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Rethinking the message for water conservation

by Nader Shureih
in Environment, Sustainability

Convincing residents to be environmentally conscious may mean not talking about the environment at all

How do you get residents to conserve water in the steamy summer months? This may sound like a simple question, but it can be a vexing and expensive challenge for municipalities.

In an attempt to change citizen behaviour, communities of all sizes across the country commit significant resources every year, appealing to residents to change their ways. Unfortunately, these efforts seldom have a measurable effect. While appealing to citizens’ sense of responsibility over the environment may seem like a rational strategy, data shows that portions of the population simply do not align themselves with these values.

So, is the effort to adjust resident behaviour a fruitless task, or have municipalities just not found the right message to bring about real change? The growing number of municipalities that are experiencing success with targeted messaging suggests it’s the latter. In recent years, municipalities have been turning to data and analytics to help tailor specific messages to the various segments of the population, and they are seeing measureable results in virtually every aspect of citizen behaviour.

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Getting the Message Right

The right message to the right audience can have a powerful impact. For proof, look no further than the Regional Municipality of York.

Targeted marketing: York Region case study

Since 1998, York Region has reduced water usage in its jurisdiction by about 26 million litres per day. Targeted marketing around curbing water use in that jurisdiction played a significant role in making that happen.

In 2016, the region used data and tools to connect outdoor water usage billing data to a third-party segmentation system to learn more about the residents and neighbourhoods that used the most outdoor water. That research revealed that the highest water consumption was by single-family homeowners in affluent areas with large lots. These same families were also more likely to hire landscape contractors and less likely to place importance on environmental issues related to water usage.

These insights encouraged the region to rethink how it approached these residents. Instead of developing a program based on environmental messaging, they crafted a message that encouraged beautiful, well-landscaped gardens with low-impact techniques. Many of the region’s residents seem less concerned about the environment than the average Canadian; but, they were more likely to place greater importance on the appearance of their home and pursue activities that elevated their status.

This led to the creation of two new programs. The first was the Water Smart Irrigation Professional program, a certification initiative created by Landscape Ontario in partnership with York Region and the Region of Peel. The program trains contractors to identify potential water and money-saving opportunities for residents’ systems by detecting damaged or leaking system hardware while still ensuring that the landscape looks great. The second program was Fusion Gardening. While this program encourages residents to use mulch, incorporate rainwater, and use permeable pavers, the focus is more on helping residents design “colourful and stylish landscapes” than conserving water.

Most Effective Approach Not Always the Most Obvious

The takeaways from the experiences in York Region and other communities that have implemented similar targeted strategies make it clear that the best approach for changing citizen behaviour isn’t always the most obvious or conventional one. The results show that sometimes the best way to convince residents to be environmentally conscious is to avoid talking about the environment at all. MW

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A version of this article was published in Municipal World, November 2018

Municipal World Insider and Executive Members: You might also be interested in the full version of this article or in Corey Ryan’s article: Water conservation: After 20 years, York’s education program continues to inspire. Note that you can now access the complete collection of past articles (and more) from your membership dashboard.

Nader Shureih is a Public Sector and Education Consultant with Environics Analytics, a Toronto-based marketing and analytical services company.

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