If you ask the residents of Eden Mills how they became 75 per cent carbon neutral, they will tell you: ‘we’re part of the problem and we have got to be a part of the solution.’
And that one statement of unity is what resonated with the residents of Eden Mills says architect Charles Simon, who initiated the carbon neutral project for Eden Mills in 2007 to reach complete carbon neutrality in the near future.
But how did this all come about?
Simon says it all started when he heard a radio program about a village in England named Ashton Hayes that was attempting to become carbon neutral and so he went to visit the village along with his wife in 2007.
When they returned that year, they expressed their interest of going carbon neutral to their neighbours in the village who are already mostly environmentalists, including board member of the community club, Barbara Marshall.
“And she had got out an email saying wouldn't it be great if this village - and it sounded ridiculously ambitious - was the centre of environmental excellence?” says Simon.
“At that time it seemed a little far fetched. The interesting thing is now that we’ve adopted it, we kind of become known as the centre of environmentalism.”
Simon says the idea appealed to him as an architect and urban planner because he hears a lot about greenwashing, people making high claims and a lot of the time that's all it is. Just claims.
“It's not measured. When you really look at it, everybody wants to be on the side of the environment," says Simon.
"What I liked about this idea was it was something you can measure and it was extremely ambitious.”
And so it began. Simon and a few friends would go door to door and hand out detailed annual surveys to measure the CO2 emissions of every household that is emitted through general energy use such as heating, cooling, driving, electricity use, propane and oil use.
The total results of the village were then analyzed by University of Guelph students.
And the result Simon says was staggering: 4,600 tons of C02 was emitted that year in 2007.
So the village immediately began numerous workshops to teach residents methods on how to lower their carbon emissions.
“The process of running the workshops meant we would educate people and it tends to bring in people who can do things,” says Simon.
An example is resident Linda Hendry who built her home from the ground up with her husband Les Zawadzki with the help of some workshops. She says greener technologies not only protect the climate, but they also save money and given the strong community spirit of Eden Mills, it also opens doors for some helping hands.
“When we had the second-floor walls going up, anybody with a good back showed up and we put up walls and had a beer,” says Hendry.
The village also came together for brown construction projects where they used straw bails to insulate homes, a powerful, cheap and environmentally safe method of insulation.
Simon says all this progress comes down to three progressive steps.
First is just try to use less energy. Second, as you can, replace the energy using fossil fuel with renewable non-polluting fuel. Third is to absorb as much CO2 through trees as is emitted in the atmosphere.
The community continued to start with small steps such as creating a trail between school and the village so kids could cycle and walk.
Then it grew to tasks like renovating the community hall by a group of volunteers, residents and contractors who insulated the hall, made it airtight, put in energy-efficient windows, insulated doors and added heat pumps to replace propane tanks.
And as a result, the community hall is now 96 per cent carbon neutral and the village as a whole is 75 per cent carbon neutral.
Simon says the village was lucky because of the close proximity to the U of G which offered help from professors studying forestry who detailed how trees can lower emissions.
An entire student group used aerial photographs of trees and studied the roots and soil around them to study how much CO2 the trees hold. The students found that 50 per cent of the CO2 Eden Mills emitted was being absorbed by the trees.
And since then 40,000 new trees have been planted.
Simon recalls how a bus driver once heard children discussing carbon emissions and proposed he would encourage the school board to plant enough trees to offset the emissions of that bus.
“That to me is the really inspiring part of the story,” says Simon about the outreach.
One thing that Eden Mills made very clear since the beginning is that they are not a part of a political entity and while they are happy with the political support they receive from the mayor of the Township of Guelph/Eramosa Chris White and the Township Council, they want absolute freedom on how to manage their own project.
With residents booking concerts and events to fundraise for the hall, Simon says they’re lucky they have all this talent with engineer Richard Lay offering his expertise and Les Zawadzki introducing construction skills.
And while the township and the community club co-own the hall, it's virtually free for them.
“We totally run it. It’s the only community hall in the whole township that cost the township nothing,” says Simon.
Hendry says the driving force behind all this productivity is the community hall that brings everyone together.
“We have to work together to keep it going. We volunteer together,” says Hendry.
“We feel a sense of ownership in our community.”
Simon says the spirit of the community goes way beyond environmentalism.
“There's a whole history in this community of people being involved,” says Simon.
Ultimately he says “it's not so much about how close we are to our goal but the fact that we're even able to do this much is a lot."