23 Things You Can Do to Make Your Neighborhood Greener

published Apr 23, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
illustration of woman handing compost bin to another woman
Credit: Laura Hoerner
Credit: Apartment Therapy

Welcome to Green Week at Apartment Therapy! We’re giving you advice on how to reduce waste, make eco-friendly choices, and explore what natural living really looks like. Check out all of our Green Living content here, and remember—little steps go a long way, and as always, it’s the thought that counts.

Perhaps you’re environmentally conscious at home, composting food scraps like a pro and saving water with a low-flow shower head. If that sounds at all like you, you’re probably ready to take your environmental stewardship to the next level by helping your neighborhood become more green.

While social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may put community-wide efforts like trash pick-ups on hold for the time being, there are still plenty of ways you can promote a greener neighborhood from home. Here, 23 ways to make your community greener—with ideas you can act on now, and others you can plan for as our daily lives begin to rebound.

1. Advocate for neighborhood ‘distance signs’

It’s easy to overestimate how far one park is from another, or how far the riverwalk is from the local coffee shop, so we end up driving instead of walking or biking. 

“Posting signs that tell you how far—or how long—of a walk it is to the next cool place can increase walking rates,” says Allison Bishins, a small business consultant based in Tacoma, Wash., who runs an annual sustainability conference. “While professionally made signs are ideal, even handmade signs, window posters, or fence murals can help with wayfinding,” she says. 

You’ll likely need to get your local government involved if you want professional signs installed. Some recently went up on light poles in my own arts district neighborhood in Westminster, Colo., helping point people to the nearby commuter rail station, library, and art galleries. 

Credit: Brittany Anas

2. Turn your yard or balcony into a ‘Certified Natural Habitat’ 

Make your yard—or even your balcony’s garden—more hospitable to local wildlife, whether it’s with bees, butterflies, birds, or amphibians. Applicants seeking to create a “Certified Natural Habitat” can pay a $20 fee to the National Wildlife Federation, which helps fund some of the organization’s programs. Then, they’ll need to meet a set of requirements, like having a few different food sources available (things like berries, nuts, twigs, nectar) as well as clean water and a couple of places for wildlife to shelter. A certification is sent once the garden is approved.

3. Help get a Safe Routes to School program started

If you don’t already have one in your community, you could lobby your local government to create a Safe Routes to School Program, or to add more bike routes near your neighborhood, Bishins suggests. Nationally, about 10 to 14 percent of car trips during morning rush hour are for school travel, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Creating routes that are safe to bike or walk can help reduce air pollution when schools resume to their normal operating schedules.

4. Improve the ambiance of your neighborhood to encourage more walking

Think about ways that you can make walking even more enjoyable in your neighborhood, suggests Bishins. Again, you may need to loop in your local government before making some of these changes, but ideas could include planting more trees to provide shade, hanging cafe lights, painting cement retaining walls, or even installing Little Free Libraries. (Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Little Free Libraries are also a place where neighbors have been sharing canned goods). “All of these ideas improve the ambiance and walkability, reducing local greenhouse gas emissions,” Bishins says.

5. Start a community compost program

Maybe you’ve been composting in your own backyard and are now ready to expand your efforts. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has forums, workshops, and guides for those interested in running community composting programs. You could also take a page from Compost Now in New Orleans, where residents can drop frozen food scraps off at composting bins at the library. Local farms turn that food waste into nutrient-rich compost.

6. Join a community garden 

You might not have enough space for your very own backyard garden, but you can join (or even start) a local community garden—many of which are funded by a mix of donors, membership dues, grants, and city funds. With a plot of your own, you can harvest your own veggies, which means you’ll rely less on produce that’s traveling long distances—in plastic and cardboard containers—to your grocery store. The American Community Gardening Association has a search tool that’ll help you find a community garden near you, or you can submit information about your own garden project. 

7. Advocate for an agrihood

While community gardens have been around for decades, some companies are reshaping the way we think about them. A trend to root for: Apartments that offer gardens as an amenity. For instance, in California, a company called Farmscape builds “agrihoods” for renters, or neighborhoods with agriculture built into them. Their maintenance is paid for by the apartment owners. 

“It’s been helping renters avoid extra trips to the grocery store for, say, fresh herbs or the one lemon they need to round out a recipe,” says Lara Hermanson, co-founder of Farmscape. 

When social distancing isn’t in effect, the gardens are a fun way to build community with barbecues, “Iron Chef” style vegetable cooking competitions, and planting parties, Hermanson says. 

8. Or grow some veggies in your apartment

While you’re practicing social distancing, growing food at home can not only be great for the environment, but it will also save you trips to the grocery store and help flatten the curve, points out Beatrice Genco, a Triplemint agent in New York City who has taken up indoor gardening.

“What I’m seeing during COVID-19 is more and more apartment dwellers, myself included, are creating these produce ‘Victory Gardens’ inside their apartments instead of at community gardens,” Genco says. 

Most vegetables and herbs that you buy at the grocery store can actually be regrown, which in return lowers your carbon footprint, Genco points out. 

“If your apartment lacks natural sunlight, you can replace your light bulbs with full-spectrum light bulbs that mimic natural light, or you can purchase grow lights that have a timer,” she says.

