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New Year’s Resolutions for Cities: 10 Keys to Sustainability Planning Success
New Year's Eve attracts thousands to Times Square in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Transportaiton has made great strides in making the city more sustainable. Photo by Undeleterious.

New Year's Eve attracts thousands of people to Times Square in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Transportation has made great strides in making the city more pedestrian- and cycle-friendly. Photo by Undeleterious.

Any serious New Year’s resolution requires a plan. But a mayor’s pledge to make his city more sustainable takes a lot more planning effort than your vow to drop 10 pounds. Crafting a comprehensive sustainability plan, even without procrastination, can take a full year for a city, and involve close coordination among dozens of individuals.

Trailblazers like New York City and Minneapolis have already shown that the end product is worth the effort: a detailed blueprint to combat climate change, save energy and taxpayer dollars, nurture solid economic development, renew infrastructure, and improve public health and education for all.

The planning lessons from these leaders were distilled in a Sustainability Planning Toolkit, released last month by ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA to its 600 U.S. local government members. Boil down those lessons even further and you get 10 keys to sustainability planning success, listed below. They’re worth a read for urban planners, plumbers, lawyers—anyone who lives in a community that values sustainability and is beginning its sustainability planning process.
It may encourage you to know that such communities are becoming more common. A 2009 Living Cities survey found that four in five of the 40 largest U.S. cities consider sustainability among their top five priorities. Approximately one-half are either currently creating sustainability plans or have finished one within the past year, and another one-quarter finished their plans earlier. For cities, towns, and counties, the keys to sustainability planning success are the same.

Key #1: Hire a sustainability coordinator to run the show.
Many hands will touch a sustainability plan and many voices weigh in, but one person must be the quarterback, and in countless cities, that’s a sustainability coordinator. To coordinate the planning process for Baltimore’s sustainability plan, for example, Mayor Sheila Dixon created an Office of Sustainability and designated one project manager to coordinate the planning process full-time and added a part-time manager as well.

Key #2: Obtain buy-in from a big wig.
Buy-in from an elected official is essential. The chief elected official will play a critical role in communicating key messages to the public and ensuring the commitment and participation of government departments. In New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s strong and visible commitment drove the creation of PlaNYC.

Key #3: Form teams that build bridges across city departments—and beyond city hall.
Bringing together the right people is essential. Developing a sustainability plan requires assembling an interdepartmental team of local government staff, plus outside experts and community leaders knowledgeable in a range of fields. For example, City of New York formed a 17-member sustainability advisory board of elected officials, business leaders, environmental and community advocates, labor leaders, planners, and real estate developers.

Key #4: Develop a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.
To conduct a sustainability assessment, a local government needs to research and assess a range of environmental, economic, and social equity challenges within the jurisdiction, such as housing costs, air quality, and infrastructure capacity. A key assessment is the greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

Local governments are on the front lines of climate change, and a sustainability plan can drive a city or county’s climate mitigation efforts. The first step, however, is to obtain accurate data on the overall GHG emissions and their individual sources, such as buildings and transportation.

Key #5: Define clear, relevant, and measurable goals.
The hallmark of a successful sustainability plan is a list of high-level targets that can be measured. During the creation of PlaNYC, Mayor Bloomberg’s emphasis on “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” led to the creation of 10 overarching goals that could be tracked and quantified—and could also inspire. Two of the goals:  “Open 90 percent of our waterways for recreation by reducing water pollution and preserving our natural areas”; and “Ensure that all New Yorkers live within a 10-minute walk of a park.”

Key #6: Allow community members to express what sustainability goals are important to them.
Two central principles in sustainability planning are transparency and inclusiveness. Local governments should include the public throughout the planning process, via public meetings, events, or website surveys. Newark’s Green Future Summit in 2007 enabled the people of Newark to define what sustainability means to them, and what goals will make Newark a more sustainable place to live and work. The Summit results provide a starting point for the development of a plan.

Key #7: Develop implementation plans within a plan.
Once a city has nailed down the individual strategies or measures to achieve major goals, the next step is developing implementation plans for each one. These mini-plans can include an implementation timeline, responsible department/organization, key milestones for each measure, and available funding.

PlaNYC, for example, contains 127 initiatives aimed at achieving the City’s 10 sustainability goals. It includes a matrix of initiatives and goals and the implementation plan matrix that are used day-to-day to manage and coordinate the plan.

Key #8: Release a draft plan for public comment.
It’s essential to solicit community feedback so that the final product is a plan that people understand and support. In Baltimore, community members had six months to provide feedback on its sustainability plan via Baltimore’s online public consultation portal and through public meetings.

Key #9: Obsessively track the implementation status of initiatives.
Plans that succeed, versus plans that sit on a shelf, are ones that include indicators, data sources, and baseline data to continually track progress. For example, the Minneapolis GreenPrint includes 25 sustainability indicators (healthy infants, renewable energy, affordable housing, etc.). A coordinator was assigned to each indicator, whose job was to implement the measures and strategies, coordinate activities across departments, and track progress.

Key #10: Remain accountable to the public.
Each year, City of New York releases a PlaNYC Progress Report to the public with detailed updates on progress toward the 10 sustainability goals. One year after PlaNYC’s release in April 2007, the City could report that it had launched 93 percent of the 127 initiatives in the plan; two years after the release, the City reported that all of the initiatives have been launched, 35 had been completed, and 50 were on time.

To learn more about sustainability planning, visit the ICLEI USA website.

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  • Nice piece Don. It’s to the point and addressess the critical aspects of implementing an EFFECTIVE sustainability program and policy. For Towns that don’t have initiatives in place, Greenworks2020, can be that champion and quarterback to take them down the field. Keep up the good work
    Jeff

  • These are great. We are working with a few very progressive cities to help prepare for electric vehicles and find that these tips are essential and getting things done. We’ve encouraged our cities to make public #8 (http://projectgetready.com/category/city) their plans, build cross sector teams #3, and breakdown key milestones #7.