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Holiday Gifts that Reflect a Commitment to Place

As we come to the end of another holiday season, it is a fair question to ask whether, for those of us concerned about sustainability, if any of the giving (and holiday consumption) has had any sort of positive effect on places in which we live and care about. Those who view consumption as a generally positive act of citizenship will probably reply in the affirmative, but many of us are troubled by the amount of "stuff" that we buy and give and receive. A couple of weeks before Christmas I received a call from one of our local Charlottesville newspapers doing a story about greener gift options. They asked me to participate as a strong advocate of localism and to suggest some possible local gift options. Partly because I was immersed in end of semester grading I reluctantly declined, but it was mainly because I had few immediate good ideas or suggestions to offer. What might we give that could help strengthen community, and help to reactivate commitments to and interest in the places in which we live? It was a good question. After declining the newspaper's offer to participate in this interesting exercise, I found myself thinking a lot about what I would have suggested had I had the time to give it more thought. Some of the possibilities for place-strengthening gifts might include:
  • Any gift that helps support local and regional farms and farmers. Giving a share in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) is an excellent idea (one suggested by others), though it can be a bit pricey as an average seasonal share in a CSA probably costs around $500-600. Perhaps a half share or a quarter share might suffice, if you can find them. Could other gifts help in reconnecting us to the farms and farmer who ultimately supply the food that nurtures and sustains us, such as gift certificate (if available) for a purchase from a metropolitan buying club or other direct farm-to-plate service or business. Buying local artisan cheeses, preserves, and other foods would also similarly show commitment to local food producers and help to keep dollars circulating locally.
  • Any number of gifts that support other local businesses, craftspeople, artists. We have a local art center that provides space for a variety of incredibly talented artists that produce art of a functional—nature-glass-blown objects of various kinds, pottery, plates and lamps, and many others things both beautiful and local.
  • Anything that will help kids and adults alike to re-connect to the nature and natural environments around them. These might be things not necessarily produced locally—telescopes, microscopes, stream monitoring kits, etc.—that might help to educate about and stimulate interest in the environments around us.
  • Gifts that nurture new understandings of, and new perspectives and insights on, the places and regions in which we live. Books of course fall into this category, but perhaps we need to be even more creative here. Some communities have produced creative (and frameable) maps that depict both the ecology and history of a place. A great holiday project might be producing—with the help of kids—a map or series of maps like this, that could then be given as gifts. A few years ago the nonprofit Ecocity Cleveland produced a lovely map of the Cuyahoga Bioregion, showing the larger watershed and topography of the region, and sold it as a gift (partly to raise money for the organization). One of the most impressive examples of a place-strengthening book is one I mention in my new book Green Urbanism Down Under. It's a book by Michael Smith called Bush Mates, and its essentially a very specific guide to the flora and fauna (and stars and native foods) one will encounter in the Tomaree Peninsula, in northern New South Wales. It's an example of phenology, or noticing by week and month particular creatures and natural processes and phenomena. It would make a marvelous gift!
  • Gifts that nudge us to participate and become more engaged in the communities—natural and human-made—around us. A membership in the local birding club, or the native plant society, or the gift of a class or workshop about the natural history and ecology of a region, would serve this function; a coupon for a wildlife tracking class would be a very unique gift to be sure.
  • Giving the gift of time. Making a commitment to volunteer a certain number of hours to a local charity or organization, or to serve on the board of a community non-profit, or to attend and participate in local planning commission and city council meetings would be a significant local gift. The time commitments made could also be a very personal and family-oriented offering to a family member. For instance, you could offer as a gift a certain number of hours to babysit, to repair a roof, or to otherwise perform upkeep and home repairs, to grocery shop for an elderly neighbor or family member, and so on.
  • Gifts that help us to live more sustainably and more responsibly in place. While it may be the wrong time of the year to plant a fruit tree, perhaps a gift of a pear, apple, or pawpaw tree—something that produces for potentially many years—could be purchased for redemption in the spring. We have a marvelous business called Edible Landscaping that sells every imaginable tree or bushes that can produce food for human and non-human members of our community;
  • Of course from a sustainability perspective perhaps the most compelling idea is probably to reduce the overall amount that we give (and sending out the signal to friends and family that receiving less is appreciated). But for most of us the giving and receiving of gifts at Christmas an inevitable, indeed an enjoyable, part of the holiday season, and we need to look for creative, place-strengthening options.
Now that the items that you gave and received are fresh in our minds, I'd like to collect other good ideas. What creative place-nurturing gifts did you give or receive? Please describe them as well as any ideas you might have for helping to harness our admirable gift-giving inclinations on behalf of place and environment. ---------- Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.