Can a Small Town Make a Difference?

Nov. 15, 2019In the fight against climate change, the cities at the forefront are just that, cities. New York, Paris, London – major metropolises fighting the good fight to better the planet and its inhabitants, using their might as destinations of the world, bold names in bright lights, to sway and influence the public and major corporations.



Small towns it seems – on the surface at least – are about as influential as a single person, a drop of water in the sea. With more and more people moving away from small-town life in favor of big city convenience and accessibility, it’s easy to be skeptical of how truly impactful a small town could be when it comes to climate change and green initiatives. But one look at Breckenridge, Colorado, and you may change your tune – in fact, you may find yourself furiously researching the cost of living and real estate. 

With a population of just over 5,000 year-round residents, Breckenridge may bring to mind visions of snowy peaks and bluebird days spent skiing or snowboarding the slopes of Breckenridge ski resort. In fact, a quick search of notable Breckenridge residents results in a robust list of Olympians, athletes, naturalists, and activists.

Breckenridge is an old mining town that now depends on the outdoors and the gorgeous landscape that serves as its backdrop for its economy. Like so many small towns in the United States, and the world – what would happen if those natural resources suddenly went away? It’s an unfortunate truth that those very resources are at stake when it comes to our warming climate, but rather than allow themselves to be casualties of climate change, the town of Breckenridge is taking action – dramatic action – and setting an example that many towns and cities could stand to adopt. In fact, the residents hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors that come to this year-round destination are exposed to their sustainable way of life, or should we say, quality of life.

Meet SustainableBreck.

Unveiled in 2011, SustainableBreck is an action plan with goals laid out for environmental, social and economic sustainability with goals that fall under 10 categories: 

  • Local economy
  • Land use
  • Resource conservation
  • Transportation
  • Water
  • Childcare
  • Housing
  • Forest health
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreation and open space use

Instead of working year by year, the town looked ahead to 2030 and estimated how the community could evolve in the years spanning then and, well then. The town of Breckenridge then went on to host several public meetings to collect the town’s input, and a task force was created. Instead of focusing on one area where sustainability could be improved, the task force took a holistic, 360 approach with several goals, including a 100% renewable energy commitment for 2025 for town facilities and 2035 for town-wide generation. 

Since its inception in 2011, the people behind SustainableBreck (which would be, it seems, the entire community) is well on their way to reaching their goals, including increased use of public transit, a new water plant, increased protections for public lands, and more public outdoor space. Of course, in a plan this ambitious, not everything is a straight path. In publishing their annual reports, SustainableBreck makes their wins and occasional losses readily available and to the public. This may seem like a small piece of a much larger puzzle, but by making these reports transparent to the people living in the community they are working to improve, it encourages participation from everyone. By creating a culture of “we’re all in this together”, the town is better suited to reach their lofty – but attainable – goals.

So, what can we learn from the town of Breckenridge? In a time when it seems it’s the cities that are building the LEED-certified buildings and fighting for change in the climate crisis, SustainableBreck shows us that small towns can be a large voice in the movement. Rather than be impeded by their small stature, it’s often their size that makes towns like Breckenridge, CO so effective – where a city is home to millions, many of whom won’t weigh in or can’t be heard, small towns have the advantage of being able to meet with their residents and actually listen to them. In the same way that individuals like you and I impart change on a micro-level by adopting green practices and passing them along to friends and family – like carrying reusable shopping bags, using reusable produce bags, composting (a local organization recently rolled out a free program for town of Breck residents), and reducing our meat consumption – small towns are able to influence towns of their size by showcasing that it’s possible to go green, become sustainable, and still thrive economically and socially. 

The Breckenridge Tourism Office, the destination marketing and management organization (DMMO) for the Town of Breckenridge, takes it a step further and reminds those destination guests visiting that they can adopt some new eco-habits while in Breckenridge and take them home with them and leave Breckenridge a better person and think twice when they are at home. They even have a tree-hugger challenge to tell the Breckenridge story before they even arrive.

  • Use public transportation, the best way to explore Breckenridge’s quaint historic streets is with boots and bikes, leave the car at home.
  • Think less single-use and more reuse
  • Guests are encouraged to use less single-use-plastic, bring a refillable bottle throughout the town, and take advantage of free and delicious water at refilling stations.
  • Breckenridge is a straw-free community, we encourage guests to BYOS (bring your own straw) if they can’t live without.
  • Since 2013, Breckenridge has asked locals and guests to do their part and use a reusable bag when shopping in town. Plastic bags cost 10 cents in town limits. Guests are encouraged to bring their own bag or pick up a reusable souvenir bag, like this one, at the Breckenridge Welcome Center.
  • Help keep wildlife wild, it is not adorable to feed wild animals. You could alter natural behaviors, exposing them to predators or even euthanasia.
  • Take care of the outdoors and stick to the trails. Pack out what you pack in.

So how can you get your own small town on board with sustainability? A good place to start is with your town officials or in your town office. Reach out to local non-profits about teaming up on their sustainability efforts. SustainableBreck offers a wealth of resources that showcase what the town has done over the past several years – most importantly, those resources show that going green isn’t a fast track. SustainableBreck started in 2011 with a goal of reaching their end result in 2035. Have patience and work with your town to create a task force of your own – your first step could be as small as putting a box of reusable grocery bags at the market for people to use, encouraging a recycling program, or finding space for a community garden. If there’s anything to learn from Breckenridge, Colorado though, it’s that those small steps can add up, and the small fry really can make the greatest impact.

 

How is your town fighting climate change? Share with us on social by tagging @AvocadoMattress and @GoBreck!

Julie O'Boyle

By Julie O'Boyle

 —  Julie O'Boyle is a freelance writer and content strategist with a background in fashion and DIY and a devotion to the outdoors and functional nutrition. Currently residing in the woods of Maine, when she's not writing you can find her at the beach or on a mountain, or otherwise getting her hands dirty.

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