The project
engaged concerned citizens to act together. The success and fun of the
project encouraged the group to stay together and turn their combined
energies to other green initiatives. Westport Green Village Initiative was
organized to turn Westport "into a model of social-inclusivity and
environmental sustainability," that could well serve as the mission of
Twenty-First Century VIAs.

Relying on much volunteer labor and a little bit of well-placed
philanthropy, WGVI has built gardens at the public schools; run educational
programs on energy-saving techniques, organic gardening practices, chemical
free homes, and the local economy; and identified the resources and local
businesses that could help with transitioning to greater sustainability.
WGVIers increased membership in the local Community Supported Agriculture
farms and organized RSA -- restaurants banding together to pre-buy from
farmers, saving the farmers from marketing and creating cooperation in the
restaurant community.

Westport Village Green Initiative includes an understanding of the importance
of producing locally what is used locally, creating jobs for local youth,
maintaining production skills and infrastructure, and gradually freeing the
region from dependence of goods shipped over long distances. Westport
Essentials (WE) is an effort to indentify basic goods now imported to the
region that might be produced locally and setting up conditions to encourage
their manufacture -- access to land, job training, consumer pre-purchase,
and investment. Westport Essentials, a project of WGVI, uniquely
characterizes a new type of Village Improvement Association, citizens
reaching to that intersection of ecology, economy, community, and culture to
leverage local capacity for change.

WGVI is just over two years old and already news of its accomplishments has
spread to neighboring towns. As a result WGVI recently changed its name to
Green Village Initiative in order to serve as an organizational vehicle for
volunteer efforts in Ridgefield and Bridgeport amongst other nearby

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