A Mayor’s Perspective on Why Sustainability Matters: An Interview with David Narkewicz, Mayor of Northampton, Mass.

This is a guest post by Hilari Varnadore, Executive Director of STAR Communities.

North-Hampton

City of Northampton, Mass.

Last week, STAR Communities announced that Northampton, Massachusetts is the first city in the United States to be awarded the 5-STAR Community Rating, STAR’s highest possible designation, and a recognition of Northampton’s strong record instituting a wide range of sustainability practices as a means to increase quality of life for the city’s residents.

This blog post features Northampton, Mass. Mayor David Narkewicz reflecting on “Paradise City’s” strengths, weaknesses, and the reasons why he is most proud that his city is the first in the nation to reach 5-STAR certification.

What are the qualities of your community that you feel strongly about protecting and enriching through sustainability programs and practices? 

Northampton offers a lifestyle rich in natural beauty, cultural, artistic, academic, and business resources. Our downtown center is one of the most vibrant in New England. The superb quality of life in Northampton contributes to a strong and diversified economic base. Northampton is unique in the number of independently owned businesses that make up our business community.

Northampton’s blend of traditional neighborhoods, forged by the great care of generations of good neighbors, and a lively and sophisticated cultural community would make any great city proud. Located in the heart of the Five-College area, and home to prestigious Smith College, education has always been a priority. Northampton retains the historic character of downtown and the mill villages of Florence, Leeds, and Bay State.

Northampton is proud of its work to create a more sustainable community.  As a community we have embraced restoring and protecting our environment, providing housing and services to all, caring for those with the least resources of their own, and growing our economy in a way that honors our history and serves all of our residents.

Becoming the first certified 5-STAR Community is a great accomplishment. For other cities considering STAR certification, what would you tell them?

STAR lets us [Northampton] promote all the great things that we have done to make our community strong and resilient.  It is positive feedback that lets our residents, taxpayers, businesses, investors, and community partners know that we are on the right track.  The transparency and independence of the process builds confidence in our work.

Equally important, in honoring us for what we have done and in benchmarking our progress, STAR encourages a community conversation on all that we still need to do to make our community even stronger.

So, what are some highlights from your city’s achievements, as reflected inSTAR? 

Our greatest achievement is that we have a balanced approach and try to address all sustainability challenges. Our rail trails, bicycle lanes, arts, and open space serves much of our community, our economy has a strong local focus, and our residents with fewer resources have more opportunity and services than in most communities.

I am proud that STAR validated our across-the-board balanced approach.  Whether it is dealing with reducing trash or fossil fuel energy use or encouraging buy local, we are working to address all of our sustainability challenges.  Our years of hard work are paying off.

What challenges are facing your city? How do you plan to address them going forward?

The biggest challenges are always fiscal.  There are never enough resources, especially in a city where the majority of our population is struggling and our median income is far less than we would like.   That said, we need to and will find the resources to be more resilient, to continue all of our efforts, to ensure that our youth and adults both have access to the best education and training, to make our streets safer and promote travel not dependent on private cars, expand our economy, and protect our environment.

STAR Communities is a national leader in rating sustainability efforts of cities, towns and counties; its national ratings program helps communities evaluate themselves in seven areas related to sustainability, such as “Climate and Energy,” “Built Environment,” and “Economy and Jobs.”

Cities can apply this month to be considered for the Fall 2014 Leadership STAR Community Program, joining cities like Northampton, MA; Austin, TX; Des Moines, IA; Tacoma, WA and Fort Collins, CO who became certified while participating in STAR’s leadership program. 

For more information, visit www.STARcommunities.org, visit STAR on Facebook and on Twitter @STARCommRating.

???????????????????????????????About the Author: Hilari Varnadore is the Executive Director of STAR Communities, a Washington, D.C. based nonprofit organization advancing a national framework for sustainable communities. She works with local government leaders to empower communities to chart a clear path toward a sustainable future.

 

 

2_MayorNorthampton (2)About Mayor Narkewicz: David Narkewicz was elected the 44th Mayor of the City of Northampton in November 2011. He previously served as Councilor At-Large and President of the Northampton City Council from 2010-2011 and Ward 4 City Councilor from 2006-2010.

