Back to the Jan-Feb 2022 issue

How Communities Are Advancing Sustainability and Seeing Results

By Amy Fredregill

More communities than ever before are exploring and investing in sustainability projects that advance local goals. They are combining scalable solutions with outside- the-box thinking to get results.

Here are a few examples:graphic of sustainable energy

  • Cities are responding to residents’ requests for multi-modal transportation choices; more livable, walkable options; and mixed-use properties.
  • Electric vehicle charging stations are being installed on Main Streets across the nation to drive commerce to local businesses, which is a “Smart Cities” approach.
  • Water reuse projects are preparing communities for more extreme weather events, including drought, while ensuring a safe, affordable, healthy, and reliable water supply for citizens.
  • Native landscaping, such as pollinator-friendly habitat, can reduce costs for public land maintenance while increasing wildlife diversity.
  • And, of course, an increasingly common investment for communities is to build or buy renewable energy, such as solar, to offset the load of city buildings.

As these diverse examples illustrate, these efforts are not one-size-fits-all. Communities are taking different approaches depending on their needs.

Local leaders are not choosing projects because they are the trend of the moment, but rather, they are making business- minded decisions that benefit communities economically.

Integrating sustainability and resiliency into planning

Sustainability can feel large or overwhelming at times, especially for communities that may have limited resources or staff. Many priorities compete for time and attention.

Fortunately, sustainability results in multiple benefits across systems, assets, industries, and stakeholder groups. These benefits result in a greater return on investment. As a result, many communities are finding cost-effective, scalable ways to build in resiliency and implement sustainable initiatives into their planning — sometimes without even realizing it.

graphic of recycling symbolFor example, several Twin Cities suburban communities recently began electrifying their police vehicle fleet, which is a measurable, tangible step forward for sustainability. This change has the potential to drive down costs on fuel and maintenance.

Purchasing new police vehicles is not only a significant investment in public safety, but also an economic one — vehicles must be reliable, safe, and effective to meet the community’s needs. Furthermore, fleet investments also improve health through reduced air quality impacts and greenhouse gas emissions. This is an example of how one budgetary decision can have a long-term impact.

Supply chains are a big topic of conversation everywhere right now, and many communities are taking steps to integrate local economic development and equity goals into their procurement process. Whether it’s setting a certain percentage goal for buying local, recycled, or from businesses owned by Black, Indigenous, and people of color, local governments are finding measurable ways to reduce their carbon footprint in supply chain procurement while also making it more sustainable and equitable

Another example of sustainability revolves around an essential government service: water. Last summer’s drought meant many cities had to limit residents’ water use. Local officials know this can be an unpopular decision at times, but one that is critical to protect the water supply.

Several Minnesota communities are working on water reuse projects to help conserve water and reduce risk against future extreme weather events. These investments are also critical when preparing for future population growth.

The business case for sustainability

Every day, communities are tapping into opportunities and discovering how they can make sustainability work for their goals. It’s about thinking big and exploring how you can accomplish multiple outcomes simultaneously in a cost-effective manner that not only protects our environment, but also brings economic benefits and long-term growth.

No community exists in a bubble, and cross-sharing data, ideas, and best practices can help accelerate progress and address climate change, while presenting solutions that are manageable and practical.

Sustainability must simultaneously advance economic, social, and environmental outcomes for both current and future generations. Each priority is like a leg on a three-legged stool. If one leg is shorter or weaker than another, the stool is not stable.

No part of the stool exists in a silo, and communities are connecting those key elements in numerous ways to advance sustainability and bring long-term benefits to their communities and citizens.

Amy Fredregill is senior director, sustainability, with WSB (www.wsbeng.com). WSB is a member of the League of Minnesota Cities Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).