What drives cities to pursue sustainability policies?

Mildred Warner

Examining preliminary results in a national survey of 1,900 local governments, half of U.S. cities and towns had specific environmental goals but only one-third had concrete sustainability plans, according to Cornell University, Binghamton University and the International City County Management Association researchers who conducted the work, published in March.

“Local governments can take a leadership role in promoting sustainability. We have seen this with some big cities, but this national survey helps us understand motivators and drivers, especially for smaller and rural communities,” said Mildred Warner, Ph.D. ‘97, Cornell professor of city and regional planning, who conducted this research with George Homsy, Ph.D. ‘13, Binghamton University assistant professor of public administration.

The survey measured local government action on energy, water, waste, land use and transportation, as well as social equity and economic development.

In a similar survey in 2010, Warner and Homsy studied communities that were unlikely pioneers in environmental policy and found economic development and municipally owned utilities were key drivers of sustainability efforts. This new survey confirms the environment-economy connection as more communities make that link.

“Just like in the private sector where there is increasing emphasis on the triple bottom line – economics, environment and equity – we find in the public sector attention to fiscal and economic development concerns, along with environmental goals, motivates sustainability action,” said Warner, who also works with Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute, and who will be a fellow in residence this fall at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

There is work to do: While almost 47 percent of local governments have environmental goals, only 19 percent of local governments have dedicated budget resources for sustainability, and only 9 percent had dedicated staff. More must be done to integrate sustainability efforts within core government processes, said Warner, as efforts are usually focused on the improvement of lighting efficiency within government facilities, improved heating or air conditioning systems, streetlights and other exterior lighting, and increased traffic-signal energy efficiency. 

Promoting broader community sustainability in land use and transportation is harder. This requires coordinated action across municipalities and with the state.

“Our research shows knowledge needs to be shared throughout the system – among neighboring municipalities and with higher levels of government,” Homsy said. This can lead to co-production of knowledge and policy – which builds local support, collaboration among neighbors, and coordination from the local to state to national levels, he said. 

Local officials said the potential for fiscal savings, attracting development projects and environmental concern were significant factors in motivating sustainability efforts in their communities.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute for Food and Agriculture of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Melissa Osgood