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Let's Talk: Minnesota GreenStep Cities: Improving Sustainability One Step at a Time

A discussion with Philipp Muessig, GreenStep Cities program coordinator with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Minnesota GreenStep Cities is a free and voluntary program cities can join to help them improve their Earth-friendly efforts in a cost-effective way. Minnesota Cities talked with Program Coordinator Philipp Muessig to learn more about the initiative.

Minnesota Cities: How did the idea for the GreenStep Cities program come about, and when did the program take off?

Philipp Muessig:Photo of Philipp Muessig, GreenStep Cities program coordinator with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) held regional listening sessions around the state in 2007 to discuss community-based energy opportunities and the state’s Next Generation Energy Act of 2007. The idea was raised by Bob McLean of Hunt Utilities Group in Pine River to create a sustainable cities program that would, like the old Star City program for economic development, recognize cities that were “green stars.” This idea was taken up by the 2008 Legislature, which directed the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the Division of Energy Resources (DER) at the Department of Commerce, and CERTs to recommend actions cities could take on a voluntary basis.

At the same time, Lola Schoenrich, now at Great Plains Institute (GPI), framed up the Star City idea into a funding proposal, which I championed and MPCA funded. Work involved representatives from dozens of cities, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and state government agencies right up to the program launch at the June 2010 League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) Annual Conference.
Photo by Danielle Voigt

MC: What is MPCA’s role and what other organizations are involved? What is the role of these other organizations?
PM: As an employee of MPCA, I serve as the full-time coordinator and work closely with staff from the other six GreenStep partner organizations. Jointly we administer and work for the program. These organizations came together in an advisory committee and have continued as a very harmonious and creative body. In addition to the organizations mentioned previously, our other partners are the Urban Land Institute and the Izaak Walton League.

MC: How many cities are currently involved in the program?
PM: A total of 57 cities have joined the program as of mid- September. This constitutes 23 percent of the state’s population. Member cities range in population from just over 100,000 (Rochester) to 326 (Milan) and are located all over the state, with just over half in the Twin Cities metro area.

MC: What is the first step a city needs to take to become a GreenStep City?
PM: The first formal step is for a city council to adopt a participation resolution. This is simply an expression of intent to tell the city’s story of environmental best practices, and to work on additional best practices. Prior to that, though, various people in a city—citizen commission members, city staff and councilmembers, and others—will spend time learning about the program and building interest.

MC: Can you outline the rest of the GreenStep Cities process?
PM: This solar-powered electric vehicle
charging station at Como Park Pavilion
in St. Paul is one of several in the city.There are levels of recognition—or “steps.” We thought “steps” made sense because GreenStep is fundamentally a continuous improvement framework. Step One recognizes cities after they join. In total, GreenStep has a menu of 28 best practices, each of which can be implemented by completing at least one action under that best practice.

__________________________________________________ This solar-powered electric vehicle charging
station at Como Park Pavilion in St. Paul is
one of several in the city.
__________________________________________________

Step Two recognizes cities that implement four, six, or eight of the best practices, depending on city capacity and population. Smaller cities are challenged to implement four best practices, and the largest cities are challenged to implement eight. Step Three recognizes implementation of eight, 12, or 16 best practices, including a handful of specific actions. Steps Four and Five are being defined, and will involve measuring quantitative achievements, such as total energy use, and reductions in energy use and costs.

MC: Do cities pay a fee to join?
PM: There is no fee for cities. The program runs on a mix of state agency funding and funds that our partners raise.

MC: How does participation in GreenStep Cities benefit cities and their residents?
PM: GreenStep’s sustainability best practices are chosen to result in environmental, financial, and quality-of- life benefits to the city, residents, and businesses. Cities also find other benefits of participation, including an easy way to track and publicly report on successes, a way to involve community members, and learning about ways to cost-effectively accomplish multiple goals at once without having to do the research. Some of the benefits cities often mention are that the GreenStep website is an easy, one-stop site, and that the GreenStep resources enable volunteer commissions to focus their limited time to get the most done, and help cities save money while adding to the city’s appeal.

MC: Why should a city with a small population participate?
PM: We’ve thought about this a lot as the program is designed primarily for small and medium sized cities. Wefeel the program can save staff time and costs for small cities because the GreenStep website is a one-stop shop for information and contacts to call for help. It makes it easy to call peers in other cities to ask, “How did you do that action, and what’s your advice for me if I want to do it in my city?”

MC: What are some of the questions or concerns you hear from cities that are considering participating in the program?
PM: The Norb Kerber, Hopkins building
equipment superintendent, stands in
front of new efficient boilers at City Hall.biggest ones are “Why join one more program?” and “Who will enter details of our accomplishments on the GreenStep website?” Our answers are: GreenStep is a framework that works with existing city planning and other efforts, and help is often available from college students or our Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program.

__________________________________________________ Norb Kerber, Hopkins building equipment
superintendent, stands in front of new
efficient boilers at City Hall.
__________________________________________________

MC: Have you encountered any opposition to the program?
PM: Opposition has come from a few city councilmembers who didn’t fully understand the free, voluntary, nonregulatory nature of GreenStep. And over the years, two or three councilmembers have opposed it because they thought it had a connection to Europe’s Agenda 21, which it does not. GreenStep was created with deep involvement of Minnesotans, drawing mostly on best practices we see being implemented in Minnesota and sometimes in other parts of the U.S.

MC: Can you explain the voluntary, non-regulatory nature of GreenStep Cities?
PM: Created as a challenge, assistance, and recognition program, GreenStep is like Tree City USA, Minnesota’s Blue Star City program, and the like. All such programs have what I’d call minimal standards: a city gets recognized for doing at least X, Y, and Z. But we’re talking recognition and celebration and publicity, not a rigid certification or regulatory action. So MPCA and DER do no sort of regulatory review of GreenStep cities, and these two state agencies hold only two out of seven seats on GreenStep’s partnership governing body.

MC: Why does the MPCA have a vested interest in the success of the program?
PM: Increasingly, the MPCA recognizes that complex, diffuse environmental issues, such as stormwater pollution and air pollution, can best be solved by the sort of innovative actions that bubble up from public-private partnerships in cities. GreenStep offers a pretty thorough list of these innovative actions that go above and beyond compliance, and the MPCA encourages cities to take these actions, many of which relate to areas for which there is no state regulation.

MC: What does the League of Minnesota Cities bring to the partnership?
PM: Everything! I say that because I just don’t think the other GreenStep partner organizations would have created a program for cities without the enthusiasm of LMC. In addition to formally recognizing GreenStep cities at different step levels, LMC has wonderful staff who serve on the partnership steering committee, showcase GreenStep cities at the LMC Annual Conference, advise us on policy issues, and connect us to cities via LMC Ambassadors.

MC: What are some of the most innovative things you’ve seen cities do to fulfill best practice recommendations?
PM: “Buy local” campaigns in several GreenStep cities, including Falcon Heights, Marshall, Newport, and Willmar, come to mind as great examples of cities working with their businesses. I’m also very impressed with the “Living Streets” policies and work being done in North St. Paul, Maplewood, Woodbury, and Edina, where next generation stormwater management is being meshed with complete streets interventions to deliver multiple benefits. Many cities have also added greater efficiencies to their buildings and vehicle fleets (see photos of two examples on pages 30 and 31). For more city examples, visit www.mngreenstep.org.

Read the November-December 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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