How Sustainability is Changing Regional Cooperation

July 12, 2019 - (5 min read)

Mayors in towns large and small recognize the power of collaboration — the strength in numbers. In my last blog post, we discussed the Greenest Region Compact (GRC), which featured 115 municipalities and 10 councils of government in Northeast Illinois as signatories at last count. It is the largest regional collaboration on sustainability in the United States, designed to improve quality of life for nearly six million residents it covers and gain clout for the region. The GRC, developed by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, is unifying sustainability actions between cities and supports their mayors’ role as environmental leaders.

Let’s focus on other environmental programs, besides solar development, and the evidence of greater “clout” for mayors.

“The GRC collaboration produces tangible and intangible advantages that would not have occurred otherwise,” says Mayor Kevin Burns of Geneva, Illinois, incoming chairman of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Environment Committee.

Benefits of collaboration principally fall along three lines. First, a unified group more likely has resources to find opportunities for funding and assistance. Second, funders seeking to support a high-profile, high-impact program will likely find this when dozens of municipalities align to undertake the same initiative. This allows funders to make a meaningful difference and receive key recognition. It also allows mayors to see quantifiable benefits, according to Darien, Illinois, Alderman Sylvia McIvor.

“Sustainability initiatives attract new residents and business development to our community,” she says.

Third, Compact members reap benefits from each other. “It’s the coordination with other municipalities, the ability to share information so we know what’s worked for others, or what has not,” says Highland Park, Illinois, Councilwoman Kim Stone.

Due to the GRC, the federal Corporation for National and Community Service, through the state agency, Serve Illinois, provided a$120,000 AmeriCorps grant to the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, to create the Greenest Region CorpsThis yielded eight sustainability coordinators for nine GRC communities to tackle priority projects that address GRC goals. The projects include engaging business to conserve energy and reduce waste, furthering recycling and food composting projects, climate action planning, conducting a tree inventory and landscape restoration planning.

Coordinators have college degrees, often in science or environmental studies. And while most see their work as an excellent way to gain experience in municipal government, many, like Jordan Francisco, enjoy the chance to make a difference and be part of a team.

“I really feel energized. It is a collaboration of all the municipalities, not just one town in it for themselves, and there is a plethora of resources,” he says.

Francisco launched a program to spur recycling among businesses in Libertyville, Illinois. Meanwhile, Kimberly White is helping promote efficiency and effectiveness in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, by researching and revamping the town’s sustainability plan.

“Chicagoland is very large geographically and with the number of residents. When you have a document like [the Greenest Region Compact], it shows the momentum of the entire region from a higher level,” White says. “And among the residents, you can tell there’s support for sustainability and awareness of how society is affecting the environment.”

When the coordinators successfully complete their one year of service, AmeriCorps offers a financial award to defray some past educational expenses or to put toward graduate school.

The GRC opened the door for participating mayors to take part in influential, high-profile environmental conferences. In December, 2017, Chicago’s then-Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, hosted the North American Climate Summit in partnership with C40 and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. Twelve mayors, primed for action because of their commitment to the GRC, were invited to participate.

Also, GRC communities represented by South Barrington, Illinois, Mayor Paula McCombie, and Councilwoman Stone, were present at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September, 2018, participating on the global stage with a host of dignitaries from all sectors of society. Summit leaders included Michael Bloomberg, U.N. Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

As Stone explains, “It’s really important because a lot of these climate initiatives have focused on larger cities, and grant opportunities are taking place there. But smaller cities need to have a voice,” she says. Hearing what others are doing and being able to talk with others and bring back ideas was very useful.”

As communities collaborate to identify and execute sustainability initiatives, Edith Makra, the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus Director of Environmental Initiatives, recommends these key considerations:

  • Prioritize activities for which grants and technical resources are available.
  • Choose activities using a “filter” of which are more likely to succeed and have the greatest impact.
  • Utilize “consensus goals,” such as in the Greenest Region Compact, so that all collaborating towns are “swimming in the same direction.” This unified activity increases the chances of acquiring assistance and resources.

About the Author: Gina Tedesco, who authors articles on behalf of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, has an extensive background in researching and writing environmental stories for newspapers, magazines and websites, and delivering them on radio and TV.  This, after more than 20 years as a news reporter or anchor at outlets in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere.