As kids, my friends and I played time travel by hopping on our bikes and pedalling 9 miles through Scarborough farmland to a field a few hundred yards south of a country town called Markham.
Transported back to pioneer days, we built a fire beside a brook flowing through the field, cooked our cans of beans and then biked back home – with our own boyish sense of what it meant to have the wind at our backs.
Today’s Markham – an affluent and multicultural city of 300,000, but still close to farmland – is going back to the future, and is well on its way to becoming Canada’s first post-?exurban eco-?city. Name pretty much any program that defines the new urban enviro stewardship – zero waste, energy conservation, farmland preservation – and Markham is well ahead of the pack, often number one in Ontario or Canada.
In June, the city becomes the first in North America to steer its food services toward local, sustainable and fair trade purchases. In year one, 10 per cent of food purchases will be Local Food Plus-certified, with an increase of 5 per cent every year after. What’s Markham’s secret of success? In a word, champions. In my 20 years of green economy activism, I’ve found that wherever there’s a congregation supporting tap water over bottled water, a union local sponsoring a green project in a developing country, a business that’s reducing energy use, there’s always a champion who made it happen.
Such things don’t happen just because they’re the right things to do. Old habits, momentum and improperly understood interests serve an easily organized minority, while the benefits of change are spread evenly and thinly over the many.
So no champion means no go: Roberts Rule of Reorder.
Enter Erin Shapero, a Markham councillor, who became the youngest city councilor in Ontario seven years ago when she won her seat after finishing university and a year’s stint as a campaigner to save the Rouge and Oak Ridges Moraine.
To prepare for my interview and figure out how to unpack the word “champion,” I read Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive And Others Die. Their recipe for making ideas stick is simple: success goes to health and environmental campaigners who make their message and delivery simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and storied – SUCCES, they call it.
Soft-spoken, quick to chuckle, Shapero may have the ideas in this book encoded in her DNA. So study up, greens. Long-time chair of Markham’s green procurement strategy, Shapero knows the simplest idea that can leverage large-scale economic and eco change: use your buying power to express your values.
When the contract for Markham’s food catering operations came up, Shapero’s committee decided to hire someone who would implement its waste management, clean air, fair trade and farmland preservation policies. “It’s ridiculous to see farmers in the area who need support and not wrap our heads around a future where food is part of self-reliant, self-sustaining communities,” she says.
The next SUCCES trick is to catch the public’s attention with something unusual. Shapero’s proposal to link clean air to city purchasing policy accomplished that. For example, a contract for snow-clearing had to specify the amount of energy that would be used.
“I told finance staff how I use my purchasing power to support what I believe in. They saw there are alternatives,” she says. The existence of alternatives, alas, is the most unusual idea of our times.
Make it concrete, the book says. What could be more concrete than turning abstract policy into specific buying decisions, for everything from T-?shirts to snowplows?
Credibility was accomplished when goals for waste and pollution reduction were set by the city.
Then comes emotion, which greens fret about appealing to, lest they be thought wimps, flakes and right-brainers. When Markham finance officials toured one of University of Toronto’s local and sustainable kitchens, one drank the Harmony milk.
“It took him back to his childhood in India,” she says, and “he became the agent of change among staff.”
Last comes story, which Shapero and Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti got from touring a nearby Local Food Plus?certified farm, that of Denise and Dennis Harrison. When the mayor announced his city plan to spontaneous applause at a June 4 municipal clean air conference in Toronto, he stressed his farm visit.
“I can tell you how impressed I was,’’ he said. No analysis matches seeing the story in the flesh.
With a little luck and a lot of champions, there will be many more such success stories to come.
Wayne Roberts is married to the founder of Local Food Plus.