Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Sep-Oct 2018 issue

Focus on Small Cities: GreenStep Program Helps Small City Meet Sustainability Goals

By Andrew Tellijohn
Building and executing a sustainability plan can be a daunting exercise, particularly for a city of fewer than 700 residents, with only one part-time and three full-time city staffers, that relies heavily on volunteers for getting projects completed.

Still, when then-City Councilmember Mary Lusher and several community volunteers presented the idea of joining the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program in 2014, the Marine on St. Croix City Council agreed.

Marine on St. Croix—Marine, for short—was already doing a lot of environmentally beneficial work, usually with the help of volunteers. But the GreenStep program gave Marine a way of documenting those projects and prioritizing what to focus on next, says volunteer Anne Reich, chair of the city’s GreenStep Committee.

A framework for sustainability

“The Minnesota GreenStep Cities program provides a framework for communities to document accomplishments and identify future actions we can take,” says Reich, a former science teacher and editor of educational publications for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “It helps us create a community culture that supports sustainability. And GreenStep enables us to tap into resources, expertise, information, and support that otherwise might not have been as readily available. It’s been excellent.”

Marine joined the program in December 2014. It focused initially on taking stock of what was already being done and documenting those activities in the GreenStep template.

The city has the oldest continuously used city government building in the state, and its Public Works Department has done several building upgrades over the years. But through GreenStep, the city was able to conduct a ReTAP Energy Assessment, where retired engineers do an energy, water, and waste management evaluation of the building.

“The ReTAP assessment affirmed what Public Works was already doing, but it also made some recommendations for future improvements,” Reich says.

Marine’s GreenStep program also jumpstarted the formation of a city Urban Forest Task Force. Community volunteers have inventoried Marine’s urban trees and developed a forest management plan, with the goal of ensuring a healthy, diverse urban forest.

They wanted to take advantage of the benefits trees provide, such as stormwater management, energy conservation, and air quality, Reich says.

Boosting business recycling

In a separate project, the city worked with local volunteers who received a grant from the Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation to help local businesses reduce their trash volume while increasing composting and recycling. As part of the grant, businesses were also able to build new, aesthetically attractive enclosures for the new bins.

“It vastly improved the visuals of our village,” Reich says. “We had all these garbage cans and dumpsters kicking around. They are now contained, and more waste is being recycled or composted, which saves the businesses money.”

Jason Crotty, lead public works employee and one of two full-time workers in the department, praised the city’s volunteers for pitching in and embracing the GreenStep program. It helped identify new strategies for conserving energy and resources.

Program works well for small staff

Although he is all for the program, Crotty acknowledges that when the work falls back on him, those projects get added to an already long list of requests. The nice thing is that Minnesota GreenStep Cities is a voluntary program. This is important for a small city with limited resources. “We have a small staff, so when the City Council got into this, we said these programs are going to happen as Public Works has time to get them done,” Crotty says.

While progress doesn’t always happen fast, GreenStep is great, Crotty says, because it helps focus and mobilize a volunteer community that has historically been eager to contribute. “We’re blessed to have volunteers that come forward and do work for the city,” he says. “Without them, it’d be a pretty tough undertaking.”

Volunteers are key

City Councilmember Chris Mowery has championed the program from the start.

“It’s another example of how we are able to, as a community of under 700, do a lot because of volunteers,” Mowery says. “We’re lucky to be able to have a program like this with really knowledgeable volunteers.”

His own role is largely that of liaison, making sure when the committee has needs or finishes a project, the Council is made aware and acts.

“It’s something that has a positive impact on the city, both in saving city dollars and conserving energy,” Mowery says. “It’s been a good way to buckle down and take an inventory of city property and look at things in an environmentally responsible way.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.

Read the Sept-Oct 2018 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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