Thought Leaders on Sustainable Development Part III

By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities. This shift from rural communities uniquely positions cities to become hubs for innovation and incubators for sustainable development solutions. While indicators show the economy to be in recovery, sustainability agendas continue to fall victim to strained city budgets. Lack of political will and government stagnation present further challenges. How do cities advance their sustainability agendas in this tough environment?

Douglas R. Hooker:

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Douglas R. Hooker, Executive Director, Atlanta Regional Commission

Great cities can bring out the best in us. They provide opportunities for collaboration and generate our best ideas to solve some of our most pressing problems. That’s why, even in times of scarce resources, strong regions will provide leadership in sustainability.

Metro Atlanta is a great example. Even during the recession, some 18 cities and counties voluntarily chose to participate in the Atlanta Regional Commission’s certified Green Communities program. They are adopting such policies as requiring LEED certification for new buildings; purchasing hybrid, electric or CNG vehicles; going paperless for council or commission meetings and more. Many are doing so at the urging of their residents; and citizens, in such communities as Norcross and Dunwoody, are serving on commissions to help local governments set priorities. Decatur has adopted an environmental sustainability plan with significant input from residents over the course of a year.

Through the Better Buildings Challenge, the City of Atlanta has united with the metropolitan business and nonprofit community to implement a comprehensive energy upgrade for downtown buildings to meet the goal of improving energy performance by a minimum of 20 percent by 2020. Midtown is transforming itself into the Midtown EcoDistrict, the first such district in the Southeast.

These are only a few examples of how government is either the leader or an active partner in the greening of our region. By bringing diverse stakeholders together, metro areas provide the perfect laboratory for governments, businesses, nonprofits and funders to come together to achieve common goals in sustainability.

Mayor Donna Pittman:

Mayor Donna Pittman, City of Doraville

Mayor Donna Pittman, City of Doraville

The City has been very progressive in promoting sustainability. We were the first city in the Southeast to effectuate a LEED ordinance, which mandates LEED certification for new commercial buildings and expansions of 20,000 square feet or greater. So far, we haven’t had any new construction that meets the square footage threshold. That will change, of course, once the GM plant redevelopment begins. Eventually it will serve as a model for sustainable growth. In the meantime, revenue shortfalls and the overall economy pose significant hurdles to furthering our goal to be a more sustainable community. Given the infeasibility of offering monetary incentives, we have been exploring the implementation of expedited plan review or license and permit issuance to incentivize sustainable growth. Those measures are not as bold as we would like, but until the economy improves, it is the best we can do.

Mayor Bucky Johnson:

Mayor Bucky Johnson, City of Norcross

Mayor Bucky Johnson, City of Norcross

In tough financial times, cities need to find innovative ways to save money and not allow their economic foundations to weaken. Developing a sustainable agenda can actually save money, as was the case when Norcross’ city government reduced its paper consumption by 75 percent, basically going paperless and increasing administrative efficiency without increasing staff. Norcross replaced decorative lighting in its historic downtown with LED lights and installed photocells for dusk to dawn operation. This action, along with use of LED lights for the city’s community Christmas tree, recognized a savings of $6,400 annually.

Unique to Norcross is its closed loop processing of residential yard debris, where yard trimmings are collected and turned into compost, mulch and soil products. These are sold to the city, local businesses and residents. In addition, we went from 18-gallon collection bins to 95-gallon roll-out carts for residential recycling, allowing us to go from weekly curbside collection to twice a month. Citizens saw this as an improved service, there was no cost increase, and we reduced emissions and neighborhood traffic caused by the collection trucks. By putting this kind of emphasis on environmental sustainability, The City of Norcross earned the Certified Gold Award as a Green Community by the Atlanta Regional Commission, which enhances the city’s efforts to market itself as a desirable community, offering a high quality, “green” lifestyle. This progressive thinking is attractive to the kind of people we want to bring to Norcross – visitors, investors and potential residents who can afford to support our businesses, create jobs and strengthen our local economy. It also appeals to the people who already live and work here, so we’re able to retain our economic base, as well as grow it.

Chris Guenther:

Chris Guenther, Research Director, SustainAbility Inc.

Chris Guenther, Research Director, SustainAbility Inc.

While my personal interest in cities is broader, my firm, SustainAbility, has come to the topic primarily through the lens of business – that is, what is the role and opportunity for business in tapping into the innovative potential of cities to drive sustainability forward?

From this perspective, I see tremendous power in how city governments, civil society and the private sector can partner – in the context of specific cities – to pursue sustainability. Each has a different role to play, and each has much to gain from collaborating. Cities themselves can set the right policies and make strategic investments in infrastructure. Some businesses can develop and invest further in infrastructure solutions, while others can tap into and/or evolve more sustainable business models that are made possible in urban environments. And civil society – which we see being driven by a growing cadre of “citizen-consumers” – can provide a chorus of new ideas and support to help innovation take hold in specific places.

Collaboration of this sort isn’t easy, but done well, it has the potential to unlock value that any one of these actors couldn’t tap into alone, and to help individual cities continue to adapt and thrive into the future.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver:

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, City of Augusta

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, City of Augusta

In order to advance their sustainability agendas, cities must have a decision making process in place based on strategically developing initiatives that will serve to the long term benefit of their citizens as opposed to serving as an inherent short term benefit to elected officials based upon the next election cycle. The critical outcomes of both the long term community health benefits and the long term cost savings delivered by adhering to sustainability agendas must take center stage in the dialogue on the crucial role cities play as urban classrooms where sustainable development solutions can be created and replicated to the benefit of municipalities throughout the nation. Grassroots public engagement in the discussion around the development of sustainability agendas is a crucial element in ensuring broad based support which allows a much easier path to implementation.

In Augusta we’ve seen firsthand the fact that planning with people as opposed to for them can lead to a transformative outcome for disinvested neighborhoods which are now going through a major redevelopment initiative. The work of developing and adhering to sustainability agendas is challenging during these difficult budgetary times, but the long term social and fiscal benefits of investing in our cities futures ultimately makes for a very compelling case.

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