 

 

 

Mayors, Residents Make Big Strides with National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation

This is a guest post written by Steve Creech, Executive Director of the Wyland Foundation.

water-mayors-challenge

With cities across the United States facing water scarcity, five U.S. cities were honored today for the commitment of their residents to making water-saving choices as part of the third annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

The cities of Dallas, TX, Corpus Christi, TX, Huntington Beach, CA, Bremerton, WA, and Crete, NB, led an effort among over 23,000 people across the nation to take 277,742 specific actions over the next year to change the way they use water in their home yard, and community.

Presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA and National League of Cities, the challenge had direct participation from more than 100 U.S. mayors, from San Diego to Miami, FL, who encouraged their residents to participate in the online challenge at mywaterpledge.com.

“Access to a clean and reliable supply of fresh water is fundamental to our lives,” said artist and conservationist Wyland. “Most people do not think about their water footprint and the extent to which water quality issues can impact them personally.”

The challenge comes at a time when population growth, extreme weather patterns, water shortages, and again infrastructure all threaten access to a steady, sustainable supply of water in the United States.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation provides a positive way to reward residents across the country for using water wisely and controlling what goes down the drain and into their local watershed.

By sticking to their commitments, the collective efforts of these residents will reduce national water waste by 1.4 billion gallons, reduce waste sent to landfills by 36 million pounds, eliminate more than 179 thousand pounds of hazardous waste from entering our watersheds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.3 billion pounds.

Beyond its efforts to foster environmental change, the challenge provides an opportunity for participants from the top five cities to win more than $50,000 in eco-friendly prizes, including a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-In.

City leaders, sustainability directors, and utilities managers who are interested in getting their city involved in the program for 2015 are encouraged to contact the Wyland Foundation at 949-643-7070. To see this year’s final national standings, please visit mywaterpledge.com.

Watch Al Roker & Nancy Stoner, EPA Director of Water, discuss the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

Steve-CreechAbout the author: Steve Creech is executive director for the non-profit Wyland Foundation. He is the co-author of  “Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue,” a fresh look at the importance of water in our communities and throughout the world. Steve is a former environmental news reporter in southern California and currently blogs for Huffington Post.

Earth Day Reflections from an Urbanophile

This is the first blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation. 

eath-day-word-cloud

This word cloud captures city leaders’ responses when asked to describe their commitment to sustainability.

I grew up feeling a lot of guilt on Earth Day. When April 22 of every year came around, I felt a huge pile of bricks dropped on my shoulders. How many more natural resources could we waste? How could we ignore what we were doing to our water bodies? How could I have thrown away my leftovers yesterday? For twenty-four hours, the burdens of protecting the natural environment, large and small, fell on me.

Ok, so that’s a bit exaggerated but you get my point. Earth Day often feels like this thing removed from us — a day to celebrate/reflect/commemorate “nature” as though it is a play we are not quite a part of, only a peripheral spectator (or sometimes active villain) in.

The reality, though, is this is far from the truth. The fact is the makeup of our Earth has radically changed. We have a global population steadily on the rise, over half of which currently lives in cities. Think about that — over half. And this rate is only increasing.

Yes—as a society we are responsible for resources wasted, overused and undervalued. But we are also responsible for technological innovations; creativity; and conservation efforts that have helped us make leaps and bounds in conserving natural resources, and preserving and protecting the natural environment — all the while meeting the varied needs of a growing global population.

The fact is, on Earth Day and every other day, cities matter. Cities are where unlikely partners come together to solve a problem that seems impossible. Cities are the places where people’s ideas collide to form better, more effective outcomes than any of us could imagine on our own. And cities provide the key to protecting and enhancing our natural (humans included) environment.

Take, for example, the Wyland Foundation’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, an annual competition, which in 2013 had participation from residents in over 1,000 cities across the United States and saved 5.4 million single use water bottles from being used—all in a month’s time. Or the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a friendly competition where small-to-medium sized local governments across the country will be competing to design replicable, scalable energy efficiency programs to win a multi-million dollar prize.

