Over the hump: getting the green city movement to a tipping point
By Steve Nicholas, Vice President, Institute for Sustainable Communities
This blog post is part of the series Global Communities: Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities, which discusses how cities can learn about, adopt, and transfer innovations among themselves in order to solve local issues of global significance. This blog post originally appeared on Global Communities and is republished with permission.
When I became director of the City of Seattle's newly formed Office of Sustainability and Environment in 2000, there were just a handful of such positions in the US — all in places you'd expect: Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; Burlington, Vermont; and the like. Today, well over 1,000 communities have sustainability directors and programs in place, including many "unusual suspect" cities where the political waters are far less warm and inviting: Houston, Texas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Dubuque, Iowa; and many others.
As my co-authors and I showcase in The Guide to Greening Cities, a fast-growing array of urban leaders are realizing that they hold a key, if not the key, to meeting the urgent global challenges of climate disruption and unsustainable human development. With more than 50 percent of the world's population already living in urban areas — a slice that's projected to grow to about 70 percent (some 6.4 billion people) by 2050 — it's clear that cities no longer can gobble up three-quarters of the global energy supply, the vast majority of it derived from climate-disrupting fossil fuels. They must transform themselves — from being a big part of the problems to becoming laboratories and leaders of solutions.
The good news is that many cities — here in the U.S. and abroad — are rising to that challenge, reinventing everything from how they design, construct, and manage buildings to the way they manage energy and water supplies and think about regional food systems. This "green city movement" is growing fast and inspiring lots of hope along the way; but it is far from the tipping point. Only a small percentage of the 30,000 municipalities in the US have people and/or plans truly dedicated to sustainability. And there is lots of variability in the quality of the efforts even among the early adopters. Relatively few have sufficiently robust and systematic approaches — a "triple bottom line" scope integrated across economic development, environmental protection and social welfare goals; effective multi-stakeholder engagement; and a sustainability-oriented performance management system driving the development and continuous improvement of the city's policies and practices.
What is holding this movement back? What might accelerate its progress toward that much-needed tipping point? At the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) we believe that one of the best ways to help urban leaders is to provide them with efficient, affordable access to good information, expertise, and — most importantly — each other. A tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation is going on across the country. But these reinventions don't spread widely, in large part because the innovators are hunkered down, focused on achieving and sustaining their own successes and managing their own complex suite of fiscal and political challenges. It’s not that they are stingy; on the contrary, most early adopter-types love to share their stories and help their counterparts learn and copy from them. But they have neither the mandate nor the resources to do it.
Peer learning and network development are among the fastest and most effective ways to build capacity for urban solutions. When well-designed and executed, they provide practitioners with efficient access to the information (success stories and lessons learned) and the people (their peers in other cities who are toiling away in similar trenches) who can help them the most. ISC leads or supports a number of peer-learning and networking efforts in the US and Asia. For example, in the US we lead the National Sustainable Communities Learning Network, serving about 200 communities across the country that are receiving grants through the federal government's ground-breaking Partnership for Sustainable Communities to better integrate actions and investments related to land use, housing, transportation, economic development and social justice. And we support the Western Adaptation Alliance (a learning community of 13 cities and counties in the Intermountain West focused on climate adaptation and resilience) and the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact (a collaboration of four counties in this climate-vulnerable part of the country representing one-third of the state's population and economy).
We're learning a lot from these experiences — sometimes the hard way — about the fine art of peer-learning and network-building. Among those lessons learned are these:
- Create value from the start, and sustain it throughout, in particular by letting the network's customers (members) drive the development and governance of the network (including decisions about which products and services to prioritize);
- Start small and simple, and take it from there. The bigger the network, the harder it will be to get it off the ground. Start with a relatively small group that already enjoys a high degree of commonality and camaraderie. And focus first on "the little things" first (trust-building and efficient information sharing) before taking on heavier lifts (such as joint policy statements or purchasing agreements).
- Provide sustained "backbone support" with a servant-leader orientation. While the best networks tend to be those that are the most deeply "owned and operated" by their members, none can rely solely on that. There must be a person(s) and/or organization(s) playing the critical hub-of-the-wheel role.
"If you build it, they will come," is a famous line from the 1989 American movie "Field of Dreams." But when it comes to peer networks, it just doesn't apply. How the network is designed, initiated and facilitated very much determines its success (or lack thereof). Without engaged participation and ownership by its members, the network is unlikely to either net or work.
Steve Nicholas is the Vice President for US Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, former director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment and co-author of "The Guide to Greening Cities."