A Look Back: City-led Sustainability in 2012

As 2012 rolls to a close, as in any year, there will be a tireless tallying of memorable moments, impactful images, influential figures and areas of historical significance. And while it is unlikely that the achievements of city-led sustainability will rise to the top of many national polls this year, it is an encouraging realization that within this growing field, despite the challenges and complexities, each year, really does, bring with it more successes than the last. Whether the underlining impetus is one of necessity or increased acceptance, it’s fair to say that sustainability is gaining ground as an approach to critical issues facing communities of all sizes, all across the country.

At NLC, a principle highlight in 2012 was welcoming the Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI), a dynamic online toolkit to catalyze, support, inform and celebrate locally led sustainability efforts. Over the past year NLC has expanded SCI resources and engaged with members and partners to strengthen and identify ways to further develop this tool to meet the sustainability needs of city leaders. NLC values ongoing feedback and invites readers to complete this short questionnaire or send comments, ideas or questions directly to sustainability@nlc.org.

In the spring of 2012, NLC’s Sustainability Program also had the honor of leading a delegation of elected officials to cities in Sweden and Germany to exchange best practices and share first-hand the impressive sustainability work taking place in U.S. cities and towns. During the visit, delegates toured former industrial areas redeveloped into internationally recognized sustainable communities, learned about innovative energy efficiency and waste management strategies, shared insights into the emergence of sustainable-approaches in the U.S., found new ideas and areas of commonality. A daily account of delegates’ travels, meetings, and experiences were posted on NLC’s blog beginning here.

Across cities, there have been countless notable sustainability programs, projects and themes occurring throughout 2012 (follow @NLCgreencities for daily updates!). Far from a comprehensive summary, the following presents a look back at some of the biggest sustainability issues facing cities this year:

Energy: Cities and towns across the country experienced a boon of cost-saving, and job creating energy efficiency projects as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for the Energy-Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) in 2009. These resources have been used over the past four years to catalyze new and strengthen existing locally-led energy efficiency efforts such as the installation of LED street and traffic lights, building and facility retrofits, long-term strategic energy plans, and revolving loan funds to support residential weatherization (see a full list of EECBG supported city projects here). Originally created as the “Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” the program did not receive funding until ARRA, and despite its unparalleled impact to support local government energy initiatives, it was unable to secure allocation in federal budgets in 2010, 2011 or 2012. Thus in September of this year, cities and towns saw these funds expire and were once again left to face the daunting challenges of increased energy costs, future energy security, and strategies to reduce emissions on their own.

As expected, cities have continued to demonstrate leadership, find creative partnerships and make critical investments to advance their energy efficiency and renewable energy goals in 2012. Cities of all sizes have been identifying strategies to meet their energy goals such as partnering with utilities and community colleges, while employing technology and mobilizing their communities (all described in this report by New Energy Cities).  While there are several front-runners moving into the next stages of energy efficiency, we expect to see continued activity among local governments in the coming years to increase energy transparency through policies that require building benchmarking, rating and disclosure. And we are even starting to see movement beyond simply using less energy – to using zero energy. For example, the City of Cambridge, MA and Salt Lake City, UT have been on the cutting edge of efforts around net-zero energy buildings. Mayor Henrietta Davis recently presented at the Congress of Cities on efforts in Cambridge to establish a net-zero school as described in this blog post.

Climate: By all accounts, when the ball drops in Times Square, we will not only ring in a New Year, but also close out the hottest year on record (as explained in this video by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center). Communities across the U.S. felt the first-hand impacts of extreme weather events contributing to devastating wildfires, crop-punishing droughts and fierce storms including this summer’s derecho that violently swept across parts of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions. As we close out 2012, thousands across eastern New York and New Jersey will remain homeless as a result of Superstorm Sandy that in October delivered the worst natural disaster to hit the East Coast in a generation. 

