2009 National Planning Conference: AICP Symposium

Making a Difference with Green Strategies

By Meghan Stromberg
Senior Editor,

All over the country — and indeed the world — communities are voicing their support for greener, more healthy places to live. Nearly 800 U.S. mayors have signed on to "meet or beat" the greenhouse gas emissions reductions outlined by the Kyoto Protocol, and several communities have already made significant strides in achieving greater sustainability.

During Monday's AICP Symposium "Making a Difference with Green Strategies," planners at the 101st consecutive National Planning Conference learned about a city, a region, and a federal program that have developed and adopted an array of innovative green strategies.  Minneapolis is implementing a sustainability initiative to spur action, track results, and better coordinate activities throughout the city. The Sacramento Area Regional Council of Governments has crafted a blueprint for sustainability that has become the model for all of the California's 18 MPOs. And the USDA Forest Service is working with local communities to assess and improve their urban forests and other green infrastructure.

Green at the local level

In 2003, the Minneapolis city council adopted a resolution to create a process that would not only move the city towards greater sustainability but also establish performance targets and measures to assess its progress, said Daniel Huff from the planning department, who spoke at the session. The Minneapolis Sustainability Program relied on input from various stakeholders, residents, staff, and elected officials  to develop 24 Sustainability Indicators, each with numerical 10-year targets and strategies to achieve them.

Each of the city's 18 departments was required to incorporate the indicators into its five-year business plan — an approach that helped to encourage interdepartmental cooperation and creative approaches to citywide goals. "Even the city assessors office has something to do with planning — we just needed to figure out how," said Huff. He added that the program has been successful because of its emphasis on measurements and accountability, as well as the strong support from the mayor and city council.

Regional green strategies

Nancy McKeever, of the California Energy Commission, told attendees what she called "A California Story," a case study of state, regional, and local coordination in addressing sustainability. The Sacramento Area Regional Council of Governments, representing six counties and 22 cities, is gearing up for some major challenges: climate change and population growth. The region will add 1.7 million people by 2050.

By 2001, the region had "started to recognize the dysfunction," McKeever says, noting the disconnect between having land-use authority in local hands and transportation controlled regionally. The council launched a massive project, collaborating with local governments and agencies to collect, synthesize, and share data. Using a software program called I-PLACE3S, it created a rich database of information that is available not only to the leaders of partner communities but also to residents. The region used that data to inform stakeholders involved in creating a blueprint, which was later adopted by elected officials. Participants were able to see immediately and precisely how various and interconnected decisions would affect their communities.

In the end, the blueprint has taken on a much larger role. In recent years, California has passed climate legislation calling for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, to be achieved by making smarter land use and transportation decisions. Impressed with the Sacramento blueprint model, the California Department of Transportation began issuing competitive grants totaling $5 million to help the state's other MPOs craft their own blueprints to comply with the new regulations.

Feds land a hand to local communities

Phillip Rodbell, program manager for the USDA Forest Service, emphasized to audience members some of the many benefits of green infrastructure and urban forests, including improved air quality, reduced urban heat island effects, better shading and energy efficiency of buildings, improved stormwater management, and higher quality of life. He said that a Wisconsin inventory of the state's urban forests counted about 26.9 million trees that provided $10.9 billion in value because of the ecological, economical, and social benefits they confer.

Rodbell mentioned a number of federal programs available to communities looking to pursue sustainability and improve its green infrastructure. Cutting edge technology tools include an urban forestry software suite called  I-Tree, the Urban Effects Model (which helps assess urban ecosystems), and the Forest Opportunity Spectrum, which uses high-resolution imagery to illustrate existing tree cover and identify areas for improvement — on a regional, citywide, neighborhood, or parcel level.

Making our communities greener contributes to the triple bottom line of economy, ecology, and equity, Rodbell said. "Our job is to communicate that and make it happen."

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