Engaging the Public on Sustainability

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A comic displayed during an NLC Leadership Training session this afternoon summed up a major challenge to sustainability efforts in cities across the country. The image depicts a packed presentation room with benefits of action on climate change listed on a presentation screen. Among the list where items such as energy independence, green jobs, livable communities, clean water, and healthy children. In the audience there is a question on the floor that reads: “But what if it’s all a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing!

Perception of value and validity of sustainability is a challenge that most cities will face at some point in pursuing efforts to make their communities more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. Way before identifying funding sources and conducting planning charrettes – communities first must come to agreement about what it is that they want to achieve, how they choose to define sustainability for their community, how to prioritize activities and where to get started.

In today’s session, one of the first at NLC’s annual Congress of Cities in Boston, Mass., leaders and sustainability “veterans” lead an insightful and compelling discussion getting into the nuts and bolts of introducing to communities what has traditionally been a ‘sticky’ subject to say the least. Susanne Rasmussen, Director of Environmental and Transportation Planning for the City of Cambridge, Mass. cautioned attendees to be careful about getting tangled in terminology. Don’t assume that the word “sustainability” means the same thing to all people, says Rasmussen. Be deliberate and inclusive when defining your vision.

Jim Hunt, former sustainability director for the City of Boston and Robert Perkowitz, founder and chairman of EcoAmerica, also focused on the importance of language and terminology. Getting out from under the jargon-filled terminology that typically surrounds sustainability – and even being willing to not use the word if it is too confusing or contentious – is one way to start the conversation. A key element to success, they cited, was to actively connect the goals of sustainability to existing community values. Rather than introducing it as a new topic that may appear to dramatically alter what people value and enjoy about their communities, demonstrate how sustainability in fact helps to achieve a communities’ long-term vision. Also, connecting sustainability strategies – such as energy efficiency or alternative transportation – to practical benefits such as economic savings and job creation is helpful to show that these actions, in order to be truly sustainable, must go beyond environmental considerations.

The conversation will continue throughout the week with workshops on sustainability planning, forming partnerships, and measuring impacts. Stay tuned on CitiesSpeak.org for more updates live from the Congress of Cities on how cities can build sustainable communities, promote local economies, and strengthen neighborhoods and families. And follow us on twitter (@leagueofcities and @NLCgreencities), #NLCBos for up to the minute updates!