Report, Article or Plan

Defying the Odds: Sustainability in Small and Rural Places

A briefing paper from the ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities

by George Homsy and Mildred Warner

Most Americans have heard about the sustainability successes of the biggest American cities. While important, such news does not tell the whole story. Most Americans live in cities and towns, which face political, fiscal, technical, and jurisdictional challenges when they seek to protect the environment. While the likes of New York, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle have the money, expertise, and regional power base to implement large-scale sustainability programs, thousands of small cities and rural towns struggle to protect the environment.

This briefing paper offers short case studies and lessons derived from a minority of small communities who made strides protecting the environment despite the odds against them. First, using the data from the 2010 ICMA sustainability survey,[i] we describe the problem – that smaller and poorer municipalities are less likely to enact sustainability policies. Next, we present seven brief case studies of municipalities that defied the odds and implemented various sustainability policies. We conclude with lessons about the actions local leaders in these places took and their motivations. 

Acknowledgements:  Research on the case studies presented in this paper was made possible in part with funding from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture grant # 2011-68006-30793.

This report was researched and written through a subcontract agreement with NADO Research Foundation. The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under an award with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government.

[i] Svara, J. H. (2011) The early stage of local government action to promote sustainability. Pp. 43-60 in The Municipal Year Book 2011 (Washington, DC: ICMA Press).  And Svara, J. H., A. Read and E. Moulder (2011) Breaking new ground: promoting environmental and energy programs in local government (Washington, DC: IBM Center for the Business of Government)

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