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Building a Sustainable Garden State, One Community at a Time

Sustainable Jersey doesn't stop at 'green,' but includes health and wellness, diversity, and economic development

Galloway Township Community Garden
Galloway Township developed its community garden as part of a statewide sustainability initiative.

Sustainable Jersey isn't looking to save the planet, just a small corner of it -- at least for now.

The nonpartisan nonprofit, according to its website, "is a certification program for New Jersey municipalities that want to go green, save money and take steps to sustain their quality of life over the long term."

Participating towns and cities earn points toward certification for accomplishing a variety of goals -- priority and mandatory "actions" -- that increase their sustainability. These could include performing an energy audit on a municipal building (20 points); inventorying and upgrading the energy efficiency of those buildings (50 points); and establishing and enforcing an anti-idling mandate (10 points).

There are two levels of certification: bronze (150 points ) and silver (350 points). A gold program is in the works.

Sustainable Jersey has just certified 52 more bronze municipalities, bringing the total for that category to 117. Twenty towns have earned silver certification. A total of 399 towns are participating in the program, representing about half the state’s municipalities and nearly three-quarters of its population. (An interactive map on the program's website makes it clear just how dense its coverage is.)

The program’s success is based in part on cash-strapped municipalities saving money on expenditures like energy bills or landfill fees, but is really based on a growing recognition that community action can play a key role in creating a more sustainable world for future generations, participants said.

“For the most part, people are looking at ways to do the right thing for the environment,” said Dominikija Prostak, head of the “Green Team” – a panel that steers sustainable policy – in Frenchtown, which received a bronze certification at an awards ceremony in Atlantic City on November 19.

Grants are often available from public and private groups to pay for work like energy audits. Funders include Sustainable Jersey itself which this year supported local programs with grants of $2,000 to $25,000, totaling $600,000. Sources of other grants, loans, and tax credits are listed on the organization’s website.

Sustainable Jersey makes it clear that sustainability is also about issues like health and wellness, diversity and social inclusion, and economic development.

“When we talk about sustainability, we talk about people, prosperity and planet,” said co-founder Donna Drewes. “It’s not just environmental issues.”

Towns don’t have to pay Sustainable Jersey to participate, but signing on requires a significant investment of citizens’ time and effort to meet rigorous sustainability standards that are set by a task force of state agencies, nonprofits, universities, and local officials.

Any municipality seeking certification is required first to pass a resolution stating its intent to embark on the program. It must also designate a liaison person; complete an online registration; select the actions that will earn their certification, and create a Green Team to manage the process.

Participating communities can choose from 16 categories of action, from animals in the community to green design to sustainability planning, all explained in detail on the organization’s website.

Those interested in climate mitigation and adaptation, for example, can opt to create a community carbon footprint, for which they may be able to obtain funding, and which will earn them 10 points.

Or they can build a community garden, a project that Sustainable Jersey says is likely to take six to nine months to develop and cost between $1,500 and $15,000 but will earn just 10 points towards the 150 that are required for bronze certification.

In a sign of the rigorous nature of the certification requirements, towns are warned that a community garden project will also require the designation of a responsible person; a team to do the work, and money to pay for insurance, tools, and possibly the salary of a part-time gardener.

Those interested in transportation issues may decide to create a “complete streets” program, worth 20 points, which recognizes pedestrians and bicyclists as legitimate road users as well as cars.

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