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Climate Action Plans Help Cities Meet Sustainability Goals

Collage of earth environmentsBy Frank Jossi

As cities increase their efforts to protect the environment, some are taking it a step further by creating a “climate action plan.” This is a tool that helps cities take a comprehensive and strategic approach to their sustainability efforts.

The City of St. Louis Park adopted its first climate action plan in 2018, after a local high school group approached the city with the idea. Council Member Larry Kraft says the plan directs officials to consider the climate in all their actions, from planning streets with bike lanes to mandating electric vehicle charging stations in parking lots.

Climate is top of mind for us,” Kraft says. “It is infused in how we view everything we do.”

A better future

It’s not only larger metro-area cities that are adopting climate action plans. Communities as small as Grand Marais (population 1,337) and La Crescent (population 5,276) have plans to reduce carbon emissions by taking actions like retrofitting aging properties, promoting solar, and creating more walkable, bikeable streets.

While some communities call them climate action plans, others use titles featuring similar terms such as “sustainability” and “climate adaptation.” The theme, however, remains the same: Let’s do something to make the environment more sustainable for future generations.

Around 20 Minnesota cities have climate action plans or are working on them, including Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, Richfield, Golden Valley, Bloomington, Minnetonka, Northfield, Winona, and Red Wing. Cities have generally sought the expertise of a consultant from such organizations as the Great Plains Institute, the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE), and PaleBLUEdot to assist in writing the documents after getting input from citizens and civic leaders.

PaleBLUEdot’s founder, Ted Redmond, says cities conduct comprehensive plans and other long-range initiatives to help prepare for the future. Climate action is no different. “If a community really wants to steer development in a way that will protect and keep its residents safe into the future, they should be including adaptation,” Redmond says.

Giving cities needed focus

Rather than gather dust in a digital file, the plans usually breed action. Abby Finis, senior program manager with the Great Plains Institute, has written several climate action plans for cities, and she says they give cities and citizens “a sense of purpose and focus on what needs to be done and when it needs to be done. It gives leverage to cities to move forward with some of these projects.”

The plans have other positive impacts. CEE’s Community Energy Program Manager Marisa Bayer often works with communities on Xcel’s Partners in Energy program. Outreach for a project brings together the opinions of businesses, residents, rental housing owners, school districts, faith-based communities, and service organizations.

“They get to create a plan customized to their community goals,” she says, and a strategy to reach them.

Several climate-focused programs, such as the state and nonprofit partnership Minnesota GreenStep Cities, encourage the development of climate action plans. One of the 29 best practices of the GreenStep Cities program requires integrating climate mitigation into planning, operations, and budget. And Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) offers grants to pay for climate adaptation plans. In addition, communities can find plenty of other resources through GreenStep Cities and their sustainability consultants.

Laying out the strategy

Cities using climate action plans often create a 20-year timeline, although Great Plains Institute began offering a new and less expensive product with a five-year window. “The first step is having a goal and figuring out what it takes to achieve that goal and what you realistically have available to you to do that,” says Finis. “There’s certainly a range of options that you can take.”

St. Louis Park has added electric vehicles to its fleet as part of its climate action plan. (Photo courtesy City of St. Louis Park)

The most common focus area is building efficiency, which has the best payback, followed by transportation, which involves making neighborhoods more attractive for walkers and bicyclists. Many plans promote solar, sustainable building design, and water management and conservation. Electric vehicle charging has also become a focus for many cities.

CEE’s Bayer points to a recent plan for Winona that targeted core areas, including energy, water, natural resources, transportation, and food. Richfield chose to promote solar, renewable energy, sustainable design and building, natural resource management, waste reduction, and improved access to local food, she says.

Northfield chose six core areas, like those already cited, while also setting the goal of having 100% carbon-free electricity by 2030. La Crescent’s approach looked at what to do for businesses, residents, and electric vehicle expansion. Some cities address changing their internal operations and purchasing to become more carbon-friendly through retrofits, onsite renewable energy, and fleet electrification.

While it’s all good and wise to have a climate strategy, making it one of a city’s priorities pushes the plan to the forefront. Northfield Sustainability Program Coordinator Beth Kallestad says climate action has become one of six pillars in the city’s strategic plan. “I think that’s almost equally as important as actually having a climate action plan,” she says.

Activating the plan

Cities serious about climate change and armed with a plan often expand their staff by appointing a full- or part-time sustainability director. After discovering college interns could not move the city forward in their limited capacity, La Crescent hired a part-time sustainability coordinator, Jason Ludwigson. Northfield divided Kallestad’s position between sustainability and other city priorities, including racial equity and strategic planning.

With a leader in place, the next step is programming. Emily Ziring, St. Louis Park’s sustainability manager, says the architectural and planning firm LHB, Inc. helped lay out a framework for the goal of being carbon neutral communitywide by 2040. The framework includes midterm goals requiring the city to create or amp up existing programs, she says.

St. Louis Park’s “Climate Champions” program encourages businesses to get free energy assessments from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Smart program. If businesses complete energy efficiency upgrades and receive utility rebates, the city will match those rebates at least 50%.

“That will hopefully spur them to take that action,” Ziring says. Another cost-sharing program, “Solar Sundown,” provides homeowners and businesses with a costshare rebate for installing solar panels.

Getting positive results

St. Louis Park has seen results from the climate action plan. Twenty-one businesses signed up for the free energy audit, and the $115,000 the city put toward the Solar Sundown program successfully leveraged $2.7 million in private investment in renewable energy.

In addition to communitywide programs, the city has also acted internally. The city purchased electric vehicles for its fleet, retrofitted buildings with high-efficiency lighting and heating equipment, added solar to properties, changed street lighting to LEDs, and replaced gas-powered landscaping equipment with electric versions. “We really try to walk the talk,” Ziring says.

The Minnetonka Park Mall in St. Louis Park participated in the city’s Solar Sundown and Climate Champions cost-share programs. (Photo courtesy City of St. Louis Park)

Northfield is seeing progress, too. In a friendly competition with other cities, it’s leading by signing up nearly 100 homeowners for visits by Home Energy Squad, a program sponsored by Xcel and CenterPoint Energy that offers an efficiency report and information on utility rebates.

In addition, renovations to Northfield’s biggest city-owned energy consumer, the wastewater plant, reduced electricity use by about 100,000 kilowatt hours per year, she says.

This year, the city plans to pass a sustainable building ordinance, replace city hall lighting with LEDs, buy electric vehicles, and study the potential for solar within the town. “Things are really ramping up in Northfield,” Kallestad says.

Despite being one of the smaller cities with a climate plan, La Crescent has several projects underway. About 25 residents signed up for Home Energy Squad visits, and the city also put on a well-attended electric vehicle showcase, Ludwigson says.

State grants will help install electric vehicle chargers in La Crescent, he adds, and studies will instruct how the city should transition to an electric fleet. The city also wants to add two solar sites to its existing four locations.

Unexpected benefits, too

Plans and visible evidence of a commitment to the environment have other benefits not initially anticipated. “The communities that do some planning now are the ones that are going to be in a better position to create jobs and harness the economic potential” of the green economy, Redmond says. “Doing climate planning at a municipal scale makes an awful lot of sense.”

Ludwigson has even discovered that La Crescent’s environmental commitment was a draw for new residents. “That was a pleasant surprise and something I did not expect,” he says. “That was never the goal, but we found a lot of people are interested in climate change, and living in a city that cares about that is important to them.”

Frank Jossi is a freelance writer.