Project Neutral Toronto

The quest for a carbon neutral community in Toronto

Project Neutral is an initiative that's been put together by a small group of volunteers in the hopes of establishing the first carbon neutral neighbourhood in Canada. Led by members of the Emerging Leaders Network (which is affiliated with the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance), the current stage of the project involves a competitive process in which neighbourhood leaders apply for the opportunity to partner with the Project Neutral team in pursuit of carbon neutrality.

The application process is open until February 25, and despite the fact that the project hasn't received much press, two communities have already submitted proposals for consideration. That may sound like a rather modest number, but given the level of commitment that participation in the project will entail, I'd say that it's a decent start. As the project gets more attention -- as it surely will -- I'd be surprised if there weren't a few more proposals submitted.

Regan Smith, one of Project Neutral's co-chairs, told me a little bit about the process over the phone yesterday. Inspired by a similar initiative underway in the community of Eden Mills (just under an hour northwest of Toronto), her and her partners were eager to see if such an effort could be brought to an urban setting. Although a LEED building boom might be underway in the city, Smith tells me that "the challenge with this project is to see what we can do to improve the environment within the existing neighbourhood fabric."

When asked what criteria her group will use when selecting a potential partner, Smith explains, "we're looking for a neighbourhood that already has strong leadership. There has to be engagement. This isn't something that can be foisted upon people." It remains to be seen if even a community with strong leadership will be able to rally around a pursuit that involves such sacrifice, but there's no question that this has to be the starting point.

It strikes me that getting a whole neighbourhood on board to reduce its carbon footprint in a city as diverse as Toronto will pose a greater challenge than what faces community leaders in Eden Mills, the population of which is around 350. Perhaps in acknowledgment of this, the Project Neutral organizers are keeping the definition of what constitutes a neighbourhood fairly loose. "We're letting the applicants define what a neighbourhood is, but ideally the smallest size we'd work with would be a local delivery unit [LDU's are the last three digits of a postal code and generally account for a city block or so]. That's important from a tracking and data standpoint."

The organizers aren't closing the door on selecting two applicants just yet, but that'll depend on the strength of the submissions. Once a winner is declared, the Project Neutral staff will provide the community in question with a detailed survey that'll be used to establish its baseline energy and water usage (and, by extension, carbon footprint). After that, the plan is to provide individual members with reduction strategies and to monitor the results (ideally on a monthly basis, but more likely at quarterly intervals). Finally, once everyone is pitching in individually, community strategies -- like grant applications for funding to implement photovoltaics -- will be discussed.

Of course these last steps are still a long way off. But the project itself sounds fascinating, and like anything that's being undertaken for the first time, there's lots of potential for it to serve as a building block for other carbon reduction projects across the city. Stay tuned for an update on the project once a winner is selected and the process gets underway in earnest.

To take a look at the neighbourhood application form, follow this link.

Photo by hollypagnacco in the blogTO Flickr pool

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