A green roof on the top of an office building in Vancouver, Canada
A green roof on the top of an office building in Vancouver, Canada

The urgent and technically complex issue of climate change has introduced new opportunities for local governments to work with their neighboring colleges and universities. Much of this has to do with the scientifically complicated, data-demanding, and often research-intensive efforts needed to create and implement plans that address local-level urban heat islands, flood mitigation, stormwater management, invasive species, and many other urgent climate-related challenges through applied research.

As concerns about inadequate federal policies or the devastating local-level effects from climate change move many U.S. local governments to engage internationally, the need for purposeful and strategic collaboration with neighboring colleges, universities, and research institutes will increase.

Formally structured and institutionally supported town-and-gown partnerships that utilize shared priorities, workplans, budgets, and coordination among the staff, faculties, and researchers can meaningfully advance a local government’s climate programs. These developments include accelerating the testing and application of policies and technologies through data-driven, science-backed research, as well as creating new opportunities for local governments to serve as living laboratories for social, technological, economic, and ecological innovations.

In turn, these synergies also create practical and mutually beneficial work-experience and internship opportunities for the partner college or university’s students and graduates, which also contributes to the local or regional workforce. Formal, purposeful engagement between local governments and neighboring colleges and universities also enhances the success of local governments’ global engagement.

As local governments begin to learn from and apply policy and technical innovations from overseas, they face serious programmatic, financial, staff, and even regulatory limits. Global work by U.S. local governments is very often stigmatized by cynical perceptions of frivolousness, irrelevance, and waste because of a lack of direct outcomes benefitting the particular climate or sustainability programs of a U.S. county, city, or town. However, many U.S. colleges and universities have formal international research, science, and exchange programs that have the potential to be directed and coordinated within these municipal-academic partnerships. Structured and coordinated programming between U.S. local governments and their neighboring academic institutions also has the potential to advance more purposeful and mutually beneficial global cooperation.

A New Form of Strategic/Outcome-Oriented Global Science Collaboration at the Local Level: The Partnership Between GMU and NVRC

For over a decade, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC), a regional council of governments representing the 13 counties, cities, and towns of Northern Virginia, and faculty and staff at George Mason University (“Mason”) have worked together to build a model of purposeful, problem-focused, and goal-oriented collaboration concerning sustainable development. Over that time, the cooperation has grown to include the transfer and application of multiple environmental, social, and economic innovations to support the sustainability programs of local governments across Northern Virginia.

The cooperation fostering local-level sustainability between NVRC and Mason has roots that extend back to 2013. At the time, NVRC hired a Mason graduate student specializing in geo-science for a summer internship. The Mason intern helped NVRC’s evolving green infrastructure and climate programs by refining a method for classifying commercial and residential rooftop green roof capacities across Northern Virginia.

Specifically, the intern’s classification ranked rooftops with the highest potential for successful green roof installation and the associated mitigation benefits, such as heat absorption and stormwater management. This model has helped to inform further improvements by NVRC in the assessment of green roof potential across the region, as well as broader NVRC-led regional green infrastructure initiatives.

Several elements of the Mason intern’s work with green roofs were informed by the unique international collaboration pursued between NVRC and its governmental counterpart from the metropolitan region of Stuttgart, Germany. Since 1999, NVRC has worked continuously with the Verband Region Stuttgart (VRS) to transfer a range of policy and technical innovations to Northern Virginia, including various green infrastructure policies and designs involving green roofs. The Stuttgart region of Germany is recognized globally as a pioneer in local and regional green infrastructure planning. A distinctive feature of the Verband Region Stuttgart’s green infrastructure programs was the development of a Climate Atlas through a town-and-gown partnership between the Verband and the University of Stuttgart.

NVRC’s and Mason’s interest in working together more closely to transfer and apply sustainability best practices from abroad led both institutions to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2014. The MOU was broadly framed and modestly worded to include work on climate change and sustainability with governmental and research counterparts from Germany, the Netherlands, and South Korea. Gradually, over the past decade and through a consistent engagement process, the cooperation has helped inform several high-priority sustainability programs across Northern Virginia.

The following two examples provide insight into the highly successful products and outcomes of this collaboration between NVRC and Mason, as well as the past and future dynamic for formal cross-national collaboration:

Renewable Energy: Solarize NOVA

In 2014, moved by the inspiring renewable energy programs of cities such as Bottrop and Stuttgart, Germany, as well as the declared solar objectives of Arlington and Loudoun counties in Virginia (50 MW each by 2050 under their respective Community Energy Plans), NVRC launched the Solarize NOVA program. Solarize NOVA is a nonprofit, community-based outreach initiative sponsored by the NVRC and the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP).

A core element of Solarize NOVA is the facilitation of solar photovoltaic (PV) installation through bulk purchasing and free solar site assessments. Another is the Solar Map, an outgrowth of the 2013 internship between NVRC and Mason. The Solar Map was the product of NVRC’s provision of geo-spatial data sets and Mason’s computing facilities. The first of its kind in Virginia, the Solar Map provides users with information about potential solar energy generation on the rooftops of their homes or businesses with the related electric cost savings and averted CO2 emissions.

Stormwater Management: Thriving Earth Exchange Stormwater Modeling

Under the umbrella of the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), faculty at GMU and staff at NVRC worked to develop a model for improving comprehension of the variability of average and extreme historical precipitation trends and assessing future extreme precipitation changes. The goal is to inform local governments in the region about potential impacts from projected precipitation changes given land-use trends, population growth, and a warming climate over multiple planning horizons (e.g., a 20-, 40- or 80-year time period). Faculty, researchers, and staff from both organizations used climate model projections to analyze precipitation-related risks to infrastructure and identify the need for additional investments in flood resilient communities.

Strengthening the Cooperation in 2023 and Beyond

The NVRC’s and Mason’s eagerness to build on this partnership was pursued further in 2022 and 2023. In March 2022, faculty from Mason accompanied an NVRC-led climate technical and policy study tour to Stuttgart and Hamburg. In Stuttgart, the delegation met formally with faculty, researchers, elected officials, and staff from the University of Stuttgart and VRS to assess formal development of a quadrilateral relationship that included NVRC and Mason. Subsequent to returning to Northern Virginia, NVRC and Mason worked together to frame a more formal level of cooperation with their counterparts from the Stuttgart region.

This included a two-day workshop in March 2023 at Mason involving researchers, faculty, staff, and elected officials from NVRC, University of Stuttgart, and VRS to assess and plan more formal applied science and research to support mutually beneficial climate resiliency programs. The workshop led to a formal workplan for joint applied research that included topics such as urban heat island mitigation, sustainable and socially inclusive urban development, emergency flood alert systems, and micrometeorological models to plan for future precipitation impacts. Other subjects of future cooperation include the assessment of green roofs performance, stormwater runoff modeling, and operationalizing climate planning in policy development.

The work between the NVRC and Mason is also rooted in the university’s recently established Virginia Climate Center (VCC). Like the TEX project, the work between NVRC and Mason offers a strong potential for involvement with partners from Stuttgart, such as the project, Flood Response Analysis for Climate Resiliency. Under this work, Mason and NVRC are collecting and assessing data and information concerning flooded road closures and swift water rescues due to pluvial flooding in Northern Virginia.

NVRC staff and Mason researchers are also working together to facilitate the exchange and sharing of information between localities in Northern Virginia about regional safety precautions during flood events. The partnership aims to develop a means for supporting and enhancing local government emergency preparedness and resilience to climate change-driven events such as intense storms. By collecting and displaying road closure and rescue data, researchers hope to demonstrate the increasing risk of flash floods to residents in the region, highlight locations in need of flood mitigation projects, and support efforts to deploy a real-time flooded road sensor network.

Going forward, the work of the NVRC and VCC looks to further involve VRS and University of Stuttgart through programs equivalent to the Flood Response Analysis for Climate Resiliency. These future efforts also will involve, among other projects, the development of case studies and analysis for (1) climate resiliency planning between Boblingen and Fairfax; and (2) urban heat island and green roof planning. The four institutions have also started working together in the development of multiple grant applications to pursue further funding, data, and research from global, national, and subnational research institutions.


The success of global climate engagement is firmly ensconced in the work of local governments. This message of local engagement has been clearly broadcast and repeated since the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. In turn, the success of local government efforts on the global climate stage rests on forging the appropriate strategic, problem-focused, and goal-oriented collaboration with neighboring research, scientific and academic institutions. The complexities and scale of climate change — coupled with the imperative for local governments to act — leaves them little choice but to seek out and develop town-and-gown international partnerships like those now embodied in the work between NVRC, Mason, University of Stuttgart, and VRS. It will be a great day when this type of work is the norm and not the exception across the United States.


DR. DALE MEDEARIS, senior regional planner, Northern Virginia Regional Commission


REBECCA MURPHY, coastal program manager, Northern Virginia Regional Commission


NORA JACKSON, resiliency planner, Northern Virginia Regional Commission


ALLIE WAGNER, water resources planner, Northern Virginia Regional Commission


JILL KANEFF, senior regional demographer/GIS analyst, Northern Virginia Regional Commission


DR. JIM KINTER, professor of climate dynamics, George Mason University; director, Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies; director, Virginia Climate Center


LUIS ORTIZ, Ph.D., assistant professor, Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Earth Science Department, George Mason University


CELSO M. FERREIRA, Ph.D., P.E., associate professor, Sid and Reva Dewberry Department of Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering, George Mason University


DR. LEAH NICHOLS, executive director, Institute for a Sustainable Earth, George Mason University


AMANDA O’CONNOR, Program Manager, Virginia Climate Center, George Mason University


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