Plant 100,000 trees. Replace conventional traffic lights with LEDs. Convert a fleet to run on alternative fuels. Attract clean tech jobs. Build more parks. Go paperless.
Each initiative can be carried out separately, but local governments are finding it useful to approach them together through a broadly defined sustainability plan.
Differing from climate action plans focused on reducing greenhouse gases and energy use, sustainability plans use a broader scope, and can incorporate land use practices such as increasing open space and affordable housing, according to the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.
The city of Newport News, Va. (population 193,000), has drafted a sustainability plan that could be adopted as early as this fall. Roadmap to Sustainability, describing the processes that the city utilized, was the theme of a presentation the city’s staff gave at the American Public Works Association's recent International Public Works Congress and Exposition in Anaheim.
About 3,100 full-time employees work for the city, which has almost completely developed its 70-square miles of land. The themes that guide the city’s vision of sustainability are economic vitality, healthy communities and natural environment.
“We’re in the infancy stage, but we’re very robust in what we’re looking to do,” said Reed Fowler, director of public works.
The sustainability division official became part of the city's public works department on Oct. 1.
“Some localities use consultants. Some use an interdepartmental approach, and that was our approach. We lean on the expertise of our various subject matter experts representing a variety of city departments,” said Jennifer Privette, sustainability coordinator.
When Privette started with the city in August 2010, her position created by stimulus funds, the committee had already been established for two years. The city council was one month shy of approving a set of strategic priorities, giving staff the direction they needed to move forward.
The city manager “recognizes that making sustainability a lasting part of our city’s culture really depends on each and every one of us thinking and acting 'green' as we go about our daily lives,” said Privette.
From installing LED traffic lights to implementing a 'Buy Green' policy and creating a community garden, the city's commitment to practicing sound environmental stewardship while balancing the needs of people, profit, and planet has produced positive results.
"However, while we were doing things, we needed to catalog them, identify them in some fashion,” said Privette, “and then moving forward, we needed to maintain a sustainable program.”
A tool that helps the staff stay organized and on track is an Environmental Management System. Fowler recently led the Department of Public Works through the 18-month Environmental Management System training program to identify potential environmental impacts, evaluate their significance, and develop administrative, operational, or engineering controls to minimize the environmental risks.
Marcus Leeper, EMS coordinator for public works, describes it as a set of management processes which help analyze, control and reduce environmental impacts.
“We created an EMS team with all frontline personnel and looked at everything we were doing, everything that we touched,” he said.
The point is to integrate environmental management into day-to-day operations. Even a wash rack used for cleaning vehicles can be evaluated. The suggestions range from retrofitting the racks with grey water systems to minimizing dirty water from entering the storm drains and polluting the Chesapeake Bay.
“You have frontline professionals looking at the scale of impact,” said Leeper. They came up with alternatives for recycling the water or hooking it up to a sanitary sewer. The improved operations can become standard operating procedures.
The importance of each action is weighted using a point system, said Privette. And taken into account is how important the action is to the community and the leadership. When coming up with this “matrix” she turned to the city of Asheville, N. C.
“A lot of localities have done that research for you,” she said. However, Privette advises there are key decisions that each locality should address early in the process:
• Do you hire a consultant to draft the sustainability plan or do it in-house?
• Is the city manager responsible for implementing the plan, or the department heads?
• Is the document part of the city’s comprehensive master plan, or a separate entity?
Local governments have flexibility in how they implement their sustainability plans. With the support of city leadership, committee members can meet during work hours, fitting sustainability planning into their regular responsibilities.
“So one of the lessons learned is making sure we execute [our plan],” said Privette, “and making sure they stay engaged with the sustainability initiative outside of what their day job is.”
Responsibilities are assigned and given a time frame to complete. It’s important to have the performance measure established, as well as a baseline, to make sure the action is followed through, said Privette.
For Newport News, the sustainability division, an arm of the public works department, is responsible for implementing the plan. Once approved, the sustainability plan will complement the city’s comprehensive plan, and be partially funded through the capital improvement program budget.
Those projects could include conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, developing a green building requirement for new and existing buildings, environmental and energy conservation retrofits or, for example, upgrading HVAC equipment and lighting targeted by energy audits.
Other projects have received funding from grants.
• A $17 million grant will fund an intermodal transportation center, taking an estimated 1 million cars off the road, from Newport News to Richmond, Va.
• A $1.7 million grant has enabled the city to replace its lights with energy-saving LED and compact fluorescent light bulbs. A 73 percent reduction in the annual energy bill for traffic lights resulted from an upgrade from incandescent to LED.
• A $127,000 grant will go towards converting city vehicles to alternative fuels.
The draft sustainability plan is being reviewed by the city manager as well as a citizen committee for recommendations. Then it will go tentatively to city council in the fall. Once approved, Privette, Leeper and the committee will begin the hard work of seeing the actions are carried out.