Richard Conlin

photo of Richard Conlin “The ‘gateway drug’ theory of environmentalism which we practice is . . . Get people started: if people just sit back and complain that everything is going bad, and that the environment is going to hell, that doesn’t do any good. Give them something positive to do. Help them plant a tree, clean up the neighborhood, do some recycling, and then once they get the feeling—that, ‘Yeah, I can actually do something!’—then they’ll start being willing to go beyond that and tackle the tougher issues.”


Richard Conlin is an expert on food policy and the politics of sustainability. He is also an authority on the best practices of local government. The co-founder of Sustainable Seattle, Conlin currently co-chairs Puget Sound’s Regional Food Policy Council and is an affiliate faculty member at Seattle University’s Center for Environmental Justice and Sustainability, the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, and Antioch University Seattle. Conlin served four consecutive terms on the Seattle City Council, two of which were as Council president. He has also directed an energy conservation business, the City Light Study Group, the Seattle YMCA Earth Service Corps, and PIRGIM’s Energy Policy Project. Most recently, the City of Riverside, CA, commissioned Conlin to complete its Food Policy Plan.

Expect Turbulence

Policy innovators and political activists often have noble motivations for their work. But when others don’t share their enthusiasm, it can lead to discouragement, apathy, and eventually burnout. For this reason, Conlin suggests re-framing popular reluctance to change as an inevitable and even important part of the innovation process:

“Anything new is always a challenge for people and elected officials. For example, when I started working on food issues, the reaction of my fellow council members was: ‘Well, food is not something that local government gets involved in, so why should we do this, why should we get started on it?’ And when I pioneered the Zero Waste Strategy, the reaction of some people in the community was: ‘We’re doing everything we should be doing to reduce our garbage by recycling. Why should we be thinking about this whole new strategy, too?’”

Practice Compassion

When leaders respond to citizens’ fear of change with compassion instead of condescension, Conlin believes they can help people move forward with hope:

“Change is tough. People fear that they’re going to have losses when you change something. You have to find a way to get people beyond that fear, into hope. But that’s the most challenging thing that you can do: finding a way forward which really encourages people, gets them really enthusiastic and excited about what the future is going to be.”

Talk to Them Where They Already Are

Conlin also stresses the importance of physical presence, and urges leaders to meet with people “where they already are:”

“Managing communication was the most difficult aspect of being involved with politics on a large scale.

“Try to communicate in words and terms that people are used to, so that they can understand you. Try to stay away from technical jargon, use different communication channels like social media, and be willing to go out and talk to people as much as possible. Mobilizing community groups and speaking to people where they are, is also an extremely effective way to communicate. Instead of scheduling a meeting and asking people to come to where you are, go to their meeting, and talk to them where they already are.

“When I was campaigning, we went to all kinds of community-based groups’ churches, ethnic community association—any kind of group that was willing to have someone come and talk with them.”

Make the Message Clear

Through his sustainability work, Conlin learned that positive political innovation is driven by a convincing, popular narrative about a community’s need to change:

“Overthinking can be a problem.

“When you’re an expert, it’s easy to get caught up in the intellectual challenge of inventing something new—something that really works. Your possible solutions might be very esoteric. Nevertheless, you’ll need to communicate your thoughts to people who usually have less background knowledge, interest, and attention to devote to this issue than you possess. For the expert, this reality can be disconcerting. But it shouldn’t be surprising.

“For example, you can be passionate about something like zero waste, only to find out that, yes, there are some people in the community who can really get passionate about that as well … but there’s also a lot of people saying, ‘Wait a minute, why should I even have to think about this?’

“We also dealt with this issue while working on the problem of plastic grocery bags in Seattle. We went into this really interesting study mode, where we were thinking, ‘What would be the most environmentally responsible thing to do?’

“We eventually put an ordinance into place, but it was fairly complicated. In fact, it was so complicated and threatening to the bag industry’s interests, that they paid signature gatherers to put our ordinance to referendum. We lost that referendum: we only got 46% of the vote. And the reason was, we had simply made it too complicated. People in the community were really concerned about plastic bags. They knew they were a problem. They probably would have supported a ban on plastic bags. But this complicated, very intellectual measure, was just too much for them. They wound up voting to repeal it.

“That was an important lesson for us. A couple years later, we adopted a more straightforward ban on plastic bags. That time, we faced little opposition.”

Talk with Affected Industries

The array of financial and political interests opposed to sustainable environmental policies may seem formidable. Nevertheless, Conlin encourages activists to avoid automatically demonizing their opponents: even affected industries have the potential to turn into unlikely allies.

“While developing Seattle’s Zero Waste Strategy, we commissioned consultants to put together a package of policy options. Some of those options were incentives, some were prohibitions, some were measures which would educate the public. There were about forty different things which we were aiming for in our attempt to ensure zero waste, including a ban on Styrofoam. This was one of the first times we had ever attempted to ban a particular substance. We moved pretty cautiously, because you don’t want to get ahead of the public with something like that.

“But it turned out to be remarkably easy. We met with the restaurant industry and we talked to them about it, listened to their concerns. As a result, we did more than ban Styrofoam: we also banned all containers and disposable utensils which weren’t either compostable or recyclable. Then the restaurant industry explained to us that all the compostable or recyclable spoons then being made would melt in hot dishes, like soup. So that part of the ban wasn’t realistic just yet. And we said, ‘Okay, we’ll wait on spoons until the technology is developed;’ we gave them two or three years before phasing in the ban.

“Similarly, the butchers said, ‘We don’t have an alternative for the Styrofoam trays yet, for meat production.’ So, we held off on that part of the ban, too, until they had the necessary technology.”

“We had to work with those being affected by new policies. Maybe certain industries would have preferred it if these policies had never happened. But as long as they could be implemented in an economically rational way, they were willing to go along with them.”

Solve Global Problems, Build Local Communities

A key component of Conlin’s success is his understanding that small,
community-based projects could be an important part of the solution to major global problems:

“When we talk about a ‘local food paradigm,’ we’re really talking about improving people’s health, and doing so in a way which benefits the whole community. We’re talking about reducing carbon emissions. We’re talking about things which are going to reduce pesticide use, reduce water use. There are lots of things that local food epitomizes which work really well for people. Moreover, local work builds community, and community is a key part of making sustainability ‘work.’

“Very early on, we nudged people to stop planting gardens in their backyards. Instead, we encouraged them to plant vegetables in front of their houses, in what we call the planting strip—that space between sidewalk and street, which used to be called the parking strip. As planting strips caught on, people started to tell me, ‘This is really neat! People will stop by as they’re walking, and they’ll talk to me. I’ve met neighbors I’ve never met before.’ So growing food locally can definitely be a way to build community.

“Local communities can have a global impact. The food system is associated with about 25-35% of carbon emissions. By extension, communities which choose to grow their own food can chip away at climate change. If they commit to sustainable methods, over the long run, they’ll really make a difference.”

Know the Rules and Change Them

At the risk of seeming obvious: it’s impossible for activists to advocate for better laws if they don’t understand which counter-productive laws are already in place. There are also, Conlin notes, cases where activists may realize that problems are being caused by the absence of any laws at all.

“Digging into the regulations which might prevent you from achieving your goal is critical. For instance, we asked the Department of Transportation (DOT) why it was discouraging people from growing food in their planting strips. It turned out that DOT had no law or regulation against this. But it had two understandable reasons for telling people they couldn’t plant there. One, if people cultivated food in their planting strips, they would create new sightline difficulties. That’s going to lead to more accidents. Cars can’t see around corners if there’s food growing in planting strips. Two, if people build permanent structures in those strips—say, raised garden beds—many handicapped persons wouldn’t be able to exit their cars to the sidewalk.

“After we heard that, we thought: ‘Those are both legitimate concerns, but they don’t really have anything to do with planting strip gardens. They have to do with sightlines and access for handicapped people. We should work out a program which enables DOT to meet its goals, while simultaneously allowing for people to cultivate strip spaces.’

“So, we wrote a new regulation which said that people could grow food in their planting strips. But if you’re within thirty feet of a corner, you can’t grow anything that’s over three feet high. That way, visibility is maintained. In addition, you’ll need a permit from DOT in order to put in a permanent structure like a raised garden bed. The permit’s free, but DOT will advise you so that your structure doesn’t limit access to handicapped persons.

“The Transportation people were perfectly happy with this solution because it met their goals. And the local food people were happy with it, because it gave them what they needed, too.”

Seeking “Win-Win” Solutions

Along with framing change in ways which gives people hope, Conlin underscores the necessity of working towards outcomes in which all stakeholders gain something positive:

“About 15 years ago, the owner of Northgate Mall wanted to redevelop its parking lot. The plan was to sell it, so that it could be re-purposed for housing and other commercial facilities.

“But some community members came to me and said they really wanted to restore the creek which ran through this parking lot. They wanted a great urban center, not a sea of parking. And together, we worked hard to figure out how we could support good development while also daylighting that creek. It was a big challenge, because there were many technical and logistical problems with opening up the creek, and the mall owner was totally resistant to us.

“Even so, I wound up with a 5-4 majority on the city council, in favor of restoring the creek. For about a year, it was a real struggle. I had to keep fighting, and keep my 5-4 majority intact, in order to get something positive done. But we negotiated with the mall owner until we had the ultimate win-win solution: daylight the creek through the center of a new urban development.

“Now it’s a beautiful little park with a creek running through it, and it also has the kind of housing and commercial development which the mall owner was looking for. Economically, it’s an extremely successful project. At the same time, we were able to meet several of our environmental goals.

“Sometimes you have to compromise. But what we try to do more often is find win-win solutions.”

Create Gateways to Action

Contemporary environmental challenges are enormously complicated and can feel overwhelming to solve. Consequently, Conlin advises leaders to start people off with small steps towards positive change:

“People need to understand the scale and complexity of the environmental choices we have to make. If people have hope, they’ll make more positive choices and changes. And leaders can help give people hope by getting them started with relatively simple tasks.

“The ‘gateway drug’ theory of environmentalism which we practice is . . . Get people started: if people just sit back and complain that everything is going bad, and that the environment is going to hell, that doesn’t do any good. Give them something positive to do. Help them plant a tree, clean up the neighborhood, do some recycling, and then once they get the feeling—that, ‘Yeah, I can actually do something!’—then they’ll start being willing to go beyond that and tackle the tougher issues.”