9 case studies in community sustainability strategy

New data about sustainable cities and communities illustrate the long-term commitment to behavioral, policy changes that success will require.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) has just released a joint report with sustainability policy ideas for municipal planners and others focused on shaping energy, water and resource management plans for cities, counties and communities across the United States.

The report, "Breaking New Ground," contains data from a survey of 2,100 local governments that was conducted by ICMA, the Center for Urban Innovation, Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability and the Alliance for Innovation. The report was released by the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Here are some high level findings:

  • 4 in 5 governments run some sort of recycling program
  • 82 percent are focused on transportation improvements
  • 81 percent have programs centered on reducing building energy use, although only 36 percent are focused on changing habits and policies to support that; only 25 percent are exploring renewable energy generation

In the executive summary for the report, the authors write:

"City and county governments are active at similar levels, although there is some difference in their sustainability priorities. Cities, more likely to be water service providers, have a higher rating for sustainability action related to water quality and conservation. Counties, which provide more social services, are more likely to offer socially inclusive services such as programs for the elderly, children and the homeless. Counties that cover a larger geographic area and include more land devoted to forests and farming are more likely to be involved in land conservation and use of development rights to promote sustainability goals."

The 54-page report includes vignettes about 9 communities that offer ideas and best practices for other cities, counties and communities.

  1. Anacortes, Washington ("If it's not cost-effective, it's not sustainable): That motto was coined by the mayor of this island community. Anacortes has turned extensively to technology to save energy and to generate some energy from its waste. (Its solid waste is brought to Roosevelt Regional Landfill, which includes four methane-recovery generators that produce 10 megawatts of power daily.) The city closely measures energy use and has completed seven "resource conservation" audits.
  2. Buncombe County, North Carolina ("Greener together"): Getting everyone involved was a major thrust of the county's sustainability plan. That's important because there is no funding for its programs; it has earned grants for some of its investments and looked to savings from energy-efficiency in order to help pay for certain initiatives, including a solar installation.
  3. Grand Rapids, Michigan ("Renewable energy and energy efficiency:): The second most populous city in the state is striving for a 100 percent renewable energy goal by 2020, including all the options from wind turbines, solar projects on municipal buildings, investments in geothermal energy and a water filtration plant. It doesn't have a green building mandate for residents or businesses, but its work on municipal buildings has helped Grand Rapids achieve the distinction of having more LEED-certified buildings per capita than any other midsize city in the United States.
  4. Jackson, Wyoming and Teton County, Wyoming ("City-county collaboration"): Together, the city of Jackson and its surrounding county developed something called the 10x10 Energy Efficiency Initiative. The focus was on cutting fossil fuel and energy consumption by 10 percent before December 2010, against 2006 base line levels. According to the final report on the initiative released in June 2011, the city and county governments were able to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 4 percent and energy usage by 1 percent -- not as much as was hoped, because reductions from two projects that haven't gone online yet are not factored in. After those projects are switched on (planned reductions from initiatives at the wastewater plant and recreation center), it is believed that the total usage will be 12 percent below 2006 levels. That should happen by the end of 2011.
  5. Palo Alto, California ("Lead by example"): The city decided the best way to start protecting the climate was by addressing its own infrastructure. Palo Alto is striving for a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 (compared with 2005 levels). It can now manage energy data down to the department level and across its 600-vehicle city fleet, and it revised its goal upwards to 20 percent when it discovered managing energy and emissions had the bonus of saving money.
  6. San Antonio, Texas ("Sustainable development"): The San Antonio plan includes using $12 million in federal grant funding to weatherize low-income homes, investing in solar technology, deploying a combination solar-water harvesting system, and developing a comprehensive alternative transportation plan. The city now includes 200 miles of bike lanes.
  7. Sarasota County, Florida ("Green building"): A major focus is a "low-impact" development approach that is especially mindful of water management challenges. More than 560 rain barrels have been sold in the community since November 2009. The county adopted a green building resolution back in 2005 that requires all new construction and major renovations to meet green standards set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council or Florida Green Building Coalition.
  8. Washoe County, Nevada ("Commitment to triple bottom line principles"): The 421,400-resident county earns kudos for waste recycling and open space management. Its strategy is "staffed" by a green team that includes volunteers from nine county departments, including the health department.
  9. Weston, Wisconsin ("Conversation in action, focused on saving municipal money"): Because this village of 15,000 is sited near wetlands and woodlands that can't be developed, the community has stewardship at the forefront of planning. Among other things, the government has gone almost entirely paperless, it has developed an alternative transportation policy replete with bike lanes and pedestrian paths, and it has embraced the Dark Skies Initiative (which focuses on minimizing night-time glare.)

After you grab a few good ideas from the reports on these issues, you can ponder the 7 suggestions that the report makes for getting started:

  1. Get a formal commitment from governing board with goals, targets and strategies (be flexible)
  2. Get the community engaged
  3. Appoint a citizens' committee to gather ongoing input
  4. Find partners in the private, institutional and non-profit sector to share the knowledge -- and burden
  5. Encourage coordination between government departments
  6. Measure performance
  7. Report on progress

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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