Accelerating Grassroots Sustainability in CT: Nonprofit is Powering Dynamic Local ChangeMar 31, 2023 10:00AM ● By Nicole Miale
In the not-so-distant past, the word sustainability conjured images associated with global climate change warning signs such as polar bears clinging to ice floes and heaps of garbage floating on far-away oceans. These global concerns remain front and center on the federal level and international stages, but here in Connecticut the focus is hyper-local when it comes to effecting real change.
Sustainable CT, an independent nonprofit organization based in Storrs, Connecticut, has spent the past five years providing guidance, resources and funding for sustainability projects of all types at the grassroots local level all over the state. “Municipal decisions have a huge impact on the health and well-being of our individual communities,” explains Executive Director Lynn Stoddard. “The certification program we offer focuses on municipal leaders and the decisions they’re making to make their towns more resilient, livable and attractive.”
The Sustainable CT model is to inspire and accelerate sustainability actions by providing local municipalities with a broad menu of coordinated and voluntary best practice sustainability actions. “We’re trying to support, accelerate and showcase sustainability action by towns and individuals,” Stoddard says. “We define ‘sustainability’ very broadly. Our certification program is at the heart of what we do. Participating towns are making a real difference in the quality of life for all their residents, and our certification roadmap helps guide them in creating thriving, resilient and sustainable communities.”
Stoddard cites real-life examples such as making school and town buildings more energy-efficient; designing more bike-friendly streets; creating community gardens on town property with produce donated to local food banks. “We take a bottom-up, grassroots approach to the very real problems many Connecticut towns are facing, based on the idea that people know what’s best for their own neighborhood and want to be involved in helping to change the situation,” Stoddard says. “The goal is to inspire municipalities to first do one thing to make a community more inclusive and connected. Then do one more. And so on.”
The Municipal Certification Process
Once a town is registered with Sustainable CT, a team of municipal leaders and passionate local volunteers is formed. This local team then coordinates with Sustainable CT staff, resources and tools to identify and fund the specific sustainability actions which will count toward the town’s certification. Sustainable CT certification includes three levels: gold (new in 2023), silver and bronze; each of these requires a specific number of best practice actions be selected and implemented from hundreds of options in 12 different categories.
Categories include: clean and diverse transportation systems and choices; efficient physical infrastructure and operations; strategic and inclusive public services; dynamic and resilient planning; well-stewarded land and natural resources; thriving local business economies; efficient, diverse and affordable housing; vibrant and creative cultural ecosystems; and inclusive and equitable community impacts. Inclusivity and equity goals are a priority for many towns and Sustainable CT has added depth to their staff with a panel of equity coaches prepared to aid municipalities that want to improve in this area.
With more than 248 distinct local projects funded across the state to date, and approximately $3 million invested in the past three years alone, Sustainable CT’s efforts are having an impact across the state. In total, 131 municipalities are currently participating in the free voluntary programs offered by Sustainable CT and 59 towns are currently certified (each certification lasts three years). Twenty-four municipalities earned new Sustainable CT certification in 2022. As of now, 10 Fairfield County towns and six Litchfield County towns are certified. A few, like Stamford, were previously certified but are currently working on a new one. Both large and small, these municipalities are way-showers placing sustainability at the forefront of their future planning.
In Fairfield County, silver certified towns are: Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, Norwalk, Stratford, Trumbull and Wilton. Bronze-certified towns include New Canaan, Norwalk, Ridgefield and Weston. In Litchfield County, New Milford and Litchfield have been certified at the silver level, while Canaan (Falls Village), Goshen, Torrington and Washington are currently certified at the bronze level. In addition to their certifications, Stratford and Fairfield have also been recognized as Climate Leaders, a new designation rolled out in fall 2022 to recognize municipalities whose targeted efforts are aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the changing climate.
“We are inspired by the leadership and commitment of all these communities,” Stoddard says. “From elected officials and town staff to resident volunteers, these certified towns and Climate Leaders are improving opportunities and quality of life for all.”
Community Match Fund Available for Projects
Sustainable CT is independently funded, with strong multi-year support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, Hampshire Foundation, Connecticut Green Bank, Common Sense Fund, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and Fairfield County Community Foundation. Stoddard says there are local grant funding opportunities available through a Community Match Fund program that boasts a simple application process leading to project kickoff in six to eight weeks. “This community match fund shifts the power dynamic directly to the people in the communities,” she explains. “For example, someone may want to clean up a run-down park area and plant new trees. We set them up on our crowdfunding platform, coach them and match every dollar they raise with dollars from Sustainable CT.”
She cites several examples from New Milford, which was silver certified in 2021 and has had two community match fund projects to date: the Great Brook cleanup and creation of a pollinator garden. New Milford Mayor Pete Bass is on the Sustainable CT Board of Directors, as is Laura Hoydick, Mayor of Stratford. “We’re finding that many municipal leaders are very interested to get involved with us,” Stoddard says, “because we share a positive vision for how we can make communities more connected and whole. That’s what our organization is all about.”
Food justice and community garden development has exploded in interest in recent years, she says, fueled in part by the pandemic and peoples’ interest in outdoor projects that could have a positive impact on their neighborhoods. “Like everyone, we weren’t sure what to expect when COVID happened, but we found that people had more time and town leaders were looking for positive ideas and messages. So, we actually filled a void for many at that time, and the momentum has continued.”
For example, Fairfield volunteers created a community garden on town property and the produce serves the local Food Bank, which saw use surge during the pandemic. Fairfield also instituted a Grow a Row for Hope gardening initiative, encouraging people with private gardens to dedicate a section of produce intended for donation to address food insecurity.
Sustainable CT has a wealth of resources available on their website and offers all towns the benefit of free webinars and access to support staff as well as consultancy. Many of the organization’s events are virtual, including their monthly coffee hours held on the third Friday of each month. April’s Coffee Hour will discuss a Yale program on Climate Change and Messaging; it will take place on April 21 at 10 a.m. via Zoom.
For more information about Sustainable CT and its many programs, email [email protected] or visit SustainableCT.org.
Nicole Miale is a writer, healer and coach residing in Washington Depot, CT. Connect with her at [email protected] or 203-981-2451.