Lessons from 10 Years of Sustainability in Grand Rapids, Mich.

It was one of the first cities to join a nationwide movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2005. The city's director of energy and sustainability looks back at what's changed in the past decade.
by | December 10, 2014
Haris Alibašić,the director of energy and sustainability for Grand Rapids, Mich.
Haris Alibašić,the director of energy and sustainability for Grand Rapids, Mich. David Kidd

In the December issue of Governing, I examined what’s happened since a group of mayors signed an agreement in 2005 to lower greenhouse gas emissions and limit their impact on the environment. The story hones in on Grand Rapids, Mich., where Mayor George Heartwell was one of the original signatories in the initiative's first year. After Heartwell made the public pronouncement to fight climate change, the city created an Office of Energy and Sustainability, naming Haris Alibašić as its first director. Since then, the city has been recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Clinton Global Initiative, ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a leader in reducing emissions at the local level.

Many cities have programs to reduce energy usage and protect the environment, but Grand Rapids made for an appealing case study because it wasn't considered a national leader on climate policy before the mayors initiative and the mayor's agreement might actually have made a difference politically. (Heartwell said he used the national agreement to drive local policy.) It was also the rare city that kept the same mayor between 2005 and 2015, so the city's sustainability efforts weren't disrupted by a change in leadership. (The Conference of Mayors recently asked the country's current mayors to renew their climate vows, for the agreement's upcoming 10-year anniversary.)

The feature focused mostly on what the agreement has accomplished, particularly in reducing greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, but I was equally intrigued by the task city officials faced in creating a new kind of government office without the benefit of industry standards on which to draw. When Grand Rapids conducted its first emissions inventory in 2009, it combined elements from different methodologies recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ICLEI, the EPA and the World Resources Institute.

The 10-year anniversary of the climate agreement marks the maturation of these city sustainability offices, which are more common today. I followed up with Alibašić, still the director of energy and sustainability in Grand Rapids, to get his ideas about how the urban sustainability movement has changed since the Mayors Climate Agreement launched in 2005. Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and length.

You were one of the nation's first sustainability directors at the city level. How did you create an office of energy and sustainability from scratch? How did you set goals and define measures of success? Did you have role models you used as guides?

The idea behind this office was to provide a single focal point for Grand Rapids’ work on renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency, climate change/climate preparedness, resilience and sustainability. The city formed an office with existing staff under the auspices of the Office of Energy and Sustainability. We made sure to engage all departments within the city to set goals, define measurements and determine what needs to be tracked. We wanted to make sure staff at all levels were involved and that through engagement, we would ensure accountability and transparency for our sustainability efforts. We also worked with all departments to implement sustainability measures throughout the organization.

We constantly research and learn from other cities, studying sustainability plans and metrics, and case studies. The building blocks of the city’s current Sustainability Plan were imbedded in many city documents prior to the creation of the office. In 2009, we created the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, and soon afterwards we created a more advanced version of the Sustainability Plan with specific targets that are tied to the city’s budgetary outcomes. Our work in sustainability and resiliency is constantly evolving and gets updated as we track progress.

Grand Rapids was one of many cities that made use of one-time federal block grants in 2009 to jumpstart climate and energy efficiency programs. Do you think cities need similar infusions of federal cash to keep the work going? I ask because this seems to be an area where cities demonstrated "proof of concept" and have seen savings from LED-light installations, geothermal wells, hybrid vehicles, etc. Couldn't mayors sell their taxpayers on investing in these things without federal resources? Or, are they still too expensive for cities to afford on their own?

Cities can invest in sustainability measures if they can show a quick return on investment. For example, energy efficiency improvements have a quick payback.  A communitywide greenhouse gas inventory would be a good example of something that could be supported by outside funding.

Cities should be able to create and implement frameworks for sustainability-related work on their own. It is still beneficial to the organization to be able to utilize opportunities provided by grants to supplement sustainability work. Our Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy was financed through the [federal] Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) fund, and it included the first community and organizational Greenhouse Gas Emissions inventories. These data are valuable to our organization as they provided us with baselines that we can compare to today’s progress and work.

Your office has gone to great lengths to set goals and track progress. I was wondering if there are any constructive lessons to be learned from bad metrics -- perhaps an initial goal the city sought to achieve that you realized later wasn't the real objective or was too unrealistic. Are there any lessons you would share with other cities and other sustainability directors?

We deleted one target within the Sustainability Plan: "Add 5 new facilities, 3 of which will be the size of a gymnasium, where recreation programs can be offered by June 30, 2012."  It was not a realistic target. At that time, adding new facilities was not possible. We were dealing with budgetary constraints. Over time, it became impractical to track and report it.

I would advocate keeping a sustainability plan evolving and making more of a fluid document as a blueprint that can adapt and change to the city’s needs. Any time we meet a target we would adjust the target for the following year, extending it further. This type of adaptation and evolution would ensure that cities are always progressing. These variations are summarized here.

Since we're approaching the 10th anniversary of the Mayors Climate Agreement, where have you seen the biggest changes over the last decade in terms of how cities deal with energy and the environment?

More cities are deploying renewable energy and embracing energy efficiency. More cities are implementing measures to mitigate stormwater as well as formulating emergency management plans to deal with extreme weather events and climate change. Cities are starting to focus more on the resiliency of the infrastructure and environmental sustainability, and the ability of cities to combat extreme weather events.