Sustainability and Survival

Managing development to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future is no longer a luxury.
by | October 15, 2008

Sustainability and green are the catchwords for large numbers of new city projects. Just in the last week, the Harvard Kennedy School's Innovators Insights newsletter featured half a dozen ecofriendly projects. A story on Cleveland's sustainability program featured growing food on vacant inner-city lots and the city's efforts to build green neighborhoods and deconstruct old houses. The central and upstate New York region is among a group of frontrunners with its industry-university collaborative enterprise now known as Syracuse CoE. Syracuse CoE engages more than 200 firms, institutions, and organizations looking broadly at new environmental and energy technologies.

For government officials, the realities of heavy dependence on foreign oil, rising energy prices, global warming and drastic climate change have sparked action both locally and globally. Creating strategies for sustainability is no longer a luxury. Instead, it is a reality that many jurisdictions see as central to their continued prosperity and in some cases their survival. The question becomes where to go for best practices -- how to avoid the fads and develop plans that can make a real difference.

Around the world, government leaders at all levels are doing their part to implement a comprehensive vision for sustainability. The common thread of these initiatives goes back to the 1987 Brundtland Report from the United Nations Development Commission, which contained the following landmark definition, "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Initiatives to implement this comprehensive approach to sustainability include:

o The International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), which has mobilized more than 950 city, town and county members worldwide and represents more than 300 million people in 68 countries.

o The Clinton Foundation's work with the C40 Large Cities Climate Leadership Group to implement large-scale projects that reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in forty of the world's largest cities.

o The more than 800 American mayors who have signed the United States Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement that commits their cities to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets.

In addition to the Conference of Mayors, major efforts to address the problems in the United States at a local level are being spearheaded by ICMA, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties, to name a few. ICMA's approach takes sustainability beyond traditional environmental issues. The goal is to mobilize its members to balance environmental stewardship with three other elements: economic development, social equity, and financial and organizational issues.

The National League of Cities takes a similarly broad view. Its Green Cities Conference in April 2009 will underscore the reality that environmental issues alter the health, economic viability and growth of communities, and will showcase the commitment of local government officials and staff to implement green initiatives and innovations that bolster the economic and physical health of their cities.

To stimulate action at the county level, the National Association of Counties has created a Sustainability Leadership Team to support and assist counties in developing long-term policies and programs that will lead to economic enhancement, environmental stewardship and social well-being. The SLT is composed of more than 30 elected and appointed officials from counties around the nation.

Sustainability as the Whole Sum of the Parts

As the initiatives listed above demonstrate, there are many aspects to sustainability. Globally, the "Local Action 21" project, led by the ICLEI, works with local governments to generate political awareness of key issues. As part of a U.N.-based effort, it establishes plans for moving from agenda to action toward defined, concrete, measurable targets; works to accelerate the implementation of projects; and evaluates local and cumulative progress toward sustainable development.

An example from the local level is the "Greenprint" for sustainability, implemented by Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The plan addresses multiple concerns in parallel, including: promoting increased energy independence, reducing traffic congestion, protecting open space and farmland, encouraging smart growth, revitalizing older communities, creating economic development opportunities, and generating cost savings through energy conservation.

The focus on sustainability has also captured the attention of large cities. In addition to the examples cited above, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized the importance of increased sustainability efforts in the 2008 PlaNYC Progress Report: "Our position as one of the world's leading economic cities rests on ability to keep pace and to build the greener greater New York that our children deserve."

Internationally, a coalition of 50 South Asian cities has recently committed to undertaking a carbon emission inventory that will contribute to understanding of each city's carbon emissions; help develop regional consensus on local action plans to address broader climate change issues; and foster a network for the post-2012 international negotiation processes on climate change.

All of these approaches recognize the imperative to create sustainability, demonstrate that each community must decide for itself where the path of sustainability leads and what actions are required, and show that there are increasing opportunities to link efforts within geographic areas across sectors.

The Government Innovators Network -- of Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation -- will host a series of online events to promote best practices and new ideas for meeting sustainability challenges. Registration information for these free, online events will be highlighted in this column in the coming months. We look forward to your participation and welcome your thoughts and ideas.

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