Progress Sustainability Through Local Partnerships

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We often hear that local governments struggle to implement sustainability programs because they lack the capacity and the funding to do so. In a time when every penny really does count, this issue hits home for small—and large—city governments alike.   However, while budget and staffing issues are no doubt a reality for sustainability offices throughout the country, we’ve seen that cities with some of the most effective and creative workarounds to this issue have utilized strong partnerships to help catalyze, promote, implement and maintain sustainability projects.  “Where there’s a will there’s a way”—and partnerships might just be a key to finding the way.

Partnerships are an untapped (or under-tapped) asset in most communities. Those communities who have really utilized their local partners—whether it be local businesses, faith-based organizations, non-profit organizations, or schools—have found that the reward is two–fold. First, these groups are likely comprised of the very stakeholders that a city’s sustainability initiatives are trying to engage.  Second, such groups often have a longstanding history and connection with the place and with the community. Therefore, they provide invaluable access to harder populations to reach, as well as an on-the-ground outreach capacity that is critical to moving any sustainability initiative forward.

Whether the city’s goal is to plant 1,000 trees in the next year or increase physical activity in youth, sustainability programs do not run and maintain themselves.  Partners can provide the local knowledge that is critical to sustainability initiatives; the capacity to implement sustainability programs; and the leverage that is necessary to get the larger community on board.

The 2012 Congress of Cities Conference highlighted a myriad of partners that various cities are engaging to advance their sustainability work:

  • The City of Lawrence, Massachusetts has worked with the nonprofit Groundwork USA, for over ten years on issues such as urban greening and brownfield redevelopment (Dr. Nina Scarito Park is an award-winning example of such collaboration).
  • Through the Austin Green Business Leaders Program, the City of Austin, Texas is working with local businesses to green their operations.
  • The City of Cleveland, Ohio is engaging local arts and nonprofit organizations to make the Gordon Square Arts District into a thriving economic and cultural engine for the city.
  • In Boston, Massachusetts, the city created the Boston Mayor’s Youth Council to work with youth and actively engage them in addressing youth issues around the city through advocacy and outreach.
  • In Savannah, Georgia, the Healthy Savannah Initiative is bringing together families, schools, businesses, and faith-based organizations with the goal of making Savannah a healthier place to live.

These examples demonstrate that there really is no pattern with how to choose partners and when to engage them within the sustainability process.  However, in every one of these partnerships, the speakers emphasized the extensive dialogue and relationship-building that has to take place early on in order to ensure that the goals of the partner are parallel to the city’s sustainability goals—in other words that the relationship is mutually beneficial and productive.

So, while there is no magic process or formula for engaging partners, a commitment to open communication and a spirit of collaboration is the first step.

I’ll leave you with three takeaways that hopefully inspire you to re-examine your community’s assets and determine who might be your city’s next sustainability partner:

            Partners come in all different forms.
            Partners come from the unlikeliest of places.
            Partners are a local government’s extension into a community.