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The Green Dream Team

When Patty Hargreaves first contemplated organizing a solar-power project in her Beach neighbourhood, she asked around and browsed websites for ideas. As the board chair of the Canadian Solar Industries Association and a director at the Greening Greater Toronto initiative, Hargreaves knows her way around photovoltaic cells. But she wasn't quite sure how to make things come together locally. She discovered the website for the City of Toronto's new Live Green Community Animators Program and decided to give them a call. Enter Martina Rowley, one of the city's 11 community animators who have been on the job since last January.

"Martina knew about seven or eight people who were interested who I didn't know about," says Hargreaves. "I don't think we would have a group if we didn't have her. I work full-time. She organizes us, takes notes, gives us things to think about. It certainly would have taken a much longer time without her."

As an animator, Rowley acts as a cross between a cheerleader and a coach for residents of downtown and East York who have ideas for green projects but don't have the contacts or the organizational framework to get things rolling. When she's not attending community meetings, planning sessions and eco-fairs, she's making a lot of phone calls and emails, putting peers in touch with each other. Rowley collects information about who's doing what and where they're doing it, keeping on top of everything from tree-planting initiatives and fruit-harvesting projects to containing-gardening workshops and group buys of solar equipment.

"Sometimes community groups can feel like they're reinventing the wheel," says Rowley, who has a degree in environmental studies. She's met with more than 1,000 residents since she became an animator. "It's no fault of the groups. They just don't know that somebody in the ward right next to them is working on a similar project and might have done a lot of the groundwork already."

When it comes to environmental initiatives, city governments traditionally use a few key tools: legislation, program funding and the way it does business itself, like with recycling programs. With the Community Animators Program, the city is hoping that a little hand-holding will pay off in big ways, tapping into the abundance of freely available enthusiasm about green living. Part of the $10-million, five-year Live Green initiative, the city writes the cheque for the animators but doesn't run the program. For that, it depends on the three not-for-profit groups who won the contract. Citizens' Environment Watch (CEW) is the administrative lead, in charge of the hiring, tracking and reporting to the city. The Conservation Council of Ontario (CCO) manages the network and ties initiatives into a city-wide strategy. The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) is in charge of developing tools - like a video on how to set up a food-buying club - aimed at convincing residents that it's not so hard to be green.

"As community organizations, we're able to tap into the existing knowledge base," says Chris Winter, ED of the CCO. "It's also the perception that it's the community's own initiative, that it's the community helping itself."

A comparable city-run program in Montreal Eco-quartier has been operating since the mid-1990s, using offices scattered across the city as clearing houses for environmental information and municipal programs. Toronto's version is more intangible and decentralized. Its model, dependant on getting people talking together in a room, is based on a concept the CCO developed in the early 1990s, which is still in use today in some Ontario communities.

"It is extremely simple in design," says Winter. "It basically says, to organize a community, you need a coordinator, a steering committee and a network. And you need to have meetings to bring them together to create a vision, then you pull that together into a plan which you implement. That basic model can be done for no money, for $5,000 or $50,000, depending on how much time and support you want to put into the process."

What makes the Live Green project distinct, says Winter, is its flexibility. One group might be a hub for several groups while diverse groups might work together as a network or they might work independently with occasional input from an animator. Environmental projects can overlap with other goals: community gardens, for example, can make a neighbourhood greener as they promote healthy eating and food security. There are limits, though. Projects need to benefit the community, not just individual residents or businesses. Animators will help participants find existing sources of funding, but their main contributions are time and know-how, not cash. Politicized issues - like increasing the number of bike lanes or lobbying for electric trains instead of diesel for the Metrolinx expansion of Toronto's commuter rail service - are also taboo.

"We really focus on the positive," says Winter. "But once community groups have achieved some of their goals, if they've become green themselves, they may be more inclined to work on their own to push for policy changes."

In its first year, apathy has been the least of the program's worries. By the program's very nature, the animators cater to keeners who actively want to go green. The struggle has been managing people's expectations. In the case of Hargreaves's idea for a solar initiative, the fledgling group had talked about hosting a large-scale event to raise awareness about the benefits of solar power. With Rowley's advice, they decided instead to focus on a single but highly visible project - possibly a school or the lighting in Kew Gardens park - that would intrigue their neighbours into finding out more.

"When I'm meeting with people, I'll find myself telling them, 'You can do this, but maybe not the way you had in mind,'" says Rowley. "People get so excited that there's someone there to help them, we have to bridle their ideas a little bit."

Going into its second year, program manager Mike Peppard says they'll hire four more animators to focus on key projects that are starting to take shape. "We'll go from building the network to taking environmental action." By the time the program ends in 2013, participating groups will not only know who's doing what in the next ward over, they'll be prepared to do some cheerleading and coaching of their own.

Paul Gallant is a Toronto-based freelance writer who lives in the emerging Brockton Triangle neighbourhood.
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