Multiple Strategies, One Goal: Cities Continue to Lead on Sustainability

Reflecting Back, Looking Ahead 

by Tammy Zborel

Sustainability is just as much about preparing for tomorrow as it is about improving quality of life, protecting resources, advancing equity and stimulating the economy today. It requires confronting difficult realities and making informed, responsible, and at times unpopular decisions - in other words, strong leadership. 

In early 2011 a team within NLC's Center for Research and Innovation reviewed 31 "State of the City" speeches from across the country and found sustainability to be a common theme that local leaders were already embracing and preparing to advance in the year(s) ahead. While the specific issue areas and actions cited in these speeches - and ultimately pursued throughout 2011 - varied across cities, if there is one common message that emerged this past year it's that as cities look toward their futures, they're looking toward sustainability. 

Though the concept of sustainability often draws criticism for being so broad in scope, approach and activities that it is difficult to neatly define, far-reaching should not be confused for indiscriminate or "trendy." In pursuing sustainability, cities are making informed, strategic decisions appropriate for their contexts. Over the past year NLC's Sustainability Program has seen particular interest from cities in pursuing energy efficiency and renewable energy projects; increasing transportation options through improved infrastructure for all users; addressing issues of food access and security; investing in green infrastructure to naturally manage stormwater and reduce pressure on aging water systems; and important intersections among these and other issue areas. 

And they are not acting alone. As a multi-faceted goal, sustainability not only benefits from but requires active engagement, input and implementation from a range of stakeholders. Public and private interests - including local businesses, universities, community organizations and others - have been among those actively involved in their communities to advance efforts that promote a safe, healthy and sustainable future. 

Over the past year in particular we have also seen the conversation around sustainability expand from environmental and moral imperatives to a strategic focus on actions based on practical considerations such as public health and economic rationale, most notably cost savings and job creation. Increased support and calls from citizens and business interests for communities to "Go Green" have further buoyed awareness, interest and implementation of sustainability initiatives throughout communities. 

One issue that received a lot of momentum in 2011 was energy efficiency. Fueled by resources available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), cities set out to implement programs and policies to reduce energy consumption and pursue alternative energy. Efforts such as street and traffic light replacements, residential, commercial and municipal building retrofit programs and installation of renewable energy generation, catalyzed through Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds, were widely implemented. As these funds are set to expire this year, many cities will face the dual challenge of identifying ways to continue these important programs within the constraints of reduced local budgets. 

Amid current economic challenges, however, lies the opportunity to think outside the box, streamline processes, embrace change and prepare for the future - in other words, innovate. One way we would encourage cities to approach sustainability in tight financial times is through the continued and expanded use of partnerships. Institutions and stakeholders such as universities, utilities, community groups, regional bodies, local businesses, investors, youth and others bring important experience, perspectives and resources (human and financial) to sustainability goals. The "strength in numbers" created through wide-reaching partnerships can increase community-wide support and make sustainability less a conversation about top-down vs. bottom-up and more about side-by-side collaboration. 

Another strategy that we would encourage cities to embrace in 2012 is the monitoring and quantifying of impacts associated with sustainability investments. While sustainability efforts are gaining attention and support for their projected economic benefits, moving ahead, cities will increasingly need to demonstrate results such as cost savings, revenue generation and jobs created or retained. This information will not only be valuable to track progress and guide priorities over time, but perhaps more importantly, will begin to provide the private sector with the 'evidence' needed for them to feel confident in investing in sustainability. 

Of course, dialogue around sustainability in 2011 was not always positive. Over the past year several city-led sustainability efforts fell under attack from ideological interests seeking to portray sustainability as a partisan issue that might in some way threaten their communities. NLC rejects these assertions. Sustainability is not and should not be made out to be a partisan issue. All cities and city leaders seek to be better stewards of their community's resources. By pursuing sustainability, cities are responding to the needs of their communities, acting responsibly and investing in their futures: in jobs, in public health, in natural resources, in education and in the systems and infrastructure that bring these aspects together efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of all citizens. As the field of sustainability grows, more efforts will be needed to communicate the value and impact that these initiatives can have and move beyond the distracting and polarizing rhetoric that has already stalled important efforts across cities. 

Looking into 2012, it is likely that energy issues will remain a leading priority for cities and will expand into several arenas. Cities will continue to harvest the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency and conservation while also reaching towards higher branches into the adoption of innovative technologies and preparations for a "smarter" future. Expected growth of electric vehicles, integration of a smart grid and an emerging market in smart infrastructure and technologies will raise questions, present opportunities and challenge cities to rethink the intersections of elements such as energy (production, distribution), transportation, telecommunications and service delivery. 