While it is true that no single event can be attributed to a global shift in climate, it is also true that these events are not open to debate.  They are real, they are happening, and as we have seen on multiple occasions, it is local government leaders standing in the eye of the storm prepared to respond in the heat of the moment and long after.  Whether we want to call it “sustainability” or simply “responsibility,” if we have learned anything over the last year it should be that these events are not waiting until we can agree on terminology. Citizens depend upon their local leaders to prepare in advance, to make difficult and at times politically unpopular decisions, and to be ready to respond when extreme events occur. An important question for the coming year though still remains: Can local leaders depend upon their state and federal government to do the same? Now more than ever cities need ongoing support and national leadership on these issues, though if the barely-audible acknowledgement of climate issues during the 2012 election season was any indication, the strongest leadership will likely still come from the bottom up.

NLC recently delivered a workshop at the Congress of Cities on climate adaptation and resiliency featuring the leadership of the City of Joplin, MO and City of Flagstaff, AZ. In the coming year NLC will be exploring issues of adaptation and resilience in more detail and is committed to supporting cities. NLC is currently inviting feedback from cities on ways that we can best support city efforts and encourage city leaders to complete this brief questionnaire or contact sustainability@nlc.org with recommendations.

Water: Too much, too little, too dirty, or in the case of infrastructure, too old, chances are every community faces one or more of these very oversimplified water-related challenges. 2012 was a big year for water with the recognition of the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act (CWA), the nation’s law to protect the quality and safety of water bodies across the country, coming at the heals of one of the worst drought summers since the 1950s. Events commemorating the anniversary were held throughout the year and over 1,000 cities participated in the Wyland Foundation’s first annual National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, empowering leaders and residents with informational tools and online resources to pledge water savings and track progress. 

In the category of “too much” water, effectively collecting and treating runoff has been a costly and complicated challenge for cities. In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an integrated planning framework for managing stormwater and wastewater (see NLC article here). This voluntary framework provides guidance for local governments on developing plans to meet their CWA requirements in a cost-effective and strategic manner. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, UT described the benefits of this framework in a July hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, “By using an integrated approach, a community can produce a viable plan that selects from among several options to afford the greatest environmental benefit and address regulatory requirements, while reducing their financial impacts.” NLC is currently collecting feedback on this framework and specific challenges your community is facing regarding wastewater and stormwater management. We invite you to share your experiences via this brief questionnaire.

Sustainability Impacts and Efficiencies: In what may be considered a hopeful sign that sustainability as an approach to issues may be moving beyond the endless (and at times heated) debates of what it is and why it matters, the sustainability dialogue in 2012 tended to focus less on “why” and more directly on “how.” Metrics and indicators have emerged as an area of increased interest, and rightfully so. Up until this point, much evidence of the importance of sustainability initiatives have been either too anecdotal or too fragmented to effectively communicate trends or demonstrate impacts. The emergence of comprehensive indicators are allowing cities to track their progress, monitor impacts, and use this information to evaluate and guide ongoing investments or decision making. While there are a number of very impressive tools and frameworks available to (and some created by) cities, NLC is particularly looking forward to the 2013 release of the STAR Community Index Online Reporting Tool. NLC is a founding partner of the Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating (STAR) Communities framework, the first national platform of its kind.  

The use of and pervasiveness of technology to facilitate or assist sustainability initiatives is also an area that has gained traction throughout the year. At NLC’s recent Congress of Cities, representatives from the cities of Boston, Tallahassee, and Santa Monica discussed ways that technology has assisted their abilities to innovative and achieve goals across energy efficiency, multi-modal transportation, citizen engagement, and even parking management. In the year ahead it is expected that more and more cities will be turning to technological solutions, from apps to smart grids, to increase the effectiveness of their sustainability programs and ease by which community members and businesses may engage.

A final critical trend that emerged out of 2012 was the value of partnerships and recognition that while cities and towns are on the front lines of responding to; preparing for; and enabling action on a range of challenges that they cannot, are not, and should not be doing this on their own. In nearly every sustainability success story NLC encounters, NLC finds not only strong political leadership and committed, talented city staff, but also community partners, local businesses, area universities, faith-based organizations, public health facilities, schools and others – working together to build stronger, safer, healthier and more sustainable communities. NLC is committed to supporting and celebrating the sustainability efforts of cities and towns across the country and looks forward to the coming year to work even more closely with and learn directly from the local leaders who so proudly serve the nation's communities.