Healthy competitions like these spur creativity and innovation, but they are also capitalizing on the fact that local governments across the country are already innovating and finding creative solutions to jointly meet environmental, economic and social issues. Cities across the country are framing their priorities with a recognition of our present situation and a nod towards the future, allowing them to create comprehensive, forward-looking programs and policies that embrace the natural and human environments as inseparable.

In reflecting on his city’s commitment to sustainability, Mayor Ralph Becker, of Salt Lake City, said: “As we look ahead toward 2015, we envision continued progress to a new kind of urbanism that embraces accessibility, sustainability, diversity and culture. Sustainable Salt Lake – Plan 2015 reflects a broad and ambitious agenda to protect our resources, enhance our assets and establish a path towards greater resiliency and vitality for every aspect of our community.”

I no longer feel burdened when I think of Earth Day because I recall all the exciting activities taking place in cities to find scalable solutions to some of our most pressing problems of today. I know that I have a very real personal responsibility to protect the natural resources around me. However, reading the sustainability missions of cities across the country is an affirmation of what I know to be true; the collective—that is, cities—in fact holds the key to protecting our environment.

Raksha VasudevanAbout the author: Raksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC.  Through  the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency.  Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.

Open Data: A New Tool for Building Climate Resilience

This post was written by C. Forbes Tompkins and Christina DeConcini of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The post originally appeared on WRI’s blog.

Res-Blog

As communities across America continue to experience increasing climate impacts in the form of rising seas, heat waves, and extreme weather, local and federal leaders are starting to roll up their sleeves. Yesterday, the White House unveiled the Climate Data Initiative, a project aimed at arming local leaders across the country with information they need to plan for climate impacts while building more resilience. The initiative provides a key tool for helping those at the frontlines of climate change—America’s local communities.

The Climate Data Initiative delivers on a key element of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced last June. This new initiative creates an online hub of government data on climate impacts, giving local communities a detailed look at how a warmer world may impact their critical infrastructure like bridges, roads, and canals.

The initial phase will focus on providing data and tools related to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, and later phases will include information addressing other climate-related impacts. This release of comprehensive government data will be supported by additional efforts from the philanthropic and private sectors.

Google, for example, has committed to donate significant cloud computing and storage and to work with partners to create a near real-time system to monitor drought throughout the continental United States. Intel, Microsoft, and ESRI will create various maps, apps, and other tools and programs to help local officials and other stakeholders understand the climate risks specific to their communities.

Local Communities Are at the Frontlines of Climate Change

The initiative could be an important step in preparing the country for the impacts of climate change. From coastal towns in Southeast Florida to the world’s largest naval base in Hampton Roads, VA, local communities are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise and other dangerous effects of climate change.

Indeed, climate change is already impacting virtually every community throughout the country—and these effects are poised to worsen with every degree of warming. Consider the following:

  • The world has now experienced 348 consecutive months where average global monthly temperatures were above the 20th century average. In other words, no one younger than 29 years old has lived a month of their lives where monthly temperatures were at or below average.
  • Scientists have found that the conditions leading to the 2011 Texas drought are 20 times more likely to occur now than in the 1960s due to human-induced climate change.
  • Sea-level rise has given a springboard for storm surge and coastal flooding that has amplified the impact of coastal storms, like Hurricane Sandy. Today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood reoccurrence has nearly doubled compared to 1950.
  • The Western United States now experiences seven times more large-scale wildfires than it did in the 1970s.
  • Extreme precipitation events have increased in every region of the United States between 1958 and 2007.

Escalating climate impacts not only threaten human well-being, they’re causing costly damages to critical infrastructure—damages that are expected to worsen in a warmer world with more frequent and intense extreme weather.

Severe weather is already the single-leading cause of power outages in the country, causing an estimated 679 widespread power outages between 2003 and 2012 and costing the economy, businesses, school systems, and emergency agencies billions of dollars.

Urban infrastructure is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A 2007 extreme precipitation event in New York City, for example, only lasted two hours, but caused a system of transit failures that stranded 2.5 million riders. And in Miami Beach, officials say it will cost as much as $400 million to prepare the city’s drainage system for sea-level rise-induced flooding and storm surge.

