My new local lifestyle is jelling. This past week was packed with #LocalYear activity. I have more to explore, but this new lifestyle is becoming a source of solace, connection, and tangible progress in these troubling times, especially when crises pile up and reveal deep, structural challenges like racism, violent policing, and inequality — issues that require long-term collective action with no guarantee of progress. These must be addressed, but they’re daunting challenges that will require much civic skill, confidence, and imagination to overcome.
In contrast is the challenge posed by our neighborhood sprinkler system. I’ve been working on it with a few neighbors over the last couple of months. It’s an old, neglected system that waters the tiny front yards and common areas of our neighborhood’s 57 condominiums. A too small team of tireless, dedicated volunteers have been managing it. They’ve done a good job, which the newbies on the team like me are grateful for. That gratitude has only grown as we’ve learned how much work it demands.
At the same time, casual observation suggested to us newcomers that the system was wasting water, maybe a lot. We also suspected this was contributing to high water and maintenance bills, never mind how we may have been contributing to environmental problems in what can be a very dry part of California.
As we’ve gotten deeper into it, we’ve learned that money can’t solve this problem. There’s nowhere near the budget available for a contractor to do all the repairs. We have to do it ourselves.
So a group of us are doing just that. The first step was to diagnose the system and learn how to program the four controllers that manage the watering schedule. After one afternoon of inspection, we found 16 broken sprinkler heads. These leak an estimated 13 gallons a minute when the sprinklers are on. We wondered why so many heads were broken. One reason is that we were running the system in the middle of the night. There’s been no opportunity for neighbors to see and report broken heads. Another reason — squirrels. They chew the heads off.
We also learned we’re over watering the shaded areas in our complex, which is most of the complex. We changed the watering schedule taking these observations into account, which we estimate will reduce water usage by over 50 percent.
That’s not the end of possible savings. By capping redundant sprinkler heads and replacing broken heads with more durable ones, we can reduce our water usage and maintenance bill even further. We’re also running the sprinklers during waking hours so that there’s more eyes on the system, which will help us identify and fix broken heads more quickly.
These challenges have been developing under our noses for at least a decade. So you might be asking, why didn’t we do this sooner? I asked that question of myself. The answer is simple — I wasn’t paying attention. Instead of getting more involved in what was happening in my neighborhood, I just grumbled to myself every time our neighborhood association bill went up. Shame on me.
Still, it feels good to work on such a tangible challenge and get satisfying results after a couple of months. It reminds me that good results are possible with steady, collective effort. And it’s better late than never.
Along with sprinkler system work this past week, I did a bunch of work in our community garden plot including fixing a broken faucet, watering, weeding, and pruning. I also delivered donated food and packed food for a few hours last Sunday with the nonprofit Reach Potential Movement, which is feeding 300 families living in vehicles nearby.
My neighbors and I also held a goods swap and started a spreadsheet-based tool library. These weren’t even my ideas! I’ve actually held off on suggesting more sharing. I didn’t want to push my agenda too hard at the start of this new engagement with my neighbors. I figured I’d find the opportune moments along the way. No need, my neighbors jumped right in themselves! The urge to share seems to have emerged organically along with other civic activities.
I also got a notification that our neighborhood Slack group has exchanged over 2,000 messages since we started it three months ago. That’s amazing. There’s never been so much contact between my neighbors in the 10 plus years I’ve lived here. It shows there was a big, latent desire for connection. I just tapped it with my Cool Block project. Once it flowed, I only needed to let activity unfold and join in.
The worldwide protests against violent, racist policing also sparked a Slack discussion about policing in our town. I learned that Mountain View’s police department might not measure up, so I wrote a letter to our city council demanding reform ahead of a city council meeting on the topic. I included some language from the #8CANTWAIT campaign, but also indicated I wanted deeper reform including less police power in city government. Of course, getting change will require so much more than this, but it’s a step in the right direction I hadn’t thought to take before.
My experiences this past week have helped me see a connection between smaller, more manageable neighborhood challenges and the more daunting, societal scale ones. I see neighborhood work as a gym to build up our civic muscles. We’re learning to make progress together at the neighborhood scale, which can help us build the skill, confidence, and imagination needed to make progress on tougher, bigger challenges. And just like our sprinkler system, money can’t solve the bigger challenges. We have to come together, learn together, and do it ourselves.
This post is part of Neal Gorenflo’s year long experiment on living locally (#LocalYear). Follow his journey by reading the other posts in his series.