During spring 2016 and summer 2017, two pilot sessions of the Cool Block program were held in which teams of five to eight households on various Palo Alto neighborhood blocks met and covered topics including energy conservation; emergency preparation; water reduction; what people want in their neighborhood, such as to remove blight, add a community garden or calm traffic; and what it means to engage in civic life.
Participants then committed to taking specific actions in those areas and tracked their progress through a website built by the Empowerment Institute, which contained resources to help them achieve their goals. The first pilot had 15 households; the second pilot involved 175 households on 24 blocks and lasted 4.5 months.
The pilots resulted in households on average reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by 32 percent and their carbon output by 7 tons. Each household on average engaged in nine disaster-preparedness actions, among other outcomes, according to the Empowerment Institute. Neither pilot cost the city money.
Numerous letters sent to the City Council participants in the pilot programs stated that Cool Block achieved something other city and neighborhood programs have not: getting residents to team up to make meaningful change in their neighborhoods and helping them to feel like they are part of a community again.
"This is a wonderful program that inspires, and it builds bridges," said Shannon Rose McEntee, a Sheridan Avenue resident.
Her neighborhood of mostly apartments and condominiums doesn't have a neighborhood association.
"We have nothing that brings us together," she said, noting that even people passing in the hallways of her 55-unit condominium complex often don't say hello.
But the program gave neighbors of different backgrounds common ground. Her team included people originally from South Korea, China and India, she said.
Another participant, Lee Birdsey, now bikes whenever she can, and she and her husband only put their garbage can out once a month because everything else is recycled, she wrote in an email to the council. They have supplies for a disaster, and they now know who their neighbors are who might need extra help.
"It really feels like a safe and warm place to live again after this program," she wrote.
As envisioned, the program would expand to a four-year project in several phases. Phase I would target 30 blocks and would be completed by the end of this year. The cost would be $200,000, of which the city would contribute $100,000 plus staff time. The Empowerment Institute would match the city funds with up to $100,000 in services.
The as-yet-unfunded Phase II would scale up to 350 or more blocks — about 25 percent of all the city's blocks, according to the proposed contract.
Sandra Slater, Cool Block volunteer program manager for Palo Alto, said most of Institute's contributed services would involve customized web development for Palo Alto, data gathering, maintenance on the existing web service, e-newsletters, program marketing, recruitment, online tracking and coaching. So far, the Institute has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the web programming for the pilot program, for which the city was not charged.
But some Palo Altans are questioning the proposed $100,000 city expenditure, calling for greater accountability and a clear vision of the program's cost for all phases — not just the first.
Palo Alto Neighborhoods, which represents 33 neighborhoods and three affiliates, asked the council in a March 2 letter to remove the Cool Block funding request and contract from the agenda. The organization wants public discussion on the merits of the investment, co-chairs Sheri Furman and Rebecca Sanders wrote.
"The proposed work for $100,000 would target just 30 blocks or household groups. The cost per block/group seems extremely high and is not explained. Could we ever afford to replicate this across the approximately 1,400 such blocks/groups in Palo Alto?" they wrote.
The group also raised questions about the completeness of the pilot data and how it is tracked. They noted that of the 175 households, only 97 had reported their results.
Palo Alto Neighborhoods also said the proposal overlooks other city programs, such as its Zero Waste program and an extensive and well-organized volunteer emergency-preparedness team, which are integrated with the city staff. There is no analysis in the staff report of how Cool Block overlaps with other city efforts on energy and waste reduction, they noted.
But Slater said in a phone interview that the Cool Block program isn't reinventing the wheel; it leverages existing programs, bringing in city staff to inform and recruit residents and spreading information about existing incentives. It interests whole neighborhoods in city programs such as the Emergency Services Volunteers and its Healthy Cities, Healthy Community resolution, she said.
When people are part of a group — and accountable to each other — they are more apt to learn about and spread ideas, she said.
Other participants in Cool Block point to the value of teaching sustainability and argued that every penny will be well spent because the city will save money in the long run as people reduce their waste and carbon-dioxide output.
Slater told the council that the city faces an "existential risk" because of climate change. John Kelley, who was one of the original block leaders in the early pilot program, agreed.
"If you delay, if you dither ... you could miss the opportunity to address the single-most important issue of our time," he said.
A longer version of this article is posted on PaloAltoOnline.com.
This story contains 992 words.
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