Minnesota Cities Identify Sustainable Practices With GreenStep Cities Program

The Minnesota GreenStep Cities program helps municipalities become more ecologically aware.

by / January 2, 2012
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Sometimes getting employees to accept new procedures is hard work. Rebecca Haug, environmental administrator for Elk River, Minn., has seen staff struggle with adopting conservation-minded practices in the workplace. “There are some staff who are reluctant to change,” she said. “You have that in any organization, and when you say, ‘You’re required to buy recycled-content paper,’ or ‘You’re required to turn off your computer at the end of the day,’ there were some struggles getting some staff members to see the value in doing that.”

But that reluctance weakened in 2010 when Elk River joined the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program, which is designed to assist cities in adopting sustainable practices.

When Elk River joined the program, then-City Administrator Lori Johnson was pushing for the city to use more recycled paper, however, her request carried more weight with the GreenStep program behind it. And in June 2011, the City Council passed a resolution mandating the purchase of printer paper containing at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content and Energy Star-certified equipment when it’s available.

“We had our city administrator supporting it and saying, ‘This is how we operate. This is what we do,’” Haug said. “I wouldn’t say that everyone has fully come on board, but it’s made a difference being a part of this program.”

The Program Explained

The Minnesota GreenStep program helps municipalities become eco-friendly by giving their officials a choice of 28 sustainability best practices to implement. These best practice goals are grouped into five categories: building and lighting; land use; economic and community development; transportation; and environmental management. To comply, a city must complete one to two actions from at least four options in each best practice category.

Green infrastructure, for example, is one of nine best practices in the environmental management category. One action a city can take in this area is certifying at least one golf course in the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program, which conserves water and reduces chemical use in course development. Another is creating a program for community members to involve themselves in land restoration.

Cities fall under three categories:

  • Category C cities have few or no city buildings and staff;
  • Category B cities have more than a dozen buildings and staff, including a public works and planning/development department; and
  • Category A cities are in large metropolitan areas, and have industrial and commercial districts and regional transit.

At first, participating cities could only rise up the GreenStep sustainability ladder along three rungs. The first step was to pass a resolution committing to sustainability and to post desired sustainability goals or those already achieved on the GreenStep website. The second step is to implement four, six or eight best practices, and for step three, cities must implement eight, 12 or 16 of the program’s best practices. The number of best practices required to reach each step depends on a city’s category.

Now the program is developing a fourth step, whose details will come in time.

“We conceive it as a continuous improvement program. We will be creating different challenges,” said Philipp Muessig, the GreenStep Cities coordinator. This will involve informing cities how to go beyond the basic criteria for best practice achievement. “We’re going to post what constitutes completion of each of these actions at a minimal level, but then we’re also going to post what would be completion at a better level and then a best level.”

Cities don’t receive any direct financial or legal benefit from joining, but rewards do exist. “I would say every third city says, ‘And why should we join?’” Muessig said. “I think cities that contact me see enough benefits, but they, at some point say, ‘Now do we get anything for this?’”

The rewards program for participating cities is still in development. According to the GreenStep website, accolades in the works for successful participants include:

  • recognition for achievement at the June conference of the League of Minnesota Cities;
  • promotion of the accomplishments on the GreenStep website;
  • assistance in receiving a one-year AmeriCorps-funded Minnesota GreenCorps member; and
  • assistance receiving free consultation through the Minnesota Climate Change Corps.

GreenStep’s Origins

GreenStep Cities originated from discussions in 2007 hosted by Minnesota’s Clean Energy Resource Teams. During these discussions, one issue that came up was how to accomplish goals established in the state’s Next Generation Energy Act, which called for reducing energy consumption and investing in renewable power. This sparked the idea of a sustainable cities program, which was taken up by the Minnesota Legislature in 2008. Minnesota’s GreenStep program began in June 2010, and as of October 2011, had more than 26 participating cities.

The program website is the hub for participants to educate themselves about sustainability and report activity. The Web pages have information about the actions needed to complete the 28 best practices; links to case studies of cities with green projects; and a spreadsheet for users to calculate quantifiable benefits of green initiatives, like energy savings per computer (which are measured in kilowatts per hour). Public officials enter data about their green initiatives into the website, and taxpayers can view city progress on the site’s front end.

Going Green

The GreenStep program helps cities showcase projects they completed even before they joined, which is the case for most of Elk River’s sustainable endeavors, Haug said. And it’s because of these early actions that Elk River was ranked as a step two city in June 2011. “GreenStep Cities just gives us a little more recognition for the accomplishments we have achieved,” Haug said.

One such project is the Elk River branch of the Great River Regional Library system. The city began the building’s construction in 2006, and in 2007, it received a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. The library is more than 16,000 square feet, and daylight reaches 95 percent of the inside, saving energy and reducing the need for artificial light, said Gary Lore, the city’s building maintenance supervisor. A rain garden outside filters water runoff back into the soil rather than going down a storm drain.

The library also has geothermal pumps that extract heat energy from the ground to warm the building in the winter and recirculate heat into the ground for absorption, thus cooling the building in the summer. The pumps cycle hot and cold water in a closed loop throughout the heating system. Lore controls the flow through an energy management system. “I can monitor the heating and cooling in the spaces and make sure everything is operating the way it’s supposed to operate,” he said.

Elk River wasn’t the only city that was practicing environmentally friendly initiatives before joining the program. St. Cloud also reached step two status because of projects under way before GreenStep came along. In 2008, St. Cloud unveiled a public bus powered by a mixture of 80 percent vegetable oil and 20 percent diesel fuel, saving an estimated $2.30 per gallon. “The city’s receipt of a step two award is a great recognition of not only the city’s efforts, but also those of many institutional and individual efforts to make St. Cloud a great, livable place over time,” said Matt Glaesman, the city’s community development director.

GreenStep Cities are eligible for artwork, logos and sample press releases from the program to promote their status — and greater recognition may help cities receive grants to implement more sustainability projects. According to Haug, being part of GreenStep Cities likely helped Elk River garner $29,107 from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2011 for recycling, and $69,365 from the state Department of Natural Resources for solar lighting.

“We put in [our application] that we were part of GreenStep Cities, and that may or may not have helped us. I’d like to think it did,” she said. “We have another grant that we’re applying for, and we’re going to be putting that we are a GreenStep City in that application as well.”

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.