This section is focused on the creation and implementation of a municipal sustainability program. We have separated this action into numerous parts, because we realize that a sustainability initiative will be different in every community. However, we do strongly recommend that a sustainability program includes the following components in whatever form they may take in your municipality: a representative sustainability team; a budget; a community-created, -supported, and -implementable plan; sustainability-related staff/official trainings; regular assessments for impact and effectiveness; and is the charge of a management level staff. The only requirement is that for each of the Sustainability Program criteria the municipality and partnering organization/s comprehensively address all three areas of sustainability: Environment, Economy, and Equity.
- Representative sustainability team – The team structure should include at least one elected official, one staff person, and one community representative. It is beneficial if it includes people with differing skill sets and perspectives that can guide different aspects of the work. For example, having a community representative who understands real estate, another that is an engineer, planner, or architect, and a third that is an entrepreneur, helps bring different perspectives, expertise, and community networks to the table. This sustainability team could be created as its own entity, if the municipality does not already have a committee or Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) that could act as the Sustainability Team.
- Budget – Having a budget, even if a relatively small one, sends a signal to those on the team that their work is valued and the municipality supports their efforts. It will allow those on the team to run events, conduct outreach, and advocate for, and support the enforcement of sustainability policies. New policies can be difficult to implement, and having a knowledgeable team that is financially supported can serve as ambassadors to the community.
- A community-created, -supported, and -implementable plan with goals – Having a sustainability plan of action that was created with the support of the community makes it much more likely that the actions suggested in the plan will be implemented. One key aspect of ensuring community support is ensuring that sustainability efforts address real needs and goals of the broader community. On this matter, values-based messaging can be helpful on topics ranging from economic vitality, public health, resilience, and safety. Additionally, allowing ample opportunity for community members to be involved in leading and participating in the planning and implementing of the plan is critical to the community feeling ownership of the plan.
It is also important that a sustainability plan lays out a timeline for the actions suggested and includes information about who is responsible or most likely to take the actions. The plan can take many forms. It could be a recent comprehensive plan that holistically incorporates sustainability, an ecodistrict plan that encompasses the entire (or most of the) community, a recent climate action plan, or a standalone sustainability plan by and for the sustainability team.
- Sustainability-related staff/elected official training – Things are changing fast in the world of sustainability and it is important that municipal officials be informed on the latest best practices and new policies are implemented and enforced across all departments. Staff and elected official training can ensure everyone has the same updated knowledge and are empowered to make informed decisions to reach the communities sustainability goals.
- Regular assessments of progress and goals – As your community develops a plan and begins implementing it, it will be important for the sustainability team and its partners to check-in regularly to assess progress, understand challenges, and confirm that the goals and activities being pursued are still in line with community needs. If progress is not being made on a key aspect of the plan, the team can revisit its approach and change strategies or goals as appropriate.
Kicking Things Off In Your Community:
Don’t know where to start? Here are some guiding steps to launching a municipal sustainability effort successfully (NLC 2018).
- Make a Public Commitment – Critical to the long-term success of a municipal sustainability effort is the engagement of a wide swath of community members, so getting the word out about the municipality’s interest in pursuing sustainability goals is important. Demonstrating in public and accessible ways that the community’s sustainability vision is positive for the community in multiple ways will inspire interested local stakeholders to get on board.
- Understand Your Community’s Situation & Aim for Quick, Visible Wins – An important early step for sustainability initiatives is to understand the full context of the municipality’s situation. Where are the strong points in current sustainability efforts? Where are the gaps? What programs, policies, or actions could you pursue quickly and with relative ease in order to demonstrate progress and build momentum? By implementing small but visible solutions early on, you will be able to show community members that positive change is possible when people work together, inspiring greater buy-in from local stakeholders.
- Strategically Plan and Prioritize Bigger Efforts – Understanding your own municipal and community capacity, start to plan for mid- and long-range sustainability projects and priorities that will have the most meaningful impacts for your community and the environment. Look to neighboring communities pursuing similar goals and broader community or regional plans to understand which of your municipality’s priorities might align naturally with what is already being accomplished or pursued nearby.
- Build Relationships & Shared Vision Across Sectors – Sustainability will not be solved by governments alone. Nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, businesses, schools, and resident groups all have critical roles to play in advancing sustainability, both internally within their own operations and externally with their own unique stakeholder groups. Begin building relationships and trust across sectors across fields and sectors by meeting the leaders of such groups, learning about their current and expected future challenges and opportunities related to sustainability (and sharing your perspective in turn), and identifying areas for collaboration in advancing shared sustainability priorities.
- Reinvest Savings Into Future Efforts – One attractive benefit of sustainability efforts is that they can often save a local government money in the long run. Because the up-front costs of making these improvements can be large, there is great value in beginning to quantify savings from these investments and direct those savings into a budget line specifically for future sustainability-related improvements and initiatives. By intentionally reinvesting savings in continued sustainability improvement projects, municipalities can not only demonstrate quantitatively the financial benefit of sustainability efforts, but also build on and amplify past successes to maximize the impact of earlier investments over time.
- Plan for Ongoing Work and a Shift in Mindset – Sustainability work is never a one-time project or adoption of a plan; it is an ongoing process that must touch all aspects of life as we know it. Technological advances, policy innovations, and changes in other sectors will continue to provide municipalities opportunities to change what they are doing (and how they are doing it) to improve the sustainability of their operations and broader communities. With the above in mind, municipal and community leaders must shift their mindset to one that understands that this work is an ongoing process that intersects with every part of community operations. By understanding that opportunities for sustainability improvements are all around us, we can effectively make progress towards big goals through both small and large actions.