Sustainability starts with neighborhoods and, with the right promotion, can spread across an entire city and into the next until it becomes a regional force for positive change.
Organizers of a statewide survey in Wisconsin and a neighborhood initiative in Hobart, Ind., shared their experiences and discoveries at the recent Growing Sustainable Communities Conference in Dubuque. One of the biggest lessons learned:
Efforts need to be place-based and relevant, said Sherrie Gruder, sustainable design specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. She calls the trend toward sustainability a “quiet movement."
“I think it’s happening on its own and it doesn’t need to be loud,” said Gruder. “I think the reason it’s working is that people realize the need to engage in solutions in response to political, economic and ecological issues. It’s not being legislated to them. It’s coming from the ground up.”
Gruder reported on a survey of 365 responding Wisconsin cities, villages and towns that shows grassroots activity in sustainability. Municipalities in more than half of all counties across the state have some sort of sustainability initiative.
“There were 72 communities working on sustainability that we didn’t even know about,” she said.
Topping the list of topics local governments were most interested in working on were energy efficiency, growing a green economy and natural resource management. Land use, economy and quality of life were driving factors for their programs.
“Severe weather events were in the next tier of motivators, strongly linked to their interest in assistance with resilience planning,” Gruder said. “What you realize is that almost all these issues are in the purview of local government.”
Communities said financing, staff time and expertise were challenges.
“Some small communities found ways around that,” Gruder said. Some combined economic development and sustainability efforts. Some municipalities integrated sustainability into existing programs such as Smart Growth.
“It is ramping up on its own. The motivation for local governments is to strengthen the ecological, economic and social fabric of the community. There are economic benefits. Most of the communities were measuring energy and water savings. It helped with the bottom line, but is also helped with quality of life,” she said. “People care about where they live.”
One community found that their sustainability efforts attracted a new business as well as new residents.
She quoted former Wisconsin governor and senator Gaylord Nelson, who founded Earth Day, as saying “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”
Wisconsin’s Native American tribes are also partnering on sustainability efforts, such as energy independence and water quality. One tribal program focuses on climate change and culture.
“We’re learning a lot in our state from our tribes,” Gruder said.
Local governments provide the framework and lead by example, she said.
Many sustainability organizations, nonprofit groups, faith-based institutions and businesses support local government efforts, and some work independently, Gruder said. “Some work on sustainability as a system, like Coulee Partners for Sustainability, while others focus on one aspect of sustainability, like Women in Sustainable Agriculture. Groups like Soil Sisters have sprung up across the state and meet for potlucks. Facebook pages and postings spread the word from one community to the next, attract members and inspire new local organizations.”
The Wisconsin Municipal Sustainability Survey, taken electronically in November 2015, had a response rate of 39 percent.
Governments are exploring and implementing solar energy and compressed natural gas. A thermal blanket for the Osceola School swimming pool created significant savings.
Four Wisconsin cities - Wausau, Stevens Point, Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids - within 35 miles of each other and with a combined labor pool of 300,000 people are researching public transit options such as van pools.
Milwaukee and Madison have sustainability efforts on many fronts from biking to rain barrels. But smaller cities also are working toward sustainability.
The Coulee Partners for Sustainability in La Crosse, Wis., aim to “live respectfully, responsibly and reverently with one another and the earth.”
In another Midwestern state, a partnership between the city of Hobart, Ind., Ball State University and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources created a Hobart Sustainable Neighborhood Plan.
“In order to create a sustainable community, you need to break it down into parts, break it down into neighborhoods,” said Sergio Mendoza, Hobart city planner. He said the partnership gave the project much needed feet on the ground.
“This work would not have been done if it had been left to me and my department.”
Kristina Kuzma interned with the city of Hobart in the summer of 2015 between two years of grad school at Ball State University, and then served as its graduate assistant in the fall of 2015 and the spring of 2016.
“When school started up again, I stayed on with the city as a graduate assistant throughout both the fall and spring semesters. While working on the plan, I was a full-time graduate student at Ball State University earning my Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning,” she said.
Hobart, with a population of 29,000 people, is five minutes from Lake Michigan and 40 minutes from downtown Chicago.
Kuzma divided the city into 74 neighborhoods, and used existing data to find which neighborhoods were thriving, which were suffering, and why.
“We learned that it is this kind of specific, targeted information that can really move a city forward. It can help secure grant funds, as well as determine the best places to use city dollars for things like sidewalks and new parks,” Kuzma said.
She could visually and mathematically look for problems. For instance, one neighborhood had no tree cover. Evidence of that helped secure 500 free trees for planting.
“The process certainly revealed things that would not have been noticed otherwise. For example, we could see which neighborhoods had the lowest percentages of tree cover or the highest percentages of impervious surface. We also realized things like who had the oldest housing stock and where the highest concentrations of poverty were within the city. Areas with high concentrations of water wells and septic systems (not always an ideal combination) were uncovered, as well as countless other issues that are not obvious without such analysis,” she said.
One neighborhood has no park, so that will become a priority.
Her work can help guide future development decisions, she said. And it can help with capital planning projects.
Kuzma is now an economic and community development educator in Clinton County, Indiana, with Purdue University Extension.
She said the internship helped her future job prospects as much as it helped the city of Hobart.
“Besides really sharpening my GIS and data analysis skills, I realized that looking at citywide problems on a neighborhood level makes them seem much less overwhelming and insurmountable. Environmental and economic issues can be prioritized, and then solved neighborhood by neighborhood in a calculated, strategic way,” Kuzma said.
Any city could do the same study she did in Hobart, she said.
“The work is already helping Hobart to correct some of its sustainability issues and we feel it can help other municipalities do the same."
Hobart is “not a special community, but it is special to a lot of people,” Mendoza said, which seems to be the essence of sustainability at the grassroots level.