The State of the Cities in 2012: Mayors Adopt a Sustainability Framework

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This is the last post in a seven-part series about US mayors’ 2012 State of the City speeches.

Ten years ago, if you looked far and wide, you may have heard the word “sustainability” in one- possibly two- mayors’ State of the City addresses.  Five years ago, a few more mayors, especially those with a large constituency of environmentalists, might have let the word slip into their speeches.  Today, however, we find this term and others associated with it (livability, smart growth, etc.) commonplace in the speeches of mayors from small, medium, and large cities around the country.

What has changed in the last ten years?

While the challenges that mayors face today are not drastically different than the challenges they’ve faced in years past, they are problem-solving with renewed creativity and resourcefulness.  Mayors have always had the incredibly difficult task of managing a tight fiscal budget; earning residents’ trust in government; and strategically supporting infrastructure, development, and education projects so that their communities can thrive.  And while some of these conditions were exacerbated in 2011 by other circumstances (a slow-to-act Congress or situations that inspire citizens to occupy and inhabit public squares), the central task has always remained the same for mayors—managing and cultivating a healthy, vibrant city.

Through an analysis of this year’s State of the City addresses, we found repeatedly that mayors are approaching the same (old) issues with a new and innovative perspective.  And for several mayors, it seems that utilizing a framework of sustainability allows for the type of flexibility that fosters creative problem solving in response to the numerous issues in their cities. More than once we found that adopting a sustainability framework allowed mayors to 1) reframe and holistically understand and address challenges specific to their city and region; 2) devise long- term solutions that have multiple and far–reaching consequences; and 3) identify and capitalize on the existing connectivity between local and regional resources, projects, and players.

I use four examples from our sample to demonstrate that– regardless of city size– mayors are embracing a sustainability framework to strategically address any number of local, geographically- relevant issues they are facing, from energy inefficiencies and aging infrastructure, to lack of jobs, blighted properties, and food deserts in their city.  Additionally, by capitalizing on the day-to-day technological advances that characterize these times, elected leaders have the potential to be able to build connections with their constituency and derive solutions faster, more efficiently, and more effectively than ever before.

  • The city of Mt. Dora, FL, pop. 12,370, has been actively planning and implementing energy efficiency projects in 2011 using funding from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant.  The city has completed over 70 energy audits in homes and office buildings; developed an energy efficiency and conservation strategy; and installed a 5kW solar photovoltaic system as a demonstration project.  In his address, Mayor Thielhelm, Sr. acknowledged the tough financial times that his city and others around the country have faced in the last several years, but was quick to note that regardless- or perhaps for that reason, Mt. Dora has and will continue to make big strides in energy efficiency.
  • Within just a few minutes into his speech, Mayor Poll of Wyoming, MI, pop. 72,125, embraced a sustainability framework for his 2012 goals: “We are now thinking differently about our community and are ready to accept new ideas, new energy, new opportunities, and redevelopment.” He went on to describe how, in 2011, his staff engaged various city leaders and stakeholders, and as a result developed guiding sustainability principles for Wyoming.  By embracing a statement of sustainability; celebrating diversity; encouraging collaboration; and identifying existing strengths in the community,  Mayor Poll hopes to address various challenges with regard to finances and jobs—all the while focusing on “being good environmental stewards.”
  • In Eugene, OR, pop.156,000, we see that sustainability initiatives have largely been focused around improving neighborhood livability (food security and food resilience) and infrastructure improvements (including continued implementation safe routes to school and bus rapid transit systems).  Mayor Piercy mentioned that, as state funding has been tight for transportation improvements, the city has been even more purposeful in increasing multi-modal connectivity as a means to increase mobility for residents.  In fact, Envision Eugene, the city’s long term plan, focuses on strategically managing a growing population by increasing connectivity with the city center; supporting mixed-used, transit oriented development; and preserving lands currently beyond the city’s urban growth boundary.  Additionally, Mayor Piercy has actively been involved in improving the regional rail system in order to make the whole region more economically competitive.
  • In his speech, Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee, WI, pop.594, 833, made it clear that sustainability has been a priority for several years now.  Among other things, the mayor mentioned that the city’s Green Team has implemented over 85% of the recommendations that were put forth in 2005.  Additionally, several creative sustainability initiatives are taking place, including the restoration and preservation of the city’s rivers, the creation of a three mile green corridor in the city center, and the development of a sustainability plan for the city.  Perhaps most exciting, however, is that the city recently launched the Milwaukee Sustainable Manufacturing Initiative (ME3), a program to cut manufacturer operating costs by reducing waste and increasing efficiency.  With the ME3 program, the city hopes to enhance the economic competitiveness of Milwaukee’s manufacturers while minimizing the negative environmental impacts of manufacturing processes.

There are many more notable sustainability initiatives that were discussed in mayors’ State of the City speeches, including Baltimore, MD’s work around transforming vacant lots intro productive use; Boulder CO’s continuing investment in renewable energy; and Oklahoma City’s efforts to improve community health by creating more bike lanes, parks, pedestrian friendly streets and wellness centers.  The common thread in all these cities is that mayors are using sustainability to weave together seemingly- unrelated challenges and innovate at every scale to improve the quality of life for their residents.

Did you miss our previous posts in this State of the City series? Here they are:


Investing in People

Fiscal Challenges and Improvement

Restoring Trust in Government

Economic Development Efforts

Focus on Infrastructure Investment