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Thinking Big on Sustainability

Building 21st-century cities means taking the long view.

Sustainability is like dieting. It’s not something you do once and then forget about — it’s a lifestyle change. Like a healthy diet, sustainability is also something that’s good for everyone. The environmental movement is rooted in hippie culture of the 1960s and 1970s and still suffers today from an image that confuses some and stratifies adoption along political lines. But in recent years, government leaders have begun to create programs and institute concrete changes that go beyond rhetoric and align not necessarily with any one political interest, but with universally human ones.

Sustainability seems a nebulous concept because it entails so much at once, and to each community it means something slightly different. Leaders in Vietnam found sustainability in learning to live with nature. Dubuque, Iowa, found sustainability in the human capital of its citizenry. And the inhabitants of rural, tornado-ravaged Greensburg, Kan., found that sustainability was the hope they needed to rebuild and not to give up.

The position of chief innovation officer is a recognition by government that IT is no longer peripheral, but an integral tool meant to assist all business needs. That idea is now giving way to new titles. Governments are hiring officers of performance, innovation and sustainability. Technology remains crucial, but leaders are setting their sights on broader goals and taking a more holistic approach.

Pittsburgh is among the cities undergoing such a change. When Mayor Bill Peduto took office in January, he brought in new cabinet members like Chief Innovation and Performance Officer Debra Lam. Though Pittsburgh is still at the earliest stages of sustainable thinking, it’s starting with people who have experience and know what it takes to position a community for a sustainable future.

Working for consulting and design firm Arup, Lam has managed projects and consulted with communities around the world to show them what sustainability means, how it can enhance lives, and help ensure that life will continue to be enjoyable as the environment presents new challenges.

Sustainability is a controversial word, Lam said, but the one thing that most everyone agrees on is that government should continually strive to improve everyone’s quality of life, and that’s what a sustainable approach does.

And sustainability is not just intended to mitigate climate change, Lam said. Even if civilization meets its most ambitious goals, the effects of climate change will continue to manifest in ways that can’t always be anticipated. Sustainability is also about finding ways to be resilient and live alongside the environment. “It’s really understanding what the risks are climate-wise, and then putting up the necessary measurements to be prepared for that,” she said. “We can’t predict and prevent everything. There’s an inherent underlying unpredictability. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared.”

Lam managed a project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where leaders sought guidance on how to handle their water management problems. Alongside the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City has seen centuries of flooding, but today there are new factors to consider. The growing population and rising affluence means a new class of people will draw more resources, depleting groundwater supplies and increasing soil salinity. Furthermore, climate change and rising sea levels are expected to cause even more soil salinity, not to mention flooding. Some researchers predict that many provinces in the delta region will be flooded as soon as 2030.

After studying the area, Arup issued a report to Ho Chi Minh City that recommended the city work to reduce water leakage and theft, and adopt more effective irrigation methods. The company also recommended infrastructure upgrades to improve water logistics, and encouraged leaders to think about how their infrastructure will need to adapt as conditions in the environment change. Getting all the stakeholders talking with one another, Lam explained, was key to making the other recommendations attainable.

When faced with a specific problem like flooding in Vietnam, the prevailing pragmatic mentality can fall short, Lam said. Typical solutions proposed are walls, ducts or dams. “That only goes so far,” Lam said. “It’s very costly, it’s very resource-intensive, very time-intensive, and it’s not necessarily the most effective way. If you’re assuming a sea level rise of 5 feet, but then sea level rise comes to 6 feet, it’s not going to work.”

Instead, she said, they should be looking at solutions that let the water in, and use green architecture and infrastructure to filter and absorb it. That’s sustainability. “It’s the realization that man can’t just block out or control nature,” Lam said. “There are a lot of good things working with nature.”

After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 New Orleans homes in 2005, people began rebuilding, although they understood that a similar situation could and probably would happen again. Sustainable architecture has become important in the region, but the concept is far from perfected. While the enthusiasm is there, sufficient knowledge and competent project management doesn’t necessarily follow. Dozens of homes built by actor Brad Pitt’s award-winning charity, the Make It Right Foundation, began rotting soon after construction in 2007 because of faulty wood products. Cities interested in sustainability need competent role models and reliable information.

Dubuque, Iowa, is a city that people look to when they want things done right. For sustainability initiatives to be impactful, they need grass-roots support from the people and leadership from government, said Cori Burbach, sustainability community coordinator for the city.

Dubuque has received awards and acclaim for its sustainability initiatives, including Smarter Sustainable Dubuque, a private-public research partnership with the IBM Watson Research Center. The city’s work is viewed as a model of sustainability for similarly sized local governments.

Dubuque partnered with private utility companies to help educate the public and boost energy conservation. The city encourages businesses to go green, while also searching for ways to spur local economic growth. In 2012, Dubuque was identified by the Martin Prosperity Institute as having the fourth largest average annual salary increase in the nation among metropolitan regions. Much of the region’s economic growth is thought to come from programs like Green and Healthy Homes, savings gained by smart metering and the use of data analytics to optimize the city’s bus schedule.

