Turning Sustainability Goals into Action

Though energy efficiency and improved sustainability remain important objectives for many local governments, turning abstract goals into concrete action remains a challenge. Breaking New Ground: Promoting Environmental and Energy Programs in Local Government is an essential guide for policy makers and sustainability advocates concerned with implementing sustainability initiatives. 

Written by ICMA staff members and James H. Svara, professor, School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University and doctoral program director at the ASU Center for Urban Innovation, Breaking New Ground was released by the IBM Center for The Business of Government and is based on lessons learned by communities large and small. The report provides a framework for those seeking to implement smart and strategic sustainability programs in a challenging fiscal environment and with competing policy priorities. 

 “Building a sustainable community requires contributions from all levels of government, all sectors of the economy, and all of the citizenry,” according to Professor Svara. “This report demonstrates that there’s work to do and offers a blueprint for how to begin doing it.”

“Sustainability is the ability of communities to consistently thrive over time and involves making decision to improve a community today without sacrificing its future,” says Ron Carlee ICMA's chief operating officer. “Increasingly …sustainability is considered in the context of a ‘triple bottom line’—the environment, the economy, and social equity—three dimensions necessary for society to flourish in the near and long term.”

Breaking New Ground includes detailed analyses of the responses of more than 2,100 local governments to a recent survey on local government sustainability issues conducted by ICMA with input from the ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities, the Center for Urban Innovation, Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability (ASU GIOS), the Alliance for Innovation, and others. The instrument was sent to 8,569 local governments, with 2,176 local governments responding (a 25.4% response rate).

The survey found that while many communities recognized the importance of this issue, most governments were still at the early stages of adopting a full range of measured sustainability activities. Breaking New Ground also profiles nine communities in which the local governments have found innovative ways to advance sustainability issues. The case-study communities, representing a range of locations and sizes, are: Anacortes, Washington; Buncombe County, North Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Jackson  and Teton County, Wyoming; Palo Alto, California; San Antonio, Texas; Sarasota County, Florida; Washoe County, Nevada; and Weston, Wisconsin.

Based on the survey results, the report includes five major findings:

  1. There is considerable variation in the extent to which sustainability actions have been implemented by local governments. More than 80 percent of local governments report recycling (90 percent), improving transportation (81.7 percent), and reducing building energy use (80.6 percent). In contrast, efforts to reduce energy use by altering work schedules or processes have been adopted by fewer than two governments in five (36.2 percent), and fewer than one-fourth of the governments surveyed (23.4 percent) employ any form of alternative energy generation.
  2. Sustainability initiatives should be targeted to community needs. No single approach to sustainability is right for every community, even when the government is actively committed. Framing the issues initially requires sensitivity to the concerns and motivators of a specific area.
  3. Goal setting and progress measurement are important for all communities. Whether a large city or a small town, communities need to establish goals and targets and measure progress in a quantitative manner through baseline studies.
  4. A few local governments are leading sustainability initiatives. The number of local governments at the low end of the sustainability initiatives adoption spectrum is slightly lower than that found in a normal distribution, confirming that many governments have at least begun to get involved in sustainability. It is also noteworthy that the pioneers and early adopters in the high category reflect the normal proportion. This means that an expected number of local governments are setting an example for others.
  5. Policy priorities matter to sustainability initiatives. The survey results revealed that a community’s policy priorities correlate to its level of activity in specific sustainability activities. While those jurisdictions which placed a higher priority on the economy reported only modest sustainability activity, for all other policy areas, greater emphasis correlates to more sustainability action. Communities that assigned a high priority to green jobs or climate change, for example, reported the strongest association with action in that area.

The report also offers seven recommended action steps for local governments:

  1. Obtain a formal commitment and pursue a broad sustainability strategy
  2. Develop an engagement process to broaden community outreach
  3. Appoint a citizens’ committee to engage the community
  4. Develop partnerships with key institutional, private sector, and nonprofit actors
  5. Make changes to break down silos and encourage coordinated action
  6. Measure performance to assess the sustainability effort
  7. Report to citizens on progress.

Appendices to Breaking New Ground include a summary of the survey and the types of local government, geography, and population that are associated with sustainability.

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