Sustainable Sonoma Campaign
Herding cats to make Sonoma truly sustainable.
Story Don Frances
Photos Steven Krause
Caitlin Cornwall and her colleagues at Sonoma Ecology Center had worked for decades on trying to achieve environmental sustainability in
Sonoma Valley. But then, about four years ago, they came to a realization: It can’t just be about the environment.
True sustainability, it turns out, is a three-legged stool. Without economic and social sustainability to hold it up, even the most perfectly conceived plan for a green Sonoma Valley will topple.
So they tried a different approach. Since sustainability requires an effort across all sectors, and since the Valley is filled to bursting with well-meaning organizations and well-heeled philanthropists, and since it seems everybody wants roughly the same thing but has their own ideas on how to get there, why not bring all parties to the table with a common goal? Why not get everyone working together on sustainability—comprehensive, robust, three-legged sustainability—in
And so Sustainable Sonoma came to be.
“Different organizations in the Valley tend to sort themselves into their different sectors,” Cornwall says. “Who they are publicly tends to be business-oriented, or environment-oriented, or justice-oriented.” In aligning those efforts, “We’re looking for that sweet spot where the economy is thriving and looks like it will into the future, the people are thriving and look like they will into the future, the natural environment is thriving and looks like it will into the future.”
This three-legged-stool model for sustainability isn’t a totally new concept. In the business world the phrase “triple bottom line,” used to describe a more comprehensive accounting of resources, has been around since the mid-1990s. It’s sometimes called “the three P’s”—people, planet, profit—or “the three E’s”—economy, environment, equity—although Sustainable Sonoma changed that last bit to make it economy, environment, everyone. But whatever you call it, the idea has been expressed for several years, often with a Venn diagram nearby.
What is new, to Sonoma Valley at least, is the idea of constructing, on a local level, a way to incorporate this concept into every aspect of society. Get everybody on the same page, and moving in the same direction, toward sustainability. It may be, quite literally, our only chance.
Many locals first caught wind of Sustainable Sonoma through a jarring report issued by Sonoma Valley Fund in 2017. “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which analyzed Sonoma Valley’s nonprofit system, found that even though its philanthropy and charitable efforts are strong, the system nevertheless will be overwhelmed sooner or later by the Valley’s “lack of adequate and affordable housing, increasing poverty, the rapid rise of our senior population, and the environmental pressures created by population growth.”
Despite that grim assessment, the report contained some bright spots, including a notion for how to make the Valley’s charitable sector more effective. Noting that “challenging issues remain challenging because no single organization has responsibility for them,” it called on nonprofits to make a “collective impact” by identifying common goals and working toward them together, rather than separately. And it added: “Sonoma Valley is fortunate that a group of leaders has been slowly laying the groundwork for just such an effort with the aim ‘to make Sonoma Valley more healthy, thriving, equitable, and sustainable by 2030.’ The effort is called ‘Sustainable Sonoma.’”
By then, a core group of partners, among them Sonoma Ecology Center, La Luz, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Sonoma Valley Health Roundtable, had already begun forming Sustainable Sonoma and were actively recruiting more partners. But even as it coalesced, outside forces—an elemental force, really—pushed it together faster than expected.
The wildfires of October 2017 raged across Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley, burning more than a quarter of the Valley’s land, destroying dozens of homes, and costing the local economy millions. Suddenly, the worst-case scenario was now—and Sustainable Sonoma decided to respond, holding its first council ahead of schedule on October 27 so that members could address, together, the new reality.
“The fires really galvanized our thinking,” says Tom Conlon, a longtime Sonoma environmentalist active in Sierra Club, the Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley, Transition Sonoma Valley, and more. “I think the first Sustainable Sonoma meeting I was invited to was the one right after the fires…It was a unique moment in time.” Conlon was inspired by what he saw. “Forged in that crucible, we started working toward what had been the vision of the Ecology Center.”
Since that first meeting, Sustainable Sonoma has grown to over 30 partner organizations representing all walks of life in Sonoma Valley. It describes itself not as a group or organization but as a “forum”—a means by which disparate community interests can align their thinking, goals and actions. That includes business interests, government agencies, health care providers, educators, first responders, nonprofits dedicated to the environment or social justice, and more, all coming together to “take action on solutions to our community’s biggest challenges.”