We are hopeful that the gains made in 2011 to promote healthy, active communities - including increasing local food production and access and alternative transportation such as bike lanes and complete streets - will continue into 2012 and that they will also expand to include broader land-use components. As cities look toward future development patterns it is likely that those seeking 'quick fixes' based on unsustainable growth patterns of the past will suffer in the long term. Rather, cities are encouraged to incorporate quality-of-life considerations that support a sense of community and place in making future growth decisions. Transit-oriented and mixed-use developments that incorporate public transit such as light rail or street cars, access to parks and open space and repurposing vacant or underutilized properties, are just some of the key land-use elements of sustainable cities that should be considered in future investments. 

As NLC strives to provide timely information and quality resources to build the capacity of and support city leaders, staff and all those engaged in locally-led sustainability efforts, we are proud and excited to welcome the Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI; in the new year. SCI offers an expansive collection of vetted best practices, city profiles, model legislation, communication tools and more to help cities of all sizes learn about sustainability topics, connect with peers and advance action in their communities. 

NLC celebrates and applauds local leadership championing and advancing sustainability objectives throughout their communities and stands ready to support and strengthen these efforts into 2012 and beyond.

Details: Tammy Zborel is the senior associate within the Sustainability Program at NLC and may be reached at For more information about the Sustainability Program, including resources to assist cities, please visit; or the Sustainable Cities Institute. Follow us on twitter @NLCgreencities.

Have Your Say! 

The Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI), built by NLC Capstone Corporate Partner The Home Depot Foundation, is coming to NLC's Center for Research and Innovation in 2012 and we want to hear from you on how you would like to see this impressive tool continue to grow to support, celebrate and inform locally led sustainability efforts. 

If you are interested in being part of future focus groups regarding SCI or would like to learn more about this transition, please e-mail Tammy Zborel at Visit SCI to view currently available resources. 

Sustainability: Federal Legislation to Watch in 2012 

• Federal surface transportation programs are set to expire in March 2012 at which time Congress will either need to once again vote on a short-term extension of the current programs or agree to a long-term bill. 

• Potential impact to local government: Federal transportation programs provide billions of dollars in critical infrastructure investments to spur economic development, create jobs and strengthen the national economy. With 80 percent of the nation's population residing in metropolitan areas that generate 65 percent of the U.S. GDP, transportation investments that support economic growth in metropolitan areas strengthen the national economy. 

• What NLC is doing: NLC urges Congress to reauthorize a long-term, comprehensive surface transportation program that recognizes the central role transportation has in metropolitan and regional economics, includes the local voice in planning and project selection and allows local input in choosing the best mix of transportation options to fit regional needs. 

Water Infrastructure 
• The House and Senate continue to explore water infrastructure issues, including the need for significant investments and financing methods. 

• Potential impact to local government: Investments in the nation's water infrastructure creates jobs, drive economic growth and helps protect the environment. 

• What NLC is doing: NLC continues to urge Congress to reauthorize the Clean Water and Drinking Water SRF programs and to explore other alternative financing mechanisms to assist local governments in addressing aging water infrastructure, comply with unfunded federal regulatory mandates and meet the growing gap between the current expenditures and anticipated needs to enhance and maintain critical water infrastructure. 

• Legislation has been introduced in the House that will restore the ability of local governments to offer Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs to finance the installation of energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements. Additionally, in response to a court order, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) will initiate a rulemaking on the issue. 

• Potential impact to local government: The 27 states plus the District of Columbia that have passed laws enabling local governments to develop PACE programs would be able to allow homeowners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy retrofit projects. 

• What NLC is doing: NLC supports the PACE Assessment Protection Act (H.R. 2599), sponsored by Rep. Nan Hayworth (R-N.Y.), and continues to urge FHFA to enforce underwriting standards that are consistent with guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Energy for PACE financing programs.

• Congress is expected to introduce and consider legislation related to federal farm, conservation and food systems policy, also known as the "Farm Bill," this year. 

• Potential impact to local government: The Farm Bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown and what kinds of foods are grown. Through the Farm Bill, local governments have the opportunity to shape the health, equity and long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the U.S. farm and food system. 

• What NLC is doing: NLC supports adopting a Farm Bill that is consistent with sustainability and public health principles. 

Details: For more information on federal legislation related to sustainability, contact Carolyn Berndt, principal associate, infrastructure and sustainability, at or Leslie Wollack, program director, infrastructure and sustainability, at