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IMPLEMENTING AN ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION PROGRAM FOR RESIDENTIAL COMMUNITIES

 

In “green” communities, one of the primary issues is whether the local residents, over the long term, will understand and take local action to conserve natural resources as originally intended by the developer. Decisions made by homeowners ultimately determine whether a community functions as a “green” community. For example, people determine which light bulbs to purchase, what types of vegetation to plant (e.g., exotics vs. natives), how much water to use, and whether to ameliorate their yards for wildlife. Impacts to the biological integrity of a residential community and how resource efficient it is depends on everyday actions of local homeowners.

Currently, we are implementing this residential environmental education program in several communities in Florida. Full-color exterior graphic panels are being developed and placed into a durable kiosk. To date, we have 28 full-color panels that cover seven themes: Water, Energy, Wildlife, Environmental Landscaping, Insects/Pollinators, Lakes, and Natural/Human History. These kiosks with educational panels are formatted to be easily adapted for new neighborhoods or retrofit established neighborhoods (see example at http://www.wec.ufl.edu/extension/gc/harmony/documents/wildsidewalk.pdf). One idea is have panels that highlight a local “green” yard and home and showcase practices, creating a communication pathway with a local environmental steward.

Past and Ongoing Projects

Town of Harmony: I have partnered with the Harmony Institute and the developers (Birchwood Acres Limited Partnership) of an 11,000 acre planned unit development in Osceola County. As the wildlife consultant on the project, I serve as a scientist on two boards: the Harmony Institute Community Advisory Board (HICAB), which is an interdisciplinary team of scientists from around the U.S. and the Harmony Habitat Management Planning team, which is a team of wildlife biologists and environmentalists that are providing review on a habitat management plan being produced by Breedlove, Dennis & Associates, Inc. The overall goal of this Town of Harmony project is to create and research this “green development model” that could ultimately serve as an example for future sustainable development in the state of Florida. Through many phone calls, multi-day workshops, and site visits, I have reviewed the planned development and made suggestions about wildlife habitat preservation and management of wildlife. Activities include:

  1. writing and editing (with the National Humane Society) a Town of Harmony Homeowner Covenants and Restrictions regarding environmental and wildlife issues,
  2. helped the landscape architects to select wildlife-friendly plants as part of their landscaping palette,
  3. leading an effort to create a long-term environmental education program at Harmony that includes signs, web sites, and a brochure (obtained $20,000 from Birchwood to develop a unique, dynamic sign kiosk and panels).

Madera community: I have partnered with Greentrust LLC in creating a green residential community on a 44-acre plot in Gainesville, FL. Again, through phone calls and site visits, I helped the developer to preserve wildlife habitat on site and I am leading a team to create a long-term environmental education program that addresses natural resource issues within the community. I also helped write a covenant and restriction document regarding wildlife during building and construction. Also, as a Co-PI on a grant from the St. John’s Water Management District, I am consulting with a landscape architect to create a model lot-level landscape that addresses water, wildlife, and energy conservation. Again, the goal of this project is to create and study the different strategies developers can use to design and manage a functioning green community.

Residential-based environmental education program: This environmental education program has three interconnected parts that address the long-term ability for homeowners to conserve and protect natural resources within a community. The three parts are dynamic signs, an interactive Web site, and a homeowner’s move-in packet that addresses natural resource issues. My graduate students and I have engineered the dynamic signs to allow homeowners to replace panels that cover different environmental topics; the Web site contains detailed information about the topics covered on the signs and contains a bird-monitoring program; and the move-in packet is a brochure. I conducted two focus groups, in 2001 and 2002, with homeowners and environmental specialists to help guide the types of environmental information that people would like to see on the signs. 

To date, we have built (with SignMasters, Gainesville) one prototype sign that is acceptable to developers and allows panels to be easily changed out by the homeowner association as environmental issues change throughout the year. Seven signs are currently placed at the Town of Harmony and four signs are planned for the Madera Community. These signs are placed along walking trails and sidewalks within the communities. Each sign covers an environmental topic, such as wildlife, energy, water, and environmental horticulture. Currently, we have created 30 panels.

As part of the research on the impacts of such a program, I sent out (March 2004) a homeowner pre-test survey was delivered to both Harmony and a nearby control community. Post-surveys were conducted in 2005 to evaluate the impact of the program. Significant impacts were found on some behaviors and knowledge and an article was published (Applied Environmental Education & Communication 7(3):114-124). In addition, a graduate student (Kara Youngentob) and I published a comparative study on attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors of Gainesville homeowners in a green development, a pre-world war II development, and a random draw of conventional developments (Environment and Behavior 37: 731-759). With a 48% response rate, results indicate that the “green” community did have the best sense of community but scored much lower in terms of environmental attitudes, knowledge, and behavior. These results indicate that people living in “green” communities need long-term educational programs to promote a functioning community that conserves and appreciates natural resources.