The Role of Open Data in Climate Resilience

While climate change will affect all communities throughout the United States, the type of impacts felt will vary at the region-, county-, and even city-levels. Communities cannot adapt to or mitigate these impacts without first understanding exactly how they will be affected.

Open data like that provided in the Climate Data Initiative can help provide this level of information. For instance, the climate data site will offer infrastructure and geographic mapping data sets—showing specific bridges, roads, canals, etc.—and help local decision-makers understand how this infrastructure might be impacted by things like sea level rise, drought, or extreme weather. Local governments can use this current and relevant data as a basis for developing effective plans and utilizing resources.

The Climate Data Initiative builds on other work that connects federal activities with local climate action, including a Presidential Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the recent budget request for a $1 billion fund for climate resiliency. This latest initiative by the administration not only reinforces the President’s acknowledgement that climate change is occurring, but also his prioritization of empowering local governments to address the issue.

Helping localities throughout the nation become more resilient is an incredibly important piece in overcoming the climate challenge. But, as organizers of this initiative acknowledge, adaptation and resiliency strategies will need to be accompanied by comprehensive reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions at the national and international levels. Adaptation combined with comprehensive mitigation action is the only way to ensure a sustainable future—both locally and globally.

Resilient Infrastructure and Energy Savings to be Focus of 3rd Annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, April 1-30

This post was written by Steve Creech, Executive Director of the Wyland Foundation.

In 2013, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver, Colo. are recognized for their water conservation efforts.

In 2013, Mayor Hancock and the City of Denver, Colo. are recognized for their water conservation efforts.

The facts about water shortages are indisputable. Yet, by and large, we tend to think of these shortages as temporary problems, without giving thought to the fact that a changing climate, growing populations, an aging water delivery infrastructure and increasing demands for a finite resource now requires a drastic change in how we consume water. The annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, April 1-30, was created to promote a long-lasting mindset of water conservation across a broad swath of our population. Now in its third year, the challenge is widely recognized as one of the most engaging, zero-cost outreach tools especially designed for cities and water utilities to encourage conservation in the United States.

At its most basic level, the challenge asks residents to take a series of informative, easy to use pledges online to conserve water, energy and other natural resources on behalf of their city. Cities with the highest percentage of residents who take on the challenge in their population category win eco-friendly prizes for their residents. Past participating cities have included Atlanta, San Francisco, Tucson, Los Angeles, Washington, Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles.

The approach is designed to reward residents for positive conservation behavior, provide immediate feedback with real time results that can be measured against neighboring cities, set achievable goals and put a spotlight on public role models to encourage behavioral change.

A mobile learning center is used to educate residents on the importance of water conservation.

A mobile learning center is used to educate residents on the importance of water conservation.

The pledges that consumers make may seem simple, yet they have been carefully designed to harness four key drivers and result in the following benefits:

  • Save costs for consumers
  • Save infrastructure and operating costs for cities
  • Promote drought resiliency
  • Protect watersheds and ecosystems
The Wyland Foundation assists cities with promotional materials to help spread the word.

The Wyland Foundation assists cities with promotional materials to help spread the word.

Elected officials are encouraged to use their leadership position to actively inspire residents to make pledges and support their city’s conservation efforts. Officials who add their name to the online endorsement page receive a comprehensive toolkit with resources including animated broadcast-ready PSA’s, graphics and blogs. Past mayors have held kickoff events, pledge drives at local libraries, created their own videos to display on their city’s website, sent utility bill stuffers, set up electronic road signs to encourage residents to take on the challenge and asked neighboring cities to participate. The challenge supplements the city’s efforts with a national public service advertising campaign.

Americans use over 150 trillion gallons of water a year in total. Moreover, according to the River Network, the U.S. consumes about 13 percent of its energy exclusively for water-related purposes, including moving, heating and treating water. Clearly, how we use this resource is having a greater and greater impact on our economy and our future quality of life. But shifting attitudes takes time, cooperation and wide recognition that a conservation mindset is one of the best, most powerful tools available to ensure the future availability of this indispensable limited resource. The National Mayor’s Challenge For Water Conservation offers another way for cities to keep this important issue top of mind.

