Sustainability Program helps to move cities from ambiguity to action

Sustainability. Cities are talking about it, many are doing it, public is demanding it, businesses are embracing it, even the federal government is taking steps to support and incorporate it into and across their agencies. And while “it” has been rising in popularity (few would argue that they’d prefer to live in or lead an unsustainable city), the challenges of defining and implementing sustainability are not far from the surface.

For cities, “going green” is more than just a feel-good declaration. It’s a commitment, in part, to tangible actions. And it is often here – somewhere between supporting “it” and implementing “it” that pockets of ambiguity tend to emerge. Sustainability goals, strategies, initiatives, and plans – while often linked by common objectives (achieving a balance of environmental, economic, and social needs) – are typically made on a city-by-city basis and may vary widely depending on contextual factors or needs within a community.

To help local leaders and city staff get started with, strengthen, and advance sustainability efforts NLC created the Sustainability Program, housed within the Center for Research and Innovation. In partnership with The Home Depot Foundation’s Sustainable Cities Institute, NLC’s Sustainability Program has recently released the first in a series of resources to support, inspire, and catalyze sustainability efforts at the local level. “Sustainability: 10 Steps Forward” presents a sampling of actions across ten issue areas that cities may adopt (and adapt) regardless of where they are in planning or implementing their sustainability efforts.

In addition to this resource the Sustainability Program sends out regular e-updates containing timely and relevant information for cities such as funding opportunities, events, announcements, and resources. To subscribe to these e-updates please send an email to sustainability@nlc.org with the following: name, title, city, email, and mailing address.  Current information is always available on the NLC website by clicking on ‘Sustainability’ in the red ‘Topics’ box at www.nlc.org.

Back to school for immigrant parents

Schools can provide strong footholds for immigrant children in their new communities. Aside from access to critical learning opportunities, such as English as Second Language classes, they are able to become involved in sports teams, clubs, and other community activities that help ease the transition to life in a new place. Immigrant parents, however, do not always have such a relatively easy way in to their new neighborhoods and cities.

The Quad-City Times recently highlighted how the Rock Island/Milan School District found a way to reach these parents through its Lights ON for Learning program. The program is run by the Rock Island County Regional Office of Education and is supported by many community partners, including the American Red Cross, the Rock Island Park District, and University of Illinois Extension Center. Lights ON for Learning has provided English as Second Language classes for students over the last eight years and—as of last year—the program is striving to reach the parents of their immigrant students.

Lights ON for Learning’s family literacy component is helping immigrant parents in Rock Island learn English in an organized manner (rather than, perhaps, through occasional lessons from their children) and their new community. Classes are held in the evenings at a local church and child care is provided. More than passing on basic information about enrolling their children in schools, the classes give parents a chance to get to know neighbors who are dealing with many of the same challenges that they are experiencing and an access point to their new community.

Not every community is in a position to provide as comprehensive a program as Lights ON for Learning, but it provides many ideas that can be replicated. One key to establishing such a program is identifying the need—reaching immigrant parents through the school system is a great option—and another is recruiting community partners in order to utilize local expertise.

The Gulf Oil Spill: Economic Impact

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is shaping up to be one of the worst environmental disasters that has ever hit the United States.  What’s worse, being just five years after another devastating disaster, Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast region is no doubt in grave danger as the oil continues to spill from the destroyed rig.

In addition to the unprecedented environmental effects that this disaster is sure to wage, there will also be monumental economic implications to the region.

For instance, the three most impacted industries will surely be oil and gas, commercial and recreational fishing, and tourism, which includes everything from beach resorts to restaurants.  According to a recent article by Peter Whoriskey from the Washington Post, “For gulf regions from Texas to Key West, commercial fishing contributes $1 billion to GDP, tourism and recreation contribute $13 billion, and oil and gas contribute $11 billion.”

As of now, the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration has blocked off 78,264 square miles of fishing water, which is approximately 32.3 percent of Gulf of Mexico federal waters.  “Though the majority of seafood consumed in the United States is imported, the gulf region accounts for about a fifth of the nation’s oyster production and more than 75 percent of the domestic shrimp output, according to Moodys,” says Whoriskey.

In addition, the Obama Administration has issued a six week moratorium on all deep-water drilling, which is particularly troubling to many industry experts.  The Gulf region produces 30 percent of all crude oil and 12 percent of all natural gas for the United States.  This means that not only will the regional economy suffer, but the entire country will likely see oil shortages in the coming months which would be economically devastating to many other industries.

It is likely that the tourism industry will not see any immediate significant impact as many restaurants and hotels are actually benefiting financially from the increase in relief workers who have flocked to the area.  Only time will tell but when the relief effort subsides, many predict this will be hardest hit industry in the region, especially considering the number of tourists that use the area’s beaches during the summer months.

In a recent webcast hosted by the Brookings Institution, Amy Liu, the Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Policy Project, detailed the economic impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill.  She contends that even though jobs lost and economic impact is grave, the economies in the Gulf are resilient and have overcome adversity in the past.  The main concern now is whether the progress the region has made since Hurricane Katrina, specifically cities reinventing themselves, can continue with the onset of this new crisis.

The Gulf Oil Spill: could local water supplies be affected?

The immediate damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are many: oil-soaked seabirds, warnings of seafood contamination and tar balls washing ashore. Damages to beaches are another prominent concern. Panama City Beach, Fla., hotels are fielding calls from would-be vacationers checking the status of beaches. The City of Destin, located in Florida’s panhandle, added a page to its website to update beach goers. In Bay St. Louis, Miss., a city that receives roughly 40% of its revenue from tourism, a boom—an inflatable device used to contain an oil slick—lines the beach. While some effects are already apparent, the potential catastrophe of water supply contamination is a more slowly-building threat.

Much of the New Orleans, La., metro area water supply comes from the Mississippi River, but there are communities that rely on local bayous. As the oil encroaches on area marshes, the bayous become vulnerable to oil contamination. Planning for potential leaks is in the early stages in communities such as Lafourche Parish, La. Drinking water contamination is also a concern in Florida’s panhandle and Tampa Bay communities where local officials are working with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to prepare for any potential threats to Florida’s aquifers. The Florida Aquarium may also feel the effects of the spill—saltwater used at the aquarium comes from the Gulf. The aquarium’s spokesperson said that the aquarium would file a claim with BP should an expensive option, such as sourcing water from the Atlantic or preparing saltwater at the aquarium, become necessary.

During a June 16 hearing held by the Subcommittee on Health, panelists from the Department of Health and Human Services discussed the agency’s monitoring operations and potential health hazards of the Deepwater Horizon spill. Testimony indicated that while drinking water supplies are not expected to be contaminated, the health effects of the oil spill—from water or food contamination, contact, inhalation—is still unknown and may remain so for years to come. While communities along the Gulf Coast would of course be the first affected if oil leaks into water supplies, cities nowhere near the coastline are also then at risk of experiencing the detrimental effects of the spill.