You can’t become sustainable by directive, Burbach said. Success requires support from the people and guidance from the top down, both of which Dubuque has had. Stakeholders in the community decided together to make sustainability a priority, and that sort of cooperation is crucial to make such initiatives work.

“That’s not just because there are more hands at the table, but because we’re all sharing data,” Burbach explained. “So often, even the way we collect data is siloed, and so we’re not getting the whole picture. We’re looking at, for instance, literacy scores, not understanding how family, economic status, health, activity, or access to services impacts those literacy scores.” Being a sustainable city means considering data on a communitywide basis so that decisions are based on all the available information, she said. “It’s really addressing the needs that are unique to Dubuque in a very coordinated, collaborative way.”

When people hear “sustainability,” they think it only means environmentalism, but that’s not the case, Burbach said — sustainability is environmental integrity, economic prosperity, and social and cultural vibrancy. It’s hard to make a business case for sustainability if all the plan consists of is changing a few light bulbs or installing a solar panel. When people realize that it’s about making communities resilient on all levels and building toward a better future, they start to see the value in it.

Through initiatives like Bridges Out of Poverty and Circles, community leaders in Dubuque are looking to forge a sustainable populace. Rather than just giving people money to pay the rent, the city wants to empower families and reduce dependence on the government, because everyone in society has something to contribute.

“It’s recognizing those assets in those families that have come out of our programs and connecting them to nonprofits, church groups or neighborhood associations so they can then be engaged in the community as well,” she said. “When you look at what our communities are going through in terms of changing economies, in terms of a changing federal funding world, all of the things that are impacting communities, I think it’s challenging us to think differently about the way we provide services. Sustainability, to me, gives us the framework to analyze what’s truly a priority and then to revise those services.”

On the evening of May 4, 2007, a tornado nearly two miles wide brushed through the small rural city of Greensburg, Kan. The tornado was later rated an EF5, the most powerful tornado on the scale, with wind speeds up to 240 mph. The tornado killed 13 people, hurt another 60 and leveled the city, destroying 95 percent of the buildings. Immediately, about half of the city’s 1,500 residents relocated, and the rest stood by, not sure what to do next.

The city was declared a disaster area, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped in with food, water, shelter and supplies. FEMA and design firm BNIM also helped the city create a plan to rebuild. Eight months later, the Greensburg City Council adopted a resolution committing it to sustainability. All buildings larger than 4,000 square feet were to meet LEED-platinum standards, and all energy was to come from renewable sources.

Over the next four years, the city rebuilt. It built a new courthouse, school, medical center, arts building, city hall and energy-efficient homes. It built wind and solar farms, and geo-thermal wells. Many thought the tornado was going to be the end of Greensburg, but today the city is revered as a living laboratory of advanced building materials and sustainable living. Other cities hit with tornadoes visit Greensburg to attend peer-to-peer workshops to learn how to rebuild and how not to despair.

Starting from scratch allowed Greensburg an opportunity to build things right, and fix some of the problems it had before, Mayor Bob Dixson said. “We were able to consolidate school buildings all on one campus instead of several centers all across town,” he said. “That maximized resources available and allowed us to have a lot more shared spaces.”

At first, the remaining population of Greensburg was not sold on the idea of sustainability, Dixson said, but they’ve since come around. People now see that the “crunchy” connotation of the word is just a distraction from the value it truly represents. “For us here on the high plains of the western Kansas rural area, it’s about those conservation values that our parents and grandparents and past generations taught us — to just take care of what you’ve got. If you take care of the land, it will take care of you.”

In April and May of 2011, a string of tornadoes passed through the Midwest and the South, killing about 500 people and causing billions in damages. Community leaders from Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and others came to Greensburg to learn from people who had already been there.

“The one thing we shared with other communities is: Don’t make life decisions rapidly, because you’re in a very emotional state of mind anyway. Not only are you trying to rebuild your homes, and your lives, you’re trying to rebuild a city. So take time to make sure you think through the processes and involve the community and you get a whole lot better results,” Dixson said. “The other thing that is highly critical, especially in rural communities, and it is true in major metropolitan areas, too, is that in order to be long-term sustainable as a community, you have to have a vibrant economy.”

Sustainability means a holistic approach, Dixson said. Each community’s specific goals and industries will vary, but when it’s time to plan, he said, communities should look carefully at their resources and decide how they’re going to rebuild not just their structures, but their economy and their lives. “The economic infrastructure can’t take a back seat,” he said. “It all has to come together.”

“Sustainability to me means have we learned from our past? Our heritage and our ancestors taught us how to survive and how to thrive,” Dixson said, adding that communities should take advantage of today’s technologies and advanced materials to build on that foundation. “Each one of us is just trying to make our communities a better place for us to live and work. And if you’re really striving for that, then you’re a true sustainable community.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.