Back to the Sep-Oct 2020 issue

GreenStep Cities Celebrates 10 Years of Improving City Sustainability

By Mary Jane Smetanka

When Joy McKnight joined the Carver City Council last year, she knew residents were interested in sustainability. But in a town of roughly 5,000 people with a modest city staff, where would they find the resources to research and design a program to make the city more green?

Greenstep logoCarver found help through Minnesota GreenStep Cities, a statewide voluntary challenge program that marks its 10th anniversary this year. Participants in the public-private partnership, which is administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, now includes 141 cities and tribal nations. Almost half of the state’s population lives in a community that participates in the GreenStep program.

Carver joined this year and is one of the program’s newest members.

“I’ve gotten positive feedback from residents who really want to know what the city is doing around sustainability,” says McKnight. “They want trails and parks, and they want us to be green. [The GreenStep Cities program] is a way for us to be transparent and let them know what we’re doing.”

Evolution of the program

Diana McKeown has worked with GreenStep Cities from the beginning and does outreach and education for the program in the Twin Cities area. McKeown, director of the Metro CERTs (Clean Energy Resource Teams) program at the Great Plains Institute, says that GreenStep Cities briefly focused on energy issues, but it quickly became clear that what cities really wanted was “a prescription for action” to build sustainability in many areas.

Today, GreenStep Cities offers a framework of 29 best practices in five categories: buildings and lighting, land use, transportation, environmental management, and resilient economic and community development. Cities are offered more than 170 possible strategies to increase sustainability, such as changing lighting in city buildings, minimizing stormwater runoff, and issuing conservation easements to preserve valued public land. The recommendations get very specific, and the GreenStep website encourages cities to share and learn from each other. But it is up to local officials to decide what to do, how to do it, and how much money to spend on those efforts, if any. The program is free and only asks cities to declare their intentions to residents and work toward sustainable goals.

Greenstep cities were 1st in Minnesota to achieve sustainability plan passage, tree city USA, Minnesota bird city, bee-safe city, star community rating, bus rapid transit, led traffic signals, 100% renewable goals, city operations 100% solar, solar on closed landfills.
Image courtesy of GreenStep Cities

“The vision for GreenStep Cities is that sustainability becomes the norm,” McKeown says. “There are a lot of choices — you choose your own route, you choose your actions and your pace. It reinforces local control.”

The voluntary program is getting results. GreenStep calculates that enrolled cities have saved $8.3 million in annual energy costs, created more than 580 renewable energy sites, added more than 130 electric vehicle stations, and have more than 230 certified green buildings.

Guidance for cities

About half the participating cities are in the metro area, including St. Paul, but McKeown says that from the start, the focus was on helping small and medium-sized municipalities.

“Larger cities were big enough to do this on their own,” she says. Thirty-five percent of involved cities have fewer than 5,000 residents. The smallest GreenStep city is Hewitt, with a population of about 250. Because cities are so different, the choices of what actions to pursue is broad. (See more about small city participation in the article Small Cities Step Up for Sustainability.)

“It’s a homegrown program, based on best practices that have been tested by other Minnesota cities,” McKeown says.

Recently she’s seen an uptick in cities that are interested in drawing up climate action plans. Many added climate and energy goals to their recently completed 2040 comprehensive plans.

“Cities are where the rubber meets the road,” McKeown says. They’re seeing the effect of climate change, with stormwater systems that are overwhelmed by more frequent heavy rains. She believes visible changes like that will continue to drive interest in GreenStep Cities.

“I think the program will continue to grow, and we will be responsive as cities give us feedback on what they’re looking for and what they need,” she says. “This is really a pathway that cities can use so they don’t have to spend so much time figuring things out.”

Continuous improvement

Cities win recognition by progressing through five steps of increasingly challenging activities. While Step One consists of building community interest in sustainability and passing and publicizing a resolution to work toward GreenStep recognition, Step Four requires cities to start measuring their progress with data. Reaching Step Five means continuing to work on and do better on those measures in the following year.

“The emphasis is on continuous improvement,” McKeown says.

Cities can add GreenStep artwork and materials to their web pages and order GreenStep City road signs. The League of Minnesota Cities is one of the partner organizations, and participating cities are usually recognized at the League’s Annual Conference, although that was canceled this year due to the pandemic. (See the cities that made progress this year at

Reaching Step Five

Mahtomedi was a GreenStep pioneer, joining the program when it started in 2010. It is among 20 cities that have reached Step Five. The city of 8,000 people on the shores of White Bear Lake has a history of focusing on the environment. In 2006, it signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and set up a city environmental commission.

“It was just a logical progression to join GreenStep Cities,” says Mahtomedi City Administrator Scott Neilson. He says the program helps the environmental commission set priorities and goals and measure progress.

Councilmembers receive recognition.
Mahtomedi Councilmembers Richard Brainerd, left, and Jeff Lederman, right, along with City Administrator Scott Neilson, center, receive recognition for their city’s GreenStep advancements at the 2019 League of Minnesota Cities Annual Conference.

Every chapter of Mahtomedi’s 2040 comprehensive plan incorporates sustainability into the discussion, whether it be about land use, transportation, or parks. For the first time, the comprehensive plan also includes a separate chapter on sustainability. The city promotes its environmental work in its bimonthly newsletter, and the GreenStep Cities road signs have attracted attention and questions, Neilson says.

One of the areas Mahtomedi has focused on is transportation. The city has worked toward completing a trail system to link it to others in the area, an initiative that’s popular with residents who want to make the city friendlier for walkers and bicyclists.

To meet the Step Five requirements, Mahtomedi documented how it added miles of trails, and how passing ordinances related to land use helped the city to do that. Other areas that were measured to reach Step Five included environmental management affecting open space and parks, as well as stormwater and wastewater initiatives.

Not all of those priorities will be finished quickly, Neilson says. Stormwater improvements will happen gradually as street projects are being done, but the city has done planning, set priorities, and committed resources to the effort.

He says it hasn’t always been easy to track and measure city strategies linked to sustainability. Gathering some of the information was challenging, involving the city Public Works Department and a consulting engineer.

“But the great thing about it now is that we have the information on spreadsheets, and we can refer back to it,” he says. “It’s an ongoing process. The council has been 100% behind it. We’re committed to sustainability, and this is a way to track it. People here want to improve the environment.”

Just getting started

Carver Councilmember McKnight learned about GreenStep Cities last year at the League’s Annual Conference. She saw people from other cities wearing GreenStep badges on their name tags and asked for details. She attended a session on cities that use solar power to reduce costs, looked at the GreenStep information, and discovered that several neighboring cities were already involved.

A bridge on the Lake Links Trail.
This bridge was built in 2019 as part of the new Lake Links Trail in Mahtomedi.

“I was impressed at the breadth of actions GreenStep Cities has available,” she says. “There were things I hadn’t thought about — how do we save water, how can we reduce office supply costs, how can we use lighting effectively in parks and fields?”

Cost was a concern, but it turns out money isn’t really an issue, McKnight says.

“This is not a big expense for us because we can leverage other cities’ experiences. It’s totally voluntary, there is no timeline, and it’s up to us if we want to spend on things or not,” she says. “Really it’s not about spending, it’s about saving money and being efficient.”

As a brand-new member, Carver hasn’t set GreenStep goals yet, but McKnight hopes it will later this year. She says the program fits with the values and image that city officials want to project in a place that is still growing and attracting new residents.

“I think people today want to join a community that is a good place to live, has good schools and good parks,” McKnight says. “We want to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and good stewards of the planet.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a freelance writer.