State of the Cities in 2011: Sustainability, But What’s in a Name?

March 9, 2011 - (4 min read)

This is the third in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.
Mayors across the country are implementing initiatives to drive economic recovery while protecting the environment, promoting public health and creating vibrant communities with a unique sense of place.  These programs fulfill the triple-bottom-line definition of sustainability – bringing concurrent benefits to the environment, economy and society – and in their State of the City addresses, mayors chose among variable reasons to tout these efforts.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the principal goal is, or why cities pursue sustainability, because the ancillary benefits will follow.  Whether primarily motivated by job creation or clean water, and whether using words like “livable” or “green” or no buzzword at all, mayors are talking about sustainability in their 2011 State of the City addresses.

Conservation and efficiency are especially compelling in tough economic times, and many mayors emphasized financial benefits.  Mayor Tom Dale of Nampa, Idaho, mentioned efficient lighting upgrades in municipal buildings that reaped $55,000 in energy bill savings in 2010.  Sacramento, Calif., mayor Kevin Johnson aims to retrofit school facilities to meet LEED standards for green buildings – and use the dollars saved to protect teacher salaries.  New York City launched a green stormwater infrastructure program last year that uses trees and gardens to capture rain, rather than store and treat stormwater in expensive tanks and tunnels.  Mayor Michael Bloomberg boasted that this program saves the city $2 billion a year, which is “a very big deal.”

Other mayors are capitalizing on clean energy technology and green economic development to directly create job opportunities in their communities.  In Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin celebrated the arrival of 1,000 high-paying jobs manufacturing solar panels.  Among Sacramento Mayor Johnson’s top three priorities is using sustainability “game-changers” as a tool to double the number of green jobs by 2020, such as a new biofuel manufacturing industry that converts agricultural waste to fuel for the municipal vehicle fleet.  He calls it “a self-sustaining green economy.”

These and other cities understand that sustainability is crucial for competitiveness and to attract and retain residents.  Transportation choices are also essential for economic growth and a number of mayors expressed plans to invest in public transit.  Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker sees the success of the Sugar House Streetcar as a metaphor for the state of his city.  And Mayor Benjamin describes the “bright new future” he envisions for his city through transit-oriented development: “Imagine positioning Columbia as a new, vibrant and green 21st century metropolis with public transportation at its core. … If we’re going to lead on job creation, we must first lead on transportation.”

Though prosperity is a priority for most cities, a number of mayors are celebrating environmental protection for its own sake – independent of its connection to a strong economy.  Cities from Marion, Iowa, to Albuquerque, N.M., are dedicated to improving recycling rates.  Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Mich., seeks to reduce his city’s dependence on coal by constructing a new natural gas power plant.  And Mayor Lois Frankel committed West Palm Beach, Fla., to conducting a citywide greenhouse gas emissions inventory, followed by a climate action plan, in 2011.

Along with “prosperity” and “planet,” the third tenet of sustainability – “people” – is also present in mayors’ speeches, most often manifested through a focus on healthy living.  Mayor Ardell Brede of Rochester, Minn., created smoke-free bus shelters for cleaner air and Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington, Texas, joined the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.  Even mayors who made no other mention of a program that easily fits under the sustainability umbrella indicated that their city has bolstered bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.   In some places, sustainability is primarily about improving the quality of life.

By choosing language that resonates in their community – whether people, planet or prosperity – mayors are speaking to their constituents about sustainability.  At the end of the day, the “how” or “why” is less relevant.  Cities are already acting on their vision for the sustainable future, regardless of the words used to describe it.  Those mayors who understand that sustainability is about solutions, not sacrifices, will succeed in propelling their cities into a 21st century rich in innovation, protective of nature, and with a high quality of life.  If these 31 State of the City addresses are any indication of a greater trend, we can expect strong, continued leadership in sustainability from municipal governments.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on government efficiency on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 10th: a look deeper in to economic development.