A Path to Hometown Environmental Sustainability

Some local governments are moving boldly ahead with sustainability initiatives that link to broader community goals.

Environmental sustainability may be "the issue of our age," but most local governments are still at a relatively early stage of addressing it. While most communities are taking some action, a few are moving ahead boldly, building a framework of goals, crafting strategic plans and employing the discipline that comes from measuring results.

That's the finding of a new report, Breaking New Ground: Promoting Environmental and Energy Programs in Local Government, which presents findings from an International City/County Management Association survey that was sent to more than 8,000 local governments across the nation. More than 2,000 governments responded.

In brief, the survey found that a large majority of the localities responding were at an "early stage" of adopting sustainability initiatives. While over 80 percent of localities reported initiatives in the area of recycling, transportation and building energy use, adoption rates were much lower for other sustainability initiatives, such as alternative energy generation and workplace alternatives.

In addition to the survey results, the report presents case studies of eight local governments across the nation that are considered leaders in sustainability initiatives. The case studies go beyond the survey results to discuss how each community linked their sustainability initiatives to broader community goals. The report concludes with seven action steps that local governments can take in developing a long-term, integrated approach to environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

The report's findings and action steps are based on analysis of the ICMA Local Government Sustainability Policies and Programs Survey of 2010, which examined the actions local government officials have taken so far to address the sustainability challenge, including citizen engagement that advances shared goals and changes behavior.

Currently, most communities are engaged in basic forms of environmental programs. More than four governments in five engage in some type of recycling (90 percent), transportation improvements (82 percent) and reducing building energy use (81 percent).

On the other hand, fewer than two in five have sought to reduce energy use by altering work schedules or processes (36 percent), and less than a quarter support any form of alternative energy generation (23 percent). When working toward the full range of possible actions is considered, the average rate of adoption is only 18 percent. Furthermore, there are limits in the extent to which sustainability activities are integrated into coordinated strategies for action. Only three in 10 local governments have adopted a resolution stating policy goals, and only one in five have adopted a plan with specific targets or benchmarks.

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.

In general, several characteristics of local entities increase the likelihood that they will do more to advance sustainability. Local governments with larger populations do more than smaller governments. Local governments in the western region--California in particular--are more active than those in the rest of the country, where there is essentially the same rate of sustainability adoption. Cities and counties that use the council-manager form of government are more active than local governments with elected executives.

These generalizations aside, each individual community decides on its level of activity and how it will organize its sustainability campaign. Case studies of governments illustrate that integrated approaches are effective, regardless of region and size of localities. Key insights can be gained from both survey results and case-study portraits of eight trend-setting communities, from Anacortes, Wash., to Weston, Wis.

In examining the survey results and case studies, a set of best practices emerges in communities with comprehensive, systemic approaches to sustainability. The following seven action steps should be taken by local governments seeking a long-term, integrated approach to sustainability.

1. Obtain a formal commitment from the governing board that includes goals, targets and broad but flexible strategies that can change as progress is made.

2. Develop an engagement process to broaden community outreach, educate the public and show individuals what they can do in their own lives to promote sustainability.

3. Appoint a citizens' committee to engage the community, expand citizen suggestions for action and organize community activities.

4. Develop partnerships with key institutional, private sector and nonprofit actors in the community and with other local governments.

5. Make changes to break down silos and encourage coordinated action inside the governmental organization.

6. Measure performance to assess the sustainability effort.

7. Report to citizens on progress as part of a clearly branded sustainability effort that highlights shared commitments and shows how well they are being met.

In their report, authors James H. Svara, Anna Read and Evelina Moulder conclude that "sustainability may be the 'issue of our age' but most local governments are still at a relatively early stage of addressing it. ... Based on past experience with the spread of other local government innovations, most cities and counties will significantly increase sustainability activity in the future."