The 3rd Annual National Mayor’s Challenge is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, in association with the National League of Cities, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, the Toro Company, Bytelaunch Inc., Wondergrove Kids, WaterSmart Software. Learn more about the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation.

President’s Task Force Supports Local Efforts to Address Climate Change

This post was written by C. Forbes Tompkins and Christina DeConcini of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The post originally appeared on WRI’s blog.

The majority of California is currently blanketed in "extreme drought." Photo credit: Amber Tsuchida, Flickr

The majority of California is currently blanketed in “extreme drought.” Photo credit: Amber Tsuchida, Flickr

News of California’s epic drought continues to reverberate around the nation. Not only have millions of Californians been cut off from their usual water supply, but the drought is threatening the state’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture and tourism industries.

To learn about the impacts of the ongoing drought first-hand and discuss how the federal government might help, President Obama will travel to Fresno this Friday. In addition to his visit, the President’s Task Force on Climate Resilience and Preparedness will convene in Los Angeles, California today for the next round of meetings to determine ways the federal government can assist local efforts to address and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Made up of more than two dozen governors, mayors and tribal leaders from around the country, the group represents a significant opportunity to bridge the gap between local and federal climate action.

California’s Drought Threatens Communities and the Economy

California experienced its driest year on record in 2013, receiving less than one-third of its average annual precipitation. Governor Jerry Brown declared a statewide drought emergency in mid-January, and the State Water Project – the main municipal water distribution system for roughly 25 million people and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland – suspended service for the first time in its 54-year history. Even after last weekend’s heavy rainfall, most of California is still blanketed in “extreme drought.”

Citizens both inside and outside of California are feeling the effects. The drought is not only threatening the viability of the nearly 50 percent of U.S. fruits and vegetables produced in-state, but is already impacting California farms and ranches. These farms and ranches generated $44.7 billion in gross income in 2012 alone. The ripple effect of these impacts could affect grocery stores around the nation in the coming months.

Tourism in California may also take a hit from the drought. With the Sierra Nevada snowpack being recently reported as only 12 percent of its average, the state’s $1.4 billion winter sports industry and the 24,000 jobs that rely on it are under threat.

Drought and the Climate Change Connection

As extreme as this drought is, though, it may be a harbinger of what’s to come. Studies suggest that the drought over the last decade in the western United States represents the driest conditions the region has experienced in the last 800 years. As the world continues to warm, more frequent and intense droughts are projected for the region. Furthermore, the combination of more frequent and intense droughts and warmer temperatures are expected to contribute to an increase in wildfires throughout the state. This is concerning for a state that witnessed seven of its 10 largest-recorded wildfires since 2003.

California is certainly not alone in feeling the impacts of a warmer world, however. From record forest fires and historic floods in Colorado, to coastal flooding in Florida, to threatened water resources from reduced snowpack in Utah, local communities across the United States are truly at the forefront of climate change.

Bridging the Gap Between Local and Federal Climate Action

These local communities tend to also be at the forefront of climate action. From the 10 mayors who recently joined an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by boosting energy efficiency within city buildings to the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, growing local leadership is establishing models for community-level action elsewhere in the country. But while these local initiatives are an encouraging sign, they must be met with complementary and comprehensive action from Congress and the administration if the United States is to truly rise to the climate change challenge.

The Task Force on Climate Resilience and Preparedness is one such initiative working toward this goal. When the Task Force meets today in Los Angeles, California, they will take the next step toward generating recommendations on how the federal government can both remove investment barriers to local resilience initiatives and create the tools and information communities need to prepare for and adapt to climate impacts. Once formally submitted to the government, these recommendations should not only help those in California deal with the impacts of future droughts, but assist communities throughout the nation in overcoming future climate impacts.

The Task Force represents a critical opportunity for the federal government to both learn from and enhance local climate action. But, supporting these communities also means following through on comprehensive federal initiatives—such as putting ambitious emissions standards in place for existing power plants. Only through collective action at the local, state, and national levels can the country effectively adapt to and mitigate the growing impacts of climate change.

