Changing The World From Your Neighbourhood

Chris Johnstone
Monday, 7th March 2011

Could we cut a gigaton of carbon emissions through behaviour change and community organizing? Chris Johnstone asks David Gershon, a daring social architect, how to kickstart sustainable societal transformation – neighbourhood by neighbourhood.

The Cool Communities Campaign, based on David Gershon's Social Change 2.0 framework, has made an impressive start demonstrating what is possible. Chris Johnstone interviews him to find out more.

CJ: Tell me about the Cool Communities campaign.
DG: Between 50 and 90% of a community's carbon footprint is from the residential sector, and using our 'Low Carbon Diet' programme of specific measurable actions people can take, we've shown we can get a 25% reduction per household. The real question is how do we take it to scale, to get anywhere from 25% to 75% of the community's population to participate? We now have over 300 U.S. communities trying to answer that question using our Cool Community tools and strategy.

CJ: Can you say a bit more about the community empowerment approach you use?
DG: In the 1990s, we developed our Green Living Programme involving 20,000 people who met in small groups or 'EcoTeams' over a four-month period. They supported each other to take up specific pro-environmental behaviours. Before and after assessments, which were vetted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, showed we were getting a 40% reduction in solid waste, 32% reduction in water use, a 14% reduction in energy use and a 15% reduction in CO2 emissions. That was before we were even trying to do carbon reduction explicitly. This programme spread to 22 countries, including the UK, and has now involved several million people.

CJ: You work with local communities and have been recruiting from 25% to 60% of people living in a neighbourhood. When many sustainability groups struggle to get a fraction of that, how do you attract such high levels of participation?
DG: It took us years of rigorous research to figure out how to get it to that level. We tried organising around work places, faith-based groups and social networks, but the place we got the most traction was the neighbourhood. This was because of the co-benefits of neighbours getting to know their neighbours, improving the neighbourhood, as well as taking environmental action.
Another key was 'trial-ability' – we weren't trying to sell the whole programme at the door, but just one specific step of neighbours coming to a meeting to hear more. People had a chance to test out who this group would be, they had a chance to talk about it and get a feel for what the programme was about.

CJ: So you recruited interested people from a neighbourhood who would then go knock on their neighbours' doors, inviting them to a meeting about behaviour change for sustainability. What did they say to people that got so many to sign up?
DG: Part of why we got the response we did wasn't just that people wanted to know their neighbours, it was also how we packaged the invitation. The invitation was "Hi, I'm your neighbour from up the street, I'd like to invite you to a neighbourhood gathering in my home this Thursday night, 7.30pm till 9pm, sponsored by the City of Portland (or whatever city we were in), that helps us learn how to better conserve resources for the sake of our children, get to know each other better as neighbours, and create a healthier, safer, more liveable neighbourhood. Can you make it?"
That was the script after lots of trial and error and four major telephone surveys. When that message was delivered, 85% of the people on the block said yes, half showed up and 75% joined. This came to a 25% recruitment rate. When we did it around the climate change programme, we got a 43% level of participation. When we did this around the neighbourhood liveability programme, we got a 61% participation rate. Depending on the programme and the immediacy of value to them, we got anywhere from 25% to 60% participation.

CJ: When I've talked to people in the UK about your work, I've met resistance to the idea of knocking on neighbours' doors. Is that just British reserve, or a response you get in the US too?
DG: I started with the point of view of thinking people won't want to disturb their neighbours, they'll be rejected. In New York City, where I live, people said "We don't talk to our neighbours and we're happy about that. We like our individuality". This is not actually the case and it is a paradox. It is not so much that people don't want to know their neighbours, it is that they don't know how to connect with the people living next door and build community. As a result, we struggle as isolated and alienated individuals.
The resistance of "I don't know my neighbours, we've never done anything like this, I'm afraid I'll be rejected" is something we've experienced everywhere we've worked around the world. This is not just a UK phenomenon. But once we get people through this using the organizing tools we provide, they come out the other side feeling incredibly excited to have that connection. Again and again, people say that what they like most about the programme is getting to know their neighbours.

CJ: I know the Transition movement is beginning to pilot community-based behaviour change programmes similar to the ones you've developed.1 How can we learn from your experience?
DG: My book Social Change 2.0 lays out the framework, tools and techniques we use in some detail, with Chapter 11 describing the Cool Communities Campaign. I'd recommend people form study groups to read it together, particularly if they're involved in Transition or other groups that might want to apply the tools described. We provide a discussion group guide and a community of practice forum at and free community organizing resources for download at

Useful Resources
David Gershon's book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World will be reviewed by Chris in Permaculture magazine issue 68 out in April 2011. To subscribe click here.

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David Gershon, founder and CEO of Empowerment Institute, is one of the world's foremost authorities on behavior-change and large-system transformation, and applies this expertise to issues requiring community, organizational, and societal change. Gershon is the author of eleven books and he co-directs Empowerment Institute's School for Transformative Social Change which empowers social entrepreneurs and change agents from around the world to design and implement cutting edge social innovations. He has lectured at Harvard, MIT, and Duke and served as an advisor to the Clinton White House and the United Nations on behavior change, community empowerment and sustainability issues. 

Chris Johnstone is author of Find Your Power – A Toolkit for Resilience and Positive Change (Permanent Publications, 2010) and co-presenter of The Happiness Training Plan. He worked for many years as an addictions specialist in the UK health service, and has a website at