Back to the Sep-Oct 2020 issue

Small Cities Step Up for Sustainability

By Andrew Tellijohn

A group from the City of Warren visited Germany in 2016 as part of the Climate Smart Municipalities program and returned with the knowledge that there is little to no use of Styrofoam, plastic, or paper plates there. The city quickly eliminated those same products in its own buildings and found, in addition to reducing its garbage output, it saved $1,200 a year.

“That’s $1,200 we can use somewhere else,” says Shannon Mortenson, city administrator of Warren (population 1,596).

Using sustainable energy - illustration.Other sustainable projects in Warren include the institution of mandatory curbside recycling, the conversion to LED streetlights, and, more recently, through a partnership with Northland Community and Technical College, the deployment of drones to conduct thermal imaging surveys on public buildings and residences to help identify and fix efficiency issues.

The city has found that environmental projects have garnered the most support when touted along with ways residents might benefit financially. “I think that’s why we’ve been pretty successful,” Mortenson says.

Small projects make impact

Warren is just one of many small cities in Minnesota that have found ways to be more environmentally conscious, even with few resources and a small staff.

Mahnomen (population 1,228), located on the White Earth Reservation in the northwestern part of the state, also has a strong focus on sustainability. The city has converted its street lights to LED, and leaders are talking with the tribal nation about instituting a solar power program that could benefit both, says City Administrator Mitch Berg.

Berg says a smaller tax base limits the city to smaller projects, but the benefits can still add up. For example, replacing existing municipal building roofs with white roofs can reduce insulation, heating, and electrical costs by allowing those buildings to deflect sunlight.

Mahnomen has also partnered with Otter Tail Power and the Minnesota Retiree Environmental Technical Assistance Program to get an energy audit to find out other areas it can improve.

Climate Inheritance Resolution

Another city with a rich sustainability history is Grand Marais (population 1,410). Mayor Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux says the city took its first step in the early 2000s when Cook County developed a local energy plan.

In 2018, a group of area young people lobbied the city to adopt a Climate Inheritance Resolution, acknowledging its responsibility to develop a plan to lessen its environmental impact.

“That was pretty impactful,” Arrowsmith DeCoux says. “It was a powerful presentation. The city has acknowledged that we have a responsibility to pursue how to be responsible for our energy use.”

MN GreenStep Cities can help

Small cities that want to increase their environmental efforts may find it helpful to join the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program, which is a public-private partnership administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and involving several partner organizations, including the League of Minnesota Cities. GreenStep is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year (read more about that).

Grand Marais has been a member since 2014, but in the two years since passing the resolution, the city has ramped up its efforts. The city now has a climate action coordinator, and it has completed assessments on its buildings and established policies requiring energy efficiency standards to be met in future construction.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can, starting where we are,” DeCoux says, adding that it’s helpful to have the GreenStep framework and examples from other GreenStep members.

Raising awareness is first step

One of GreenStep Cities’ newest members is Hackensack, population 320. Gary Dietrich, Hackensack’s volunteer GreenStep coordinator, says he is trying to build community support around issues such as solar power and electric vehicle charging stations.

Dietrich believes such enhancements to the city would make it an even more appealing destination for tourism, and he’s hopeful some of the tools available through GreenStep will help with those efforts.

“We have to build awareness, build something that is going to keep people engaged,” he says, adding that the county already has many environmentally friendly buildings but little publicity surrounding them.

Kristin Mroz, local government coordinator with the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board and co-director of the GreenStep program, says she’d like to see more small cities join.

GreenStep offers helpful resources and can connect small cities with other cities that have done the types of projects they’re interested in doing. In addition, GreenStep imposes no requirements, and it offers some tremendous potential benefits, such as the ability to participate in pilot programs and financing opportunities.

“We work to make [the program] available and user-friendly,” Mroz says. For small cities, partnerships are key.

“A lot of our smaller communities have built really good relationships with citizen volunteers,” Mroz says. “They understand the need for finding resources available to them outside their own capacity.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer.