Flush a toilet in South Daytona, Florida (population 12,252) and the waste (after processing, of course) could come back to water your lawn. In the pile of papers that greet new municipal employees in Homer, Alaska (population 5,003) is a 13-page guidebook describing the environmental and economic importance to the city of energy conservation. New development projects totaling $30 million came to Columbus, Wisconsin (population 4,991) in large part because of the community’s green marketing. If you live in Hurricane, Utah (population 13,748) you can monitor your electric usage in real time, online.

Although many people tout New York, Chicago, and Portland as some of the greenest places in the United States, many smaller communities are defying the odds and developing cutting edge programs that not only protect the environment, but also save local governments money. Some of these unlikely innovators are profiled in a new issue brief by ICMA’s Center for Sustainable Communities. The “Defying the Odds” report describes the motivations, actions, and results of local leaders trying to balance quality of life, municipal budget, and the environment. For example, Columbus saves $18,000 per year after it upgraded its wastewater treatment plant. Homer, which already feels the impact of climate change in its forests and fisheries, reduced carbon emissions by weatherizing its municipal buildings. West Liberty, Iowa (population 3,736), hit hard by industrial disinvestment, cut their municipal energy bill in half by changing street lights to high energy fixtures.

Entrepreneurial leaders – either elected officials or professional managers and staff – drive green policymaking. These local leaders reframe regional and global environmental protection as cost savings and governmental efficiency in order to get them on the local agenda. Most of these places start with the easiest strategies, such as energy audits, installing high efficiency light fixtures, and purchasing hybrid or electric vehicles. These demonstrate the potential for sustainability and make it easier to push other projects. The officials also network with other municipal leaders as well as regional and statewide associations for inspiration, best practices, coordination of funding, and political support.

Small cities and rural places face challenges in terms of fiscal capacity and technical expertise. But they also have advantages over the bureaucracies that bottle up progress in big places. Whether acting alone or as part of a regional network, these places can make important contributions to sustainability – and can do it in a way that is good for the local economy. Take a look at “Defying the Odds” to learn more.


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