Climate Change Doesn’t Recognize City Boundaries

Drive just thirty miles west of Pinecrest, Florida – a beautiful, cozy village neighboring Miami – and you are engulfed in a dramatically different landscape.  You look around, taking in the dense, semi-tropical air and the mysteriousness of a river that slowly meanders  through the saw grass, a river home to alligators and crocodiles, water lilies, mangroves and mosquitoes.

Everglades_RVThirty miles and you’ve arrived at the Everglades, the third-largest national park in the mainland United States.  The Everglades is the largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America, home to roughly 350 species of birds, 300 species of fish, 40 species of mammal, and 21
federally threatened or endangered species.

Last Thursday, as part of our Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee meeting focused on climate change adaptation, we had the opportunity to do an airboat tour of the Everglades. On the bus ride over from Pinecrest, experts from the Everglades Foundation told us stories of the land and the surrounding communities, stories that really drove home the fact that the fate of urban, man-made spaces is much more closely tied to the fate of nature than we think.

Once stretching over 3 million acres in Southern Florida, today the Everglades is confined to roughly 1.3 million acres, with a majority of it designated as a wilderness area to prevent any further alteration of the natural landscape.  In the last century, as a result of growing population and increasing development pressure, the natural water flow has been diverted into 1,800 miles of canals and endless dams.

How does any of this affect cities in South Florida?

In Florida, one in every three residents, and all of the roughly seven million residents of South Florida rely on the Everglades for their water supply.   Most businesses and homes in South Florida are dependent on the continual supply of drinking water from the Biscayne aquifer, and the $55 billion agricultural industry in South Florida would not exist without it.

As we see more visible impacts of climate change, it becomes even clearer that the Everglades and the cities in South Florida are inextricably linked to one another. For example, sea level rise and saltwater intrusion are threatening South Florida’s national parks and the coastal regions, which mostly lie at an elevation no greater than eight feet above sea level. This, in combination with warmer air temperatures, could drastically affect the saw grass beds that are not only home to a tremendous diversity of wildlife, but also serves as the vessel for the water that so many South Floridians rely on for their basic needs.  While it is still unclear the extent to which climate change will affect the unique biodiversity of the Everglades, there is no doubt that its effects will be increasingly seen and felt in both the natural and man-made ecosystems of South Florida.

What are South Florida cities and their partners doing about this?

In South Florida, perhaps because the effects are so visible and in some cases immediate, cities and partners alike understand this connection to nature.  Initiatives are taking place to not only protect and restore the environment, but city governments are strategically thinking about the multiple effects of climate change programs and policies:

  • In 2009, following the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit, elected officials formalized the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which has been getting a lot of publicity for its unprecedented levels of cooperation and action on climate change issues by cities and counties alike.  Most recently, the Compact released a regional climate action plan, outlining mitigation and adaptation strategies to adopt.  Read about the Climate Compact here.
  • Following a bipartisan decision by Congress in 2000 to direct efforts at restoring the Everglades (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project), the Everglades Foundation is taking the lead on a number of restoration projects to restore the natural habitat. Projections show that restoration of the Everglades will actually have a 4-to -1 return on investment for South Florida. Watch this video to learn more.
  • The South Florida Regional Planning Council, funded by the U.S. EPA, is currently doing research on the impacts of sea level rise over a 200 year period on seven counties in South Florida. Read more about their work.

These are only some examples of the types of work taking place in South Florida to ensure that cities and partner organizations are effectively preparing for and adapting to a changing climate.  However, what’s clear with the work going on down south is that effective climate change planning necessitates taking a closer look at what’s happening both within and outside of jurisdictional boundaries.

Raksha Vasudevan

About the authorRaksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC.  Through  the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency.  Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.

STAR Communities Announces 2014 Leadership Program & Financial Assistance

This post was written by Lacey Shaver, Outreach and Program Coordinator, STAR Communities.

For the past 10 months, more than 30 cities and counties from across the U.S. and Canada have been tracking their sustainability progress through participation in the STAR Community Rating System’s (STAR) pilot program. Working through the rating system with other communities helped participants reflect on their existing programs and learn from one another.

Dylan Siegler, Sustainability Manager at the City of Austin Office of Sustainability says, “STAR allows us to fairly evaluate Austin’s strengths as well as understand our challenges. At the same time, STAR [Communities] will provide the resources to learn from peer cities across North America about their successful sustainability programs and strategies.”

