Local action

by Joe Flower


This article was published as part of the Healthcare Forum's Healthy Communities Action Kits, Module 4, in 1994
International Copyright 1994 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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Once you have developed some indicators that help you keep your eye on the things you need to pay attention to, you can go to the next stage: local action.

Home-grown economies

One interesting form of local action is making your own home-grown economy. In the face of rapid forces of globalization, almost no community on this planet has control of the variables that deeply effect their community's life. Even heads of powerful nations can't control these global forces. Local communities need to figure out how to close the economic feedback loops in their own community. The financial system is so globally inter-connected that when people in your town put their paychecks into the bank, that money is immediately vacuumed out of the community. The local community can't bid at global levels of interest to get its own money back to fertilize its own business activities.


Communities all around the world are beginning to realize that they can re-invent their local economy. Some of the most successful are called local exchange and trading systems (LETS). This is a re-invention of a local, limited-purpose currency.

The best example of this today is Ithica Money, in Ithaca, New York. They use a throw-away "penny shopper" that lists all of the people in Ithaca who are willing to barter their services with each other. A dentist might barter for a certain number of appointments. An accountant might barter income tax preparation. Certain restauraunts will take half cash and half "Ithaca money." They look like phony dollar bills, and each one is worth an hour of somebody's time.

These are going on all over Europe. There are about 200 of these systems in Britain. The currency units quite often are named after the town. The town of Bath has Baths and the city of Stroud has Strouds. They are themselves an indicator of how badly managed the macro economy is.

Time dollars

Many cities have experimented with another concept called "service credit systems" or "time dollars." In any city you always have a bunch of tasks that need doing -- keeping the streets clean, recycling, counseling, Meals On Wheels, all kinds of services which a city needs to have performed. Some it can't afford to have done unless volunteers do them. The time dollar or service credits system allows a community to publish a list of these kind of activities that everybody agrees need to be done, and to say that anyone who is unemployed, or partially employed, who wants to do any of these tasks, will be paid with a special credit card. As people rack up hours in the account, they can use that credit card to ride the city buses and to use the city recreation facilities, to register at community colleges, to receive medical care at city-owned hospitals. This enables you to get more intensive use out of taxpayer-supported services, such as transit systems, in return for valuable srevices.

The next stage, which very few communities have done yet, is to use the time dollars in exchange: if you have helped out, you are entitled to have someone come help you. For instance, a community can use computer bulletin boards to do bartering and exchanging, trading the goods and services that local people offer. This increases the wealth of the community and keeps people fully employed without having to earn so much money. To make the credit card as valuable as possible, you could go to the Chamber Of Commerce and find some restaurateurs to offer half-price meals to service credit card holders on whatever is their slow night. Movie theaters could give the rest of the seats to service credit card holders for half price at 5 minutes before curtain time, if it's clear that the movie is not going to be full.

This knits the community back together, at the same time that it gives people who may be unemployed a way to increase their do better, without money. At the same time, you're making efficient use of services that otherwise would be wasted. In effect you are turning the community's needs into assets.

Keeping the farmer in business

Farmer's markets, food-buying cooperatives, and contract agriculture form another piece of the home-grown economy, with effects that particularly visible. In more and more communities in the U.S., groups of people are getting together to buy produce directly from nearby farms. They realize that if you want to prevent your community from sprawling all over the place, you have to keep your local farmers in business. And if you keep the local farmers in business not only do you have fresh produce, even grown organically, if you pay the farmers to do that. But also you cut out the middle man. Linking the people in an urban area to their immediately adjacent rural area is so good for building community on so many levels.

Young children in the cities learn how produce is grown and what a cow looks like. It's just a wonderful way of re-knitting the community together and at the same time providing a cheaper and healthier food supply.

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