Working with Youth to create Greener, Healthier & Sustainable Neighborhoods
Organization Earth is a Greek non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in 2010, with the mission to establish the concept of Sustainable Development, as defined by the United Nations’ 17 Global Goals, through the provision of experiential, non-formal education for sustainable development for all ages.
The organization’s work focuses on promoting nature-based solutions for climate-neutral and inclusive cities, including “pocket parks”, urban forests, community gardens, green roofs, and implementing development programs for vulnerable social groups.
“We mainly offer experiential non-formal education and our actions are developed around the three pillars of the sustainable development; environment, economy, society. We offer environmental education programs, social inclusion programs for vulnerable social groups and programs aiming to support responsible and sustainable entrepreneurship,” says Nikoleta Karystinou, a young agriculturist working at the organization.
For over ten years, Organization Earth has been operating the “Center of the Earth,” an education hub for green skills, which offers active learning programs and community-based activities. The “Center of the Earth” is a 25 acres urban park in a beautiful natural setting, just 6 km from the center of Athens. It is the Organization Earth’s principal learning center and a meeting point for people of all ages. Stretching around an organic vegetable garden and a permaculture garden, it is the perfect location for the organization’s learning programs, designed to inform and sensitize visitors about biodiversity, sustainable food, and a healthy, ‘circular’ lifestyle.
Experiential workshops for environmental education
Organization Earth’s educational programmes – many of them designed in collaboration with municipalities and the private sector – aim to connect people with nature and engage them in more sustainable behaviors in their daily lives. “We help people to redefine their urban way of life, to adopt more sustainable behaviors and habits in their households, to reduce environmental pollution, and bring a positive impact,” Nikoleta says. According to her, the important for all of us – especially young people – is to understand how some small changes in our daily life and habits can, collectively, have a huge positive impact on the environment.
In these educational programmes people can learn how to grow their own vegetables, create green roofs and trash compactors, compost in their houses, and generally make their lives and neighborhoods greener and healthier. Nikoleta notes, for example, that most people living in urban centers are not familiar with soil and its characteristics. So, through the workshops offered by Organization Earth they can learn, in practice, soil’s importance for plants and agriculture.
Organization Earth, in collaboration with municipalities and companies, has also created 7 “pocket parks” – a new way to upgrade urban spaces, that has found fertile ground in the Greek capital. “Our aim is not only to make the neighborhoods greener but also create parks that people will collectively use in their daily activities,” Nikoleta points out. Actually, some of the organization’s learning activities take place in these parks, targeting the active involvement of local communities.
The challenge of turning the learning experience online
As an organization working with and for people, Organization Earth was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions that have been imposed in Greece over the last two years. “It was quite difficult; we faced an unprecedented situation and people were generally afraid. Unfortunately, during the pandemic many of our actions have been put on hold, because they are experiential. So, we turned to the Internet,” Nikoleta says.
Organization Earth decided to offer online workshops and re-opened the ‘Center of the Earth’ to the public once the COVID restrictions were lifted. This way, the participants were able to see in practice all the things they had already learnt – in a theoretical level – during the online workshops. These workshops included environmental education classes on organic farming, alternative management of household organic waste, and other interesting topics.
The effort to integrate online workshops in this learning experience was difficult but proved successful, considering the high participation and the very positive feedback that the organization received. Nikoleta attributes this to the fact that many people started looking for new hobbies, like gardening, during the pandemic.
“We noticed that during the pandemic, people started to better understand the connection they have with nature and the environment, they started walking, they were looking for green spaces. The truth is that in urban centers these spaces are quite limited. So, we’ve been trying, through these workshops, to show people how they can make their yards and rooftops greener.”
So, on the one hand, Organization Earth couldn’t do workshops physically during the lockdowns and the COVID-19 restrictions, but on the other hand, there was big participation and interest from the public — both young and old – in the online activities.
Another factor driving this large participation was people’s greater need to interact with each other and come closer to nature during the pandemic. The workshops gave young people the opportunity to discuss, exchange views and interact. This human interaction was much needed, so the feedback was really positive. “The workshops managed to cheer people up and motivated them, which is something that all of us living in urban centers need, as we are alienated from nature,” Nikoleta notes.
Ultimately, the pandemic has motivated people to redefine the way they think and live in urban centers, and shift to greener choices and habits. “They understood how important and close is a human’s relationship with nature and they tried to find solutions, reduce their ecological footprint and protect the environment.”
Furthermore, the workshops have also engaged people belonging to socially vulnerable groups, such as migrants, refugees and the elderly. The aim was not only to connect with nature and to inform and raise awareness on environmental issues, but also to help them develop basic skills that they could use in their lives, such as how to cooperate with each other.
Youth’s participation in Organization Earth’s programmes
Even though Organization Earth’s programmes are designed and offered to people of all ages, youth in particular have been actively involved all these years both as participants/learners and as volunteers/educators. The Center of the Earth and the educational activities that take place there offer a great opportunity to youth to come closer to nature and learn how they can contribute to the creation of greener and sustainable cities.
“We started engaging children and youth mainly as part of school visits. Students visit our space and take part in our educational programs. At the same time, many young people come for internships, as well as students from technical schools interested to study Agronomy,” Nikoleta says.
Young people are also engaged in the activities as volunteers, offering services with both an environmental and a social impact. For example, over the last years, Organization Earth, in collaboration with companies and with the help of many young volunteers, has been organizing a very special action; they cooked, packed up and delivered thousands of meals to vulnerable people.
Nikoleta believes that young people have the power to deliver a huge impact. Young people are informed and sensitized about the environment and are looking for ways to adopt more sustainable behaviors, she says.
“As a consumer, a young person has great power; they can choose products a little more ecologically, reduce their waste or compost a large part of their household waste. Food waste is a very big problem. As consumers, we can easily help to deal with this. Youth can also choose local food and, even better, produce it themselves in their gardens or balconies.”
Bringing a positive impact
Organization Earth’s educational activities are much more than a learning experience. They aim to bring people closer to nature and help them adopt a more sustainable way of life, reduce their ecological footprint and contribute to the sustainable development. And perhaps one of the very few positive things that came up during the pandemic, according to Nikoleta, is that people redefined the urban way of living, turned to nature and realized the importance of communicating and interacting with each other.
You can find more information about Organization Earth and its activities HERE.