Northern Virginia Region Applies Global Lessons

A Local Perspective

by Dale Medearis, PhD
Northern Virginia Regional Commission

There should be no doubt that local governments in the U.S. can be a powerful force for international engagement, especially on matters such as global climate change, where U.S. cities and metropolitan regions are vital players on the front lines. But experience has demonstrated that international work for most U.S. mayors, councilmembers, county commissioners or state legislators is too often considered wasteful or irrelevant. Much of this is due to the vast amount of international exchange and development assistance work done by U.S. cities, counties and states that has little perceived connection to concrete and beneficial economic, environmental or social outcomes in the U.S. Worse, international activities by U.S. cities involving the union of climate change and development assistance introduces the risk that these efforts will be seen as disingenuous or patronizing through the eyes of developing countries. 

It should, of course, be noted that learning, transferring and applying lessons from other cities, whether national or international, is rarely a straightforward process and requires at minimum an appreciation of the complexities of policies and programs. 

Successful exchanges that lead to the direct transfer of information and/or result in tangible action often stem from concerted, deliberate and regular efforts that seek not only to learn but to apply lessons in focused ways over the long term. An example of this approach has been successfully demonstrated by the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC). 

Over the past decade, NVRC, a regional planning council in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, has been a pioneer in formalizing the transfer and application of multiple environmental and urban planning lessons from abroad to the United States. 

NVRC's approach has been to institutionalize problem-focused, goal-oriented and geographically specific transfers of lessons from European (mostly German) metropolitan regions to Northern Virginia. NVRC's work to transfer lessons and best practices across the Atlantic is unique, because it is framed around three core information gaps that often characterize cross-national conversations. NVRC's international work bridges common information gaps related to: 

• Lack of understanding about how a specific innovation from abroad develops and functions; 

• Lack of quantitative performance benchmarks with equivalent U.S. performance indicators; and 

• Evaluation about how the pieces of a specific imported policy or technical innovation from abroad can be applied into a unique domestic context. 

NVRC's work to introduce comprehensive energy planning to Arlington and Loudoun counties is an example of this outcome-oriented cross-national learning. In the period between 2009 and 2011, NVRC developed two model community energy plans (CEPs) for Arlington and Loudoun counties, respectively. 

These plans were developed in close consultation with European technical experts and benchmarked against the performance of model European cities, such as Copenhagen and Stuttgart. They are recognized as national models. A special feature of the CEPs was the focus on district energy, especially the process of heat recovery and distribution, which are standard in most German cities, but relatively underrepresented in the U.S. 

To overcome some of the cultural, technical and legal barriers that often eliminate district energy from consideration in local energy planning in the U.S., the NVRC commissioned a legal paper to profile how district energy systems from German cities such as Stuttgart and Mannheim could be applied to Northern Virginia within existing Virginia law. The union of the CEPs and the follow-up legal analysis concerning district energy represented a rare precedent in which details about the German district energy policies were reviewed, then compared with equivalent U.S. quantitative benchmarks and then evaluated prospectively for potential application under Virginia land-use, commercial, energy and other related laws and regulations. 

NVRC's work to import and apply stormwater lessons from Europe followed a similar problem-focused, goal-oriented trajectory. One outcome is that the Washington, D.C., region is home to the highest concentration of green roofs in the U.S. 

NVRC's international work is also precedent setting for the formality of its commercial and academic partnerships. By encouraging inclusion of corporate and academic institutions such as VW, REHAU, Dominion Power, Virginia Tech University and Northern Virginia Community College, NVRC promotes economic development, job creation and transfer of policy lessons with institutions better positioned to finding, reviewing and receiving lessons from abroad. It is often overlooked that there is more foreign direct investment (FDI) by individual countries such as Germany into states such as Virginia than there is foreign direct investment by the entire EU into China. Some studies estimate that FDI from Europe to Virginia alone has created approximately 200,000 jobs. 

As the U.S. prepares for the Rio+ 20 Conference in June 2012, its delegation may want to consider promoting an international urban agenda and that includes formalizing the import of policy lessons from abroad. The NVRC experience has shown that there are very positive and long-term economic and environmental improvements when working to find, understand and apply lessons from abroad. As de Tocqueville's experience in the U.S. more than two centuries ago demonstrated, there is often value in listening to the observations of a European. 

Dale Medearis, PhD, is senior environmental planner at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission. For more information about the NVRC, visit