A New Year with New Opportunities for Sustainability

December 27, 2012

By Tammy Zborel

Last month, in an article looking back on city-led sustainability in 2012, the observation was made that cities in large part have succeeded in moving beyond the "why" and "if" stages of sustainability and are now focused primarily upon the detailed "what" and "how" aspects.

As the New Year gets underway, NLC's Sustainability Program remains committed to supporting city efforts to develop, expand and strengthen initiatives that advance the social, environmental and economic sustainability of their communities.

The Sustainability Program looks forward to working with and learning from cities across the country as they demonstrate continued leadership and innovation to meet their goals.  To help cities identify the specific programs and policies best suited to their communities in the coming year, NLC has assembled five recommended strategiesnot quite "resolutions" for city sustainability leaders to consider.

Though not a comprehensive list, these strategies for success will help cities chart a course into the next phases of their sustainability efforts.

1. Create and expand partnerships - especially with youth and universities. Partnership building is critical to the success of any community-wide sustainability initiative. Cities have a wide range of potential partners to engage in the development and implementation of various projects. Two groups that traditionally have shown a great deal of interest and advocacy on areas of sustainability are youth and local colleges and universities. As discussed in this recent blog post about the value of youth participation in local government, and this post on specific ways to link university and city sustainability efforts, these groups not only provide willing partners for short-term initiatives, but also set the foundation for longer term engagement.

2. Make it easy and engaging through technology. Successful community-wide sustainability initiatives need to be convenient, accessible and integrated into the rhythm of everyday living. This recent article describes how everyday technology-everything from phone applications and social media, to smart grids and bike sensors-is allowing cities to increase public engagement and promote the adoption of sustainable alternatives.  Also, this on NLC's Sustainable Cities Institute website produced by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, provides guidance to help cities use online tools to engage communities.

3. Data, data, data - Measure, track, record, report. For cities moving from the "why" and "if" to the "what" and "how" of sustainability, performance metrics and indicators are proving themselves indispensable and will continue to grow in 2013. Tracking inputs, outcomes, and various measures of success allows city professionals and policymakers to make informed, evidence-based decisions.  Quantifiably demonstrating the impact of policies or programs can also increase community support for initiatives by clearly communicating impacts and celebrating successes. One of the most exciting developments for cities in 2013 will be the release of the STAR Community Index and Online Reporting Tools. STAR (Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities) is the first national framework for evaluating sustainability in cities.

4. Plan, prepare and institutionalize. Many cities have already begun developing comprehensive sustainability plans or similar strategies to incorporate sustainability goals throughout local government efforts. In the coming year NLC anticipates that more attention will be placed on the development of disaster preparedness and adaptation planning efforts to identify and to reduce possible risks associated with extreme weather events. Regardless of the types of planning documents a city develops, the most valuable aspect will depend upon their implementation. Sustainability plans can be broad and often encompass the work of multiple city departments, while setting a vision for the entire community. In order to be successful these plans and vision need to be institutionalized, woven into the fabric of internal city operations and throughout the language and culture of local government.

5. Be bold. Short of a formal prediction, 2013 could very well be a year marked by, and ripe for, bold, game-changing leadership at all levels of government towards sustainability. One obvious step is leaders taking a serious approach to increasing community resiliency in the face of extreme weather events. Until recently, climate adaptation has received little attention among state and national priorities. Last October's Superstorm Sandy closed out a year marked by damaging droughts, wildfires and storms. It provided political leaders with both the opportunity and obligation to move beyond partisan rhetoric and take the politically-bold actions necessary to accept and prepare for the unprecedented uncertainties that accompany a changing climate. The severity and impact of extreme weather events throughout 2012 have elevated national attention of the need to better understand and prepare our communities for future events. Strong leaders are needed in 2013 to not only insist on serious conversations, but to demand direct action addressing community resilience and adaptation.

While it is uncertain what 2013 will bring for federal action in energy finance, climate adaptation or food production and security, when it comes to sustainability, local government leaders will continue to have a critical and active role, both on the ground in their communities and as experienced advocates at the state and national levels.

NLC's Sustainability Program is looking forward to working with local leaders to advance and support city-led sustainability efforts in the coming year.