Newbie indoor gardeners can also try a system like Gardyn to help grow fresh herbs, veggies, and fruits year round. Bonus points: You can share your harvest with your neighbors.

9. Join a CSA

Community Supported Agriculture is a way to get fresh produce directly from a local farm. A directory called Local Harvest allows you to find a CSA near your home.

10. Opt out of junk mail

Pay $2 and have your name removed from mailing lists. It may take a few months before the junk mail stops being delivered, but you’ll eventually be saving some trees. Separately, you can opt out of credit card solicitations. Encourage neighbors who are fed up with junk mail to do the same.

11. Set up recycling stations in your building 

If you live in an apartment building, consider setting up recycling stations where neighbors can drop off recyclables and a designated person can take the recyclables to the building’s main bin, suggests Jeremy Walters, a sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, a major recycling processor in the United States. “This could prove especially helpful for elderly or otherwise less mobile neighbors in your building,” Walters says. 

12. Post informational posters on community message boards

Posting infographics and posters on community message boards or even Nextdoor could be a great way to help educate your neighbors on some lesser-known recycling facts. For instance, Walters says, while pizza boxes are made of recyclable cardboard, once they are soiled with cheese grease, they’re no longer recyclable in many municipalities. You can find recycling labels for containers and other informational posters here. “Great places for information are near the mailboxes, elevators and stairs, and other high-traffic areas residents regularly visit,” Walters says. Of course, check your community’s guidelines before posting the signs.

13. Consider forming a neighborhood environmental committee

Talk with your neighbors to consider creating a building or neighborhood environmental committee, Walters says. You can brainstorm ways to make your community more sustainable in ways that require minimal effort, whether that’s using HOA funds to plant more trees or organizing clean-ups in nearby parks.

Credit: graja

14. Switch out your light bulbs

In your own home, switch out any incandescent bulbs for LED light bulbs, suggests Chelsea Harnish, executive director of the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council. Typically, energy-efficient bulbs use anywhere from 25 to 80 percent less energy than incandescents and can last three to 25 times longer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If you live in a co-op or apartment building, you can advocate that LED bulbs be used in shared spaces if they aren’t already. An analysis from the Consumer Federation of America found that a households using 20 lightbulbs could save $1,000 or more in a decade by using LED bulbs instead of incandescent or halogen bulbs. Just imagine what your building could save!

15. Cook on the right burner (or better yet, grill)

While you probably know to unplug energy vampires like your toaster and coffee maker when they’re not in use, have you paid much attention to which burners you’re using when you cook? With restaurants closed, people are cooking more at home. “It’s tempting to stick a pot of rice on the biggest burner because it heats up faster,” Harnish says. “But the excess heat from the stove will make the kitchen uncomfortable and use a lot more energy. More energy means more greenhouse gases and higher bills.” 

Grilling outside doesn’t require electricity or the air conditioning to cool down your kitchen and is a great option so long as there aren’t burn advisories in your area, Harnish says.

Once we’re socializing again, consider a barbecue (and encourage your guests to bring locally grown produce).

16. Use a grabber to pick up trash

When you’re out on your next walk, equip yourself with a trash grabber (you can find one for under $20) and collect garbage, suggestions Victoria Vajgrt, a professional home organizer. “They are easy to use and keep us safe from touching the items,” says Vajgrt, who picked up three large trash bags worth of discarded items in three days around her neighborhood.

17. Clean up your grass clippings

After you mow your lawn, sweep your sidewalk, driveway, and street. Otherwise, the clippings can end up polluting nearby lakes or streams.

18. Switch to an electric mower

Using a gas-powered mower contributes as much air pollution as a car driven for 45 miles, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Retire your gasoline mower and switch to an electric one or, if you have a small lawn, a push mower.

19. Join a carpool 

Whether it’s a rideshare to work or shuttling kids to sports practices, organizing a carpool can save you money and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The University of California Santa Barbara has a commuter calculator that will show you how much money you could save by carpooling. Or, you can find carpool buddies on apps like Waze Carpool, icarpool, or RideSharing.com

20. Adopt a road 

Programs vary by state, but through these adopt-a-road or highway programs you commit to picking up trash along a stretch of the roadway at least a few times a year. Ask your neighbors, friends, co-workers, or members of any clubs you belong to to join in.

21. Weatherstrip your doors

To keep your home cozy and your energy bills under control, weatherstrip your windows and doors. (Here’s a guide to DIY weatherstripping—offer to help a neighbor in your building once you’ve got it down pat). 

22. Support bulk refill shops 

When you’re out of household items like shampoo, soap, detergent, body lotion, sunscreen or something else, fill them back in up from bulk orders instead of buying new plastic containers, suggests Erica Dodds, environmental expert and eco-anxiety expert and COO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration nonprofit. If you don’t have the storage for bulk items, splitting them among your neighbors still cuts down on plastic.

23. Swap clothes with your neighbors or friends

Landfills receive 11.2 million tons of textile waste in a single year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency statistics from 2017. Instead of churning through fast fashion trends, try organizing a clothing swap with friends. “Having a Zoom clothing swap is a fun and easy way to spend your quarantined Friday night,” Dodds says.