Cities Make Sustainability the New Business-as-Usual

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Mayors from cities large and small increasingly recognize that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues.

SLC-SustainabilityRalph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City (pictured), dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues.

In June 2013, President Obama released the first federal Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions and better protect the country from the anticipated effects of climate change. This came nearly ten years after the city of Keene, N.H. — population 23,000 — completed a lengthy community engagement process and launched its own climate action plan.

It has recently become something of a mantra, even within Washington, D.C., to acknowledge that most of the innovative policies, programs and ideas related to environmental protection are being generated at the local level. Federal agencies have done commendable work through the multi-agency Partnership for Livable Communities, increased CAFÉ standards for fuel economy, among other initiatives – however, many of the innovative policies and financial tools that incentivize green building, improve recycling and waste diversion, promote renewable energy or expand alternative transportation have been championed by local governments.

Blog 10- 6-14 COOPER-06But is this narrative actually true? And if so, how wide reaching is this local leadership? Based on NLC’s ongoing analysis of Mayoral State of the City addresses, we’ve identified tangible actions taken by local leadership on environmental issues in cities of nearly every size, in every region of the country.

Within our sample, we discovered that 63% of speeches covered environmental topics such as renewable energy, water, climate, or sustainability, while 20% devoted “significant coverage”—at least three paragraphs or more—to environmental topics.

Digging into these speeches more closely, a handful of mayors, approximately 12%, are at the forefront of these issues and have made environmental protection a central part of their agenda. Their speeches include specific references to sustainability plans, climate action plans or other comprehensive and holistic plans that guide municipal activities.

Most importantly, these mayors seem to understand that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues. Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix, Ariz. is representative of many other speeches in this regard, explaining to his citizens that:

“No matter how well we have planned in Phoenix to avoid a water shortage, our economy will suffer when reliable water supplies for the region are threatened… We are engaging with leaders in California and southern Nevada to find common ground on shortage scenarios. We should examine our own laws so that as we continue to grow and develop, we do so in a truly sustainable way. We cannot afford to wait.”

The city is not only acting on its own behalf, it is bringing others in the region along.

Water is not the only environmental issue that can have a dramatic impact on a local economy. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, Utah – who dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues – bluntly related the news that according to the director of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, “the number one reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of our bad air quality.”

Leading By Example

Twenty percent of cities demonstrating clear leadership on environmental issues may not appear that significant, but it is important to keep in mind how quickly best practices can spread once a concept is proven. Although local government is a risk-averse business, it is clear from this analysis that many cities are benefiting from the experience of a few innovators.

One example of this is Columbia, S.C., where Mayor Stephen Benjamin announced that the city would be working with private sector partners to build a facility to divert tons of sewer sludge from their waste stream to be recycled and produce high quality fertilizer, compressed natural gas for city vehicles and enough electricity to power 500 homes.

The initiative is described as the “single most impactful green initiative the city has ever taken” and it would likely not be possible without other cities who demonstrated that such technology could be environmentally and economically viable.

Looking to the future, one of the most promising new developments is that two cities in our analysis, Evanston, Ill. and Seattle, Wash., discussed their commitment to pursue the STAR Community Rating. Developed with significant input and cooperation from local government officials, the STAR system rates participating cities on a variety of environmental and social metrics, providing a comprehensive and data-driven benchmark for cities to identify their strengths or areas in which they may need improvement.

This type of consistent, objective, and independently verified rating has the potential to dramatically improve environmental performance.

It will take much more local leadership if we are going to create truly sustainable communities, but this research is indicative of the thousands of communities throughout the country who are at the forefront. It is up to us to measure, replicate, and improve on the examples they have set.

This is the fourth blog post in NLC’s State of the Cities 2014 series.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for Sustainability at the National League of Cities.