When Christy Cerrone’s son took his first trip to the Southern Gables community garden at Green Gables Elementary School to help pull weeds and participate in other garden activities, his teacher noticed something remarkable happening with her class.

It inspired “the best writing that she’d ever seen kindergarten students do,” Cerrone remembers the teacher telling her. The students wrote more and were notably excited, creating a “genuine learning experience.”

The impact the garden activities had on her son and fellow students this year is just one of the numerous positive outcomes from the neighborhood joining Lakewood’s Sustainable Neighborhoods Program, Cerrone says.

“The program is transformative for the neighborhood and life-changing for those involved,” she explains.

Alyssa Vogan, Lakewood’s sustainability planner who is working with the neighborhoods, adds, “The whole goal of the program is neighbors bettering their community.”

Lakewood’s innovative program was planted five years ago as a way to create sustainability at the grassroots level, and it has blossomed with additional neighborhoods this year as well as an expansion into a metro area network for other cities to join.

The program serves as a hotbed of community collaboration, with residents working together to transform the way they live through community gardens, energy audits, leaf composting efforts and numerous other projects. Paired with support from Lakewood’s Sustainability Division, the program serves as a mechanism for making sustainability attainable by residents in everyday ways.

The projects the neighborhoods tackle earn them points toward becoming certified as either an Outstanding Sustainable Neighborhood or a Participating Sustainable Neighborhood, and the certification is recognized with Lakewood providing a sign that is put up in the neighborhoods as a proud display of their achievements. But work doesn’t end there: Neighborhoods must continue to earn credits to remain certified.

During the last five years, Belmar, Eiber, Lake Lochwood Village, South of 6th and Southern Gables neighborhoods have developed inventive projects that have built a sense of community while changing residents’ ecological footprints. This year, the Applewood, Green Mountain and Morse Park neighborhoods joined the program, bringing to eight the number of Lakewood neighborhoods working on sustainability.

The newest neighborhoods to the program have begun to plan and launch projects important to their residents. In Applewood, a free produce market and exchange has been set up every Tuesday and will continue through September. A free little library is planned along with energy conservation, sustainable landscaping and urban agriculture initiatives.

Green Mountain is focusing on projects ranging from community outreach to urban gardens, and residents plan to work on energy conservation, waste reduction and becoming a Bee-Safe Community for honey bees.

Morse Park’s plans are also diverse, with neighborhood walks, lawn and tree maintenance, recycling and urban agriculture initiatives underway. Longer-term projects include creating a community garden at Slater Elementary, developing a community hub at Hoyt Street School and recording the neighborhood’s history.

These projects will follow on the successes accomplished in certified neighborhoods such as South of 6th, where its Chicken Coop Tour with an educational focus drew more than 60 people. The tour entailed two elements Vogan views as crucial for the program – an “environmental focus and community building” – as residents walked between coops learning about the intricacies and practicalities of raising urban chickens.

The Eiber neighborhood has created a “resiliency circle” centered on monthly potlucks for residents to come together, and it has focused on the importance of pollinators.

“Eiber has been working on the Bee Safe initiative, a national program to push for the removal of chemicals that are harmful to bees,” Vogan says, a campaign that has included bus-bench advertising.

The projects are often major undertakings, as demonstrated by the Southern Gables community garden. After three years of development, construction took numerous days spread over six months that involved 69 volunteers working a total of 169 hours. The garden also involved partnerships with Denver Urban Gardens and Westwoods Community Church in the neighborhood. DUG helped with the garden’s design, while the church will distribute surplus crops come harvest time.

About half the community gardeners at Southern Gables are connected to Green Gables with families and grandparents from the school and two teachers planting plots. The remainder are community members using the 10-by-10-foot boxed beds spread throughout the garden, providing ample space for gardeners of all ages.

The garden’s design has also been responsive to the neighborhood’s vision. “After community input, (we) added the outdoor classroom” for the school to use, Cerrone says. “People wanted a very strong tie to the school.”

Each grade even has its own bed to use as well, with the third-graders currently participating in a nationwide cabbage-growing contest. And with autumn not far away, a school pumpkin patch has already been planted.

Sustainable Neighborhood Network

Additional communities have started to follow along via the Sustainable Neighborhood Network, an ongoing engagement between Lakewood and other like-minded communities. Denver is the first participant, with more than a dozen neighborhoods involved and supported by Denver staff members. Some 2016 highlights from projects in Denver include tree planting around West Colfax Avenue, a walkability analysis in the Barnum neighborhood and cleanups throughout the Highland neighborhood.

The program is reaping benefits both tangible and optimistic. Vogan sees “a lot more collaboration happening between the neighborhoods,” and Cerrone is excited, not only about her own upcoming harvest of carrots, peas, peppers, tomatoes and decorative broom corn from her plot in the Southern Gables garden, but also about the continuing possibilities of the sustainability program.