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

The STAR Pilot Communities hail from all over the country, from small towns to large cities, and the ways that they tackle sustainability issues within their communities are as varied as their sizes and locations. STAR provided a much-needed vocabulary for the pilot communities to more effectively strategize and define local sustainability planning efforts. Its goals and objectives presented a vision of how their communities could become more healthy, inclusive, and prosperous across seven specific categories encompassing the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Several pilot communities, including Washington, DC, Lee County, FL, and Tucson, AZ, integrated STAR into newly drafted sustainability plans.

“The District of Columbia used the STAR Community Rating System to help create metrics for our new sustainability    plan, Sustainable DC. Measuring the progress of a long-term sustainability initiative is an enormous challenge, so in addition to tracking progress of our plan’s individual actions, the District plans to use STAR as a way to measure the level of sustainability for the District as a whole. Having the ability to benchmark against other cities over time will be invaluable in determining our success and leadership nationally. Before STAR, this would just not have been possible,” explains Dan Guilbeault, Policy Analyst at the District Department of the Environment.

As the pilot program wraps up, and the pilot communities begin to submit their data for certification, STAR Communities is now looking to the future and to the next group of leadership communities. Based on the success of and the lessons learned from the pilot program, STAR Communities is pleased to announce the opportunity for all U.S. cities and counties to measure progress towards community sustainability through participation in the 2014 Leadership STAR Community Program.

With extensive support from STAR Communities staff, the selected  Leadership STAR Communities will work through the STAR Community Rating System together with the goal of becoming certified sustainable communities. Local governments that achieve a certified STAR Community Rating are recognized as leaders in sustainability and gain a deep understanding of their community’s strengths and needs to support current and future generations.

Through the one-year Leadership Program, communities will receive tools to measure progress towards a common set of sustainability metrics, access to STAR’s online platform to track the community’s sustainability data, opportunities to learn best practice from other communities, and assistance in sustainability messaging and storytelling.

In partnership with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, STAR Communities will offer financial assistance to a limited number of communities that demonstrate need and the ability to leverage local philanthropic support for their participation in the Leadership STAR Community Program. The full program application and guidelines for financial assistance are available at www.STARcommunities.org. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Since its inception, the National League of Cities (NLC) has been a core partner of the STAR Community Rating System. NLC and STAR Communities are both dedicated to improving America’s cities and mutually reinforce each other’s missions.

“We Need to Act” – President Obama’s Clarion Call for Action on Climate Change

Yesterday afternoon, President Obama gave a rousing speech that introduced his Administration’s Climate Action Plan, a speech that aimed to position the U.S. as a global leader on climate change. ”We want a global low-carbon economy,” he said.

While the global perspective is certainly an important one, local communities – cities, towns, and counties– indeed see and feel the greatest impacts of climate change.   At NLC, we see that efforts to support climate preparedness and community resiliency need to take place at the local level, and are pleased to note that the President also recognized the importance of support for local action. For example, he recognized that over 1,000 mayors have signed agreements to cut carbon emissions and stated that,  “Washington has to catch up to the rest of the country.”

President Obama went on to note that states and cities across the country are already taking it upon themselves to get ready. He highlighted the ongoing work in Miami Beach, Fla. to protect the city’s drinking water supply against saltwater intrusion (check out NLC’s recent webinar spotlighting Miami Beach’s leadership on sustainability issues), as well as New York City’s efforts to fortify 520 miles of coastline against frequent and costly storms.

In reviewing the Climate Action Plan in further detail, NLC recognizes that the President’s plan explicitly aims to support local efforts through the following actions:

  • Strengthening roads, bridges and shorelines as a means to protect homes and businesses from extreme weather events;
  • Using the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency to help improve local transportation options; lower transportation costs; and protect the environment through advanced transportation technologies;
  • Launching the Better Building Accelerators Program to help encourage states and localities to adopt policies to continue to reduce energy waste;
  • Creating a short-term taskforce of state, local and tribal leaders to convene and advise the federal government on ways to better support local preparedness efforts, including removing barriers to long-term investments; modernizing loan programs; and providing better tools and resources to local communities; and
  • Utilizing “Environmental Justice Progress Reports” to identify and work with those communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

At NLC, we recognize that local communities across the country are feeling the impacts of climate change.  We are focused on sharing local stories of climate action and providing local leaders with the tools to proactively show leadership on this issue, as cities are on the front lines of preparing for and responding to the impacts of extreme weather events and a changing climate.  We urge the federal government and President Obama to continue examining the ways in which they can provide local leaders with the necessary tools, resources and support on this critical issue.

