National survey shows local governments slowly adopting sustainability initiatives

by Rich Heffern

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Washington, DC — A new survey released today by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, shows that while communities across the nation are increasingly conscious of sustainability issues, many localities are still at the beginning stages of turning green-focused priorities into concrete actions related to sustainability and energy conservation.

As the first national survey to establish benchmarks for sustainability initiatives in local government, the Sustainability Survey 2010 features the responses of 2,176 local governments from throughout the nation.

“While there is near shared agreement in the desire to create more sustainable communities, putting goals into action is a larger challenge,” suggests Tad McGalliard, ICMA’s Director of Sustainability. “This survey helps ICMA better understand where the issues are in implementing sustainability as a strategic priority and certainly will guide us as we create new knowledge resources, partnerships, and other support for local governments.”

The survey findings include the following notable results:

• Most local governments consider the environment and energy conservation key priorities: A full 70 percent of respondents called “energy conservation” a “priority” (46 percent) or a “high priority” (24 percent). Similarly, nearly two-thirds of local government respondents (62 percent), consider the “environment” a priority, including 21 percent of respondents calling it a “high priority.”

• While governments are conscious of the need for sustainability, specific plans are slower to take hold: When asked what specific planning actions related to sustainability and energy conservation they had taken, only 29% had adopted a resolution outlining specific policy goals – and that was the most popular response. Additionally, most localities had yet to assign dedicated staff to sustainability efforts (27 percent had), establish specific benchmarks related to sustainability(19 percent), established or appointed a task force (28 percent), or provided a budget specifically for their efforts (16 percent).

• Actions to limit greenhouse gases are not widespread – except for tree planting: While a full 45 percent of localities have a plan for tree preservation and planting, only 14 percent had established greenhouse gas limits for the local government, less than 10 percent for the community-at-large, and only about three percent for local businesses.

• Localities show progress embracing energy conservation actions in and out of government: A strong majority (63 percent) of localities had conducted energy audits of government buildings, and 56 percent had upgraded or retrofitted office lighting, and 44 percent had increased the purchase of fuel efficient government vehicles. Meanwhile, few localities reported the establishment of public/private partnerships to establish energy reduction measures in local small businesses – only six percent reported doing so.

• Actions to improve and protect water are more advanced, but still not widespread: 34 percent of localities had taken actions to conserve the quantity of water from aquifers, 33 percent had adopted a water price structure to encourage conservation, 30% had set limits on impervious surfaces on private property, and 28 percent had provided other incentives to encourage local water conservation behavior.

• Approximately one-in-ten localities require LEED or Energy Star certification for all new government construction. Close to eight percent require LEED or Energy Start certification for all retrofit government projects.

The survey was developed with the input of ICMA’s Center for Sustainable Communities, the Center for Urban Innovation, Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability (ASU GIOS), the Alliance for Innovation, and others. Survey