Herding all those cats can be an arduous task. Different sectors have different priorities, values, motives, and jargon. But as it turns out, “When you ask people to think about the future of the Valley that they hope for, there’s an amazing amount of agreement,” Cornwall says. “That common ground is what we’re building the whole edifice on.” They are counting on the shared attachment to this place, to Sonoma Valley.
Last year, Sustainable Sonoma carried out a survey to find out what its first big challenge should be, asking the public: “What’s most important to you about the future of Sonoma Valley?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opinion expressed most often was more affordable housing.
“Different sectors have really different reasons to want housing to be affordable,” Cornwall says. Business interests want it for their employees; environmentalists want to reduce commuting and energy use; educators want local kids to have housing security so they can learn. “So these people don’t have agreement about why they care about the issue,” Cornwall says, adding it can be “very difficult to set those differences aside.”
A primary way to deal with those differences, at least at first, has been fact-finding and information sharing, often through free community forums. These can be illuminating. At a May 14 “Learning Lab”—one of a series Sustainable Sonoma has organized for Valley residents to learn about, and make their opinions known about, the housing conundrum—a variety of people weighed in on how it has affected their own interest group, revealing factors others may not have known about. (These Learning Labs for Valley residents are apart from but complementary to the Town Hall housing forums being organized by the City of Sonoma for its residents.)
“We employ roughly 50 employees full-time,” Jim Comisky, administrative battalion chief of Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority, said at the May 14 meeting. “Of the 50, only 15 can afford to live in the Valley…The vast majority live in the foothills and Sacramento Valley. That’s a long commute.”
It is, and that long commute means more greenhouse gas as the firefighters drive to and from work, week after week and year after year. It also means, according to Cominsky, that “It’s making it more difficult for us to keep connected with the community,” and that “recruitment and retention is an issue for us.” To make matters worse, “After the fires of ’17, we had several firefighters lose their houses…so we’re seeing that fabric fade away.” As a result, call volume and response times are both going up, he said, making the Valley less safe for residents despite the first responders’ best efforts.
And that’s just one sector.
So far, Sustainable Sonoma’s partners have been educating themselves and the community on the housing issue, sharing concerns and developing a housing declaration that states: “We, the undersigned, pledge to work together, across boundaries, to increase, improve and preserve housing that is affordable, for people who live or work in the Valley, within already developed areas, to create diverse, safe, complete neighborhoods.” It is signed by 27 members. Presumably, the knowledge and influence of those signees—Sonoma Police, Sonoma Chamber, Rebuild Northbay, Regional Parks, and the rest—will be useful when it comes time to crafting future housing policy.
Despite being founded by environmentalists, many of Sustainable Sonoma’s strongest critics are also environmentalists, who worry that it isn’t moving fast enough and that its advocacy could ultimately be watered down by powerful or wealthy interests.
“The jury is out on whether it’s going to be successful,” says Conlon, who is concerned Sustainable Sonoma could turn into “another well-intentioned board of directors that is out of touch with the real needs of the community.” That hasn’t happened yet, though. “I actually do think they’ve been doing a very good job,” he adds. “I’m critical, but I don’t think it’s easy.”
Recently, one of Sonoma’s most visible environmental advocates, Teri Shore, North Bay regional director of the Greenbelt Alliance, left Sustainable Sonoma because, as Cornwall describes it, the activist in her felt it was moving too slowly.
“Caitlin is right,” Shore says when asked about her departure. “I’m working on several key housing and greenbelt issues, including the renewal of the City of Sonoma Urban Growth Boundary and housing policy decisions being made now.” By contrast, she says, “Sustainable Sonoma is still forming and learning housing basics that Greenbelt Alliance has decades of experience and success with.”
Sustainable Sonoma hopes to obtain its own experience and success in the years to come. In the meantime, it will continue its slow and patient course, making sure all parties are moving in the same direction. Sonoma Ecology Center remains its fiscal sponsor, for now (the group plans to spin it off into its own entity at some point), but it’s the Sustainable Sonoma leadership council alone that decides what issues to work on and what positions to take.
Cornwall likens her current role to that of a chorus leader—not picking the songs, just trying to get everyone to sing harmoniously and productively.
“We have a super active community here,” she says. Ideal, perhaps, for addressing “systemic challenges that call for all hands on deck.”
Don Frances is both a freelance journalist and an employee of Sonoma Ecology Center, although he doesn’t work specifically on Sustainable Sonoma. This article was written as a freelance assignment for Valley of the Moon magazine, and its content was guided and approved by the magazine, not SEC.