As President Obama urged, America must lead the way on climate change. “Don’t fear the future, shape it,” he said. Within this framework, it is clear that cities lead, and will continue to lead.

The Devil is in the Design Details: Strategies to Enhance Transit Experience

I live in a region that is nationally known for its traffic congestion.  In virtually every poll, newspaper article, or blog on the topic (google “DC region traffic congestion” for proof), the DC metro area is up in the ranks.  Somewhat under the radar are the initiatives taking place throughout the region to provide viable alternatives to residents who are desperately trying to avoid driving (and road rage). Of course, Capital Bikeshare has quite a reputation these days; it’s been so popular that a network that was once only in Washington DC quickly expanded to Arlington and soon will be finding its way to Montgomery County. However, less known is that since the region’s Transportation Planning Board adopted a regional complete streets policy, a number of local jurisdictions and transportation agencies have adopted and started implementing their own versions of it.  And in my own hometown of Washington DC, where we’ve had a complete streets policy for a few years, the Department of Transportation also recently started a campaign, “Move DC,” to develop a multi-modal, long-range transportation plan.

I write all this to say that in any given city and region, transportation departments are embarking on countless such initiatives to increase efficiencies and enhance user experience of transit.  And while these systemic efforts to coordinate and collaborate on a large scale is critical (we’ve discussed the importance of partnerships many a time), I think that perhaps the devil is in the design details.

According to Smart Growth America, nearly 130 communities adopted complete streets policies in 2012.  As part of complete streets, cities are encouraged to think about integrated, holistic roadway design that not only accommodates all modes of travel, but also serves residents with varied needs.  From aging populations to those with physical disabilities, residents have different demands of a street and of transit.  And regardless of whether or not a city decides to implement a complete streets policy, it is critical that these groups and their interests are represented in roadway planning and implementation processes to ensure that the “small” details (think: sidewalk and curb design; crosswalk timings) actually work for everyone. [Design (and plan) with everyone in mind]

Portland Multi Modal

Apart from the nuts and bolts of roadway design, cities are also looking into technology as a means to enhance user experience.  As part of the “Move DC” efforts, the city has tagged intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in their list of options to explore further.  ITS applications use ‘smart’ technologies to improve the efficiency, coordination and delivery of services, including roadway and traffic management.  Applications such as transit signal priority in Tacoma, Wash. and Chicago, Ill.; emergency vehicle preemption in Plano, Texas and St. Paul, Minn.; and red light enforcement cameras in Scottsdale, Ariz. and Raleigh, N.C. are some examples of the ways that ITS technologies can not only contribute to more effective, efficient, and safe transit and roadway systems, but also save cities money, time, and resources (this report gives more details on the examples listed). While ITS is a large umbrella under which a range of technology applications fall, cities have an opportunity here to identify those specific technologies that would be most useful to not only meet current transit demands, but actually account for and enhance future ridership.  [Design intelligently]

ITS or no ITS, cities can (and do) plan transportation better when the end user experience is thought about early in the planning stages.  Complete streets and intelligent transportation systems are only two umbrella concepts in a whole menu of strategies that transportation departments can turn to when attempting to create an integrated, effective system that is actually based on user demand and user experience.  These are meant to serve as inspiration, and perhaps examples of a larger idea that is best captured by the title of one of my favorite books on the power of design to improve lives: [“Design like you give a damn”]

Here at NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute, we’ve spent the last several months curating and adding to the wealth of transportation resources already on our site, www.sustainablecitiesinstitute.org.  We’ve included more reports, guides and model policies on complete streets, bike share, and carshare, to name a few. Check out our new resources and, as always, email us at sustainability@nlc.org with any questions, comments or suggestions!