Opportunities and Impact for Small-Town Sustainability

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Of the many misconceptions that sustainability as a field encounters, the notion that it is an approach exclusive to large, well-resourced cities is as pervasive as it is untrue.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion on strategies to connect and support sustainability efforts in cities and towns across the state of Iowa. In attendance were city sustainability professionals, university representatives, local non-profits and state agencies. As each representative presented an overview of the sustainability efforts happening throughout their communities or programs I was blown away.

On display in this meeting were examples of cities and towns throughout the state conducting community weatherization trainings, investing in permeable pavements, creating loan loss reserve funds, installing solar, pursuing net-zero buildings, creating sustainability indicators, conducting comprehensive assessments, identifying ways to reduce energy use in water treatment facilities, and the list goes on. While any of these initiatives would in their own right represent a compelling example of sustainability leadership within local government, perhaps the most impressive feature of these efforts is that a majority of examples given were occurring in communities with populations between 1,500 – 9,000. Of the few ‘large’ cities cited, their populations didn’t exceed 70,000.

How is this possible?

One prevailing theme of the discussion was partnerships, particularly with universities (see this blog post outlining the value and opportunities of city-university partnerships around sustainability goals). At NLC’s recent Congress of Cities in Boston, several workshops within the “Building Sustainable Communities” theme further emphasized the importance of partnerships, the need to identify and engage a wide range of stakeholders and the recognition that achieving sustainability may depend more on a long-term process than individual short-term projects.

The relationships and partnerships on display at last week’s roundtable, and the level of impact as a result of coordinated efforts, were not only inspirational, but instructive. Whereas large cities notoriously receive the accolades and traditionally have access to a wider range of funding options, I’ve learned that smaller cities have their own set of advantages including flexibility, personal connections and creativity.

Here are a few reflections I gathered last week on small-town advantages in pursuing sustainability:

  • Smaller communities tend to have more direct, personal relationships and lines of communication with community members, local businesses, and other stakeholders. These relationships may help to facilitate increased public engagement in decision-making and provide opportunities for partners to have a direct role in implementing projects. Smaller communities may also have greater success in bringing together diverse perspectives as witnessed in Fairfield, Iowa (population 9,000). Fairfield’s expansive sustainability accomplishments have largely been the result of agreement among the agricultural community and growing arts and culture interests, combined with strong political leadership.
  • Outreach, education, awareness and community support are essential to community-wide sustainability programs. Smaller towns may have an increased ability to reach community members. Whereas larger communities may need to invest significant resources into education and outreach campaigns, smaller communities can, as one community put it, “be everywhere,” displaying at local grocery stores, libraries, sporting events, farmers markets, community meetings, etc. Smaller population sizes may also help to facilitate social norming of highly visible sustainability actions such as bringing reusable bags to the store or bicycling rather than driving short distances.
  • Goals and overarching principles of sustainability typically have a lot in common with existing community values that may be more pronounced or seen as defining characteristics of smaller communities. For example: supporting local production of goods and services, efficient and responsible use of resources (financial, natural, human), creating sense of place and community, increased quality of life and public safety. By identifying how sustainability initiatives support and strengthen existing goals, communities can use these actions to create a framework towards a longer-term community vision.
  • Sustainability initiatives rarely come in a one-size-fits-all package. Each community therefore has an opportunity to evaluate how and in what ways they want to pursue sustainability goals. Smaller communities can utilize their sustainability efforts to highlight unique community assets or create a distinctive sense of place that may in turn attract or promote growth.
  • Finally, smaller communities may be able to more easily identify and isolate specific barriers or obstacles and target resources towards overcoming these challenges. Again this is where partners can be critical. For example the Iowa Energy Bank, operating through the State Department of Administrative Services, not only addresses monetary barriers by providing financing to community energy saving projects, but also seeks to help clients overcome barriers of time and expertise.

I’m grateful for the invitation to attend this roundtable discussion and inspired to learn more about the sustainability successes of small cities and towns.

Does your small town have a success story you’d like to share with others? Or ideas on how small towns may maximize their assets to achieve sustainability goals? Email us at sustainability@nlc.org or send a tweet to @SustCitiesInst.