Can a city block become a building block in Palo Alto's battle against climate change?
That's the question city officials hope to answer as part of a new experiment that the City Council approved Monday night. Developed by the Empowerment Institute and known as Cool Block, the program will aim to shift the behavior of residents on 30 city blocks through 112 "action recipes" -- everything from wearing warm clothes to cutting down on driving.
The program will be rolled out on 10 blocks initially and later expanded to 20 more. Each block will have a captain that will help facilitate the carbon-cutting efforts and help achieve a 25 percent reduction on greenhouse gas emissions.
Though the city will have a role in selecting blocks and spreading the program's message, Cool Block is expected to be primarily a "bottom-up" approach, shepherded by residents themselves. Even so, the council had an extensive discussion Monday about whether to participate, citing concerns about staff resources and the program's compatibility with existing neighborhood programs.
Several neighborhood leaders have offered their own criticisms of the proposed pilot program. Sheri Furman, who chairs the umbrella group Palo Alto Neighborhoods, wrote in a letter to the council that she is concerned that Cool Block's foray into disaster resiliency (one of the program's focus areas, along with sustainable lifestyle and "livable neighborhoods") is unnecessary because the topic is already covered by the existing Emergency Service Volunteers program. She also questioned the whole premise of the block-by-block approach.
"One thing I've learned over the years is that people identify more with 'affinity groups' than with those on their blocks be it sports, schools, creative interests and so on," Furman wrote.
Annette Glanckopf, a longtime leader in the Emergency Service Volunteers program, also raised concerns about duplicated efforts and insufficient coordination. She urged the council in a letter to "personalize" the program to Palo Alto and to add a chapter on volunteerism, including information about how residents can join the Emergency Service Volunteers program.
The council debated these concerns on Monday and received assurances from staff that the program would not consume more than 40 hours of staff time and that it would complement, rather than duplicate, existing efforts.
City Manager James Keene made a case for retaining the program's disaster-resiliency element, noting that the program could serve as a model for other cities across the nation and should not be scaled back based on existing local efforts.
"The whole idea here potentially is that if this works and the seed money is there and continues to flow, this could effect cities potentially across the country," Keene said. "I think we have a bit of a responsibility as a kind of a city we are to help pilot that."
Keene also lauded the program's focus on bringing neighbors together and said it would be worth seeing whether the city can do a better job in "building more on social connectiveness on a block level," particularly if doing so would help the city reduce carbon emissions.
"I have a bias to thinking that we want to get individuals and households involved as actively as possible on the climate change issue," Keene said.
Sandra Slater, a downtown resident who is spearheading the city's effort, called the program a "systems approach" to tackling climate change -- one that integrates city policies, business solutions and resident interests. Participants will be able to access a web portal where they can simply click on their area of interest -- whether it's water conservation or energy reduction -- and get instant information about city programs in this area.
Residents understand, Slater said, that there is a "sense of urgency on climate change and some of the issues we're facing not only on the planet but in California and Palo Alto." The pilot program will require the city's policy leadership, involvement from the tech center and, most importantly, residents, she said.
"It's the choices you and I -- we -- make every day in how we live our lives," Slater said.
The council ultimately agreed to endorse the program, which will feature nine neighborhood meetings in the 10 selected blocks between now and August. The second phase, with 20 additional blocks, would launch in the fall under the tentative schedule. Though some council members were initially hesitant, they were encouraged by Keene's insistence that the program would not require too much staff effort and by an endorsement from Ken Dueker, director of the city's Office of Emergency Services.
Vice Mayor Greg Scharff, who voiced concerns about the program sucking up staff time and diluting the message of existing emergency-preparedness programs, ended up making the motion to move ahead with the pilot program.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss said she was satisfied that all the community concerns have been addressed and likewise endorsed the program.
"As a city we are used to being in the lead. We're not used to being followers," Kniss said. "This is a good chance for us to be in the lead."
The Cool Block program may also prove to be a stepping stone to a broader citywide program known as Cool Cities. If Palo Alto opts to participate in the latter program and is selected to do so, it would be able to access close to $3 million over three years for its efforts to fight climate change. Under the current schedule, the Cool Cities program is slated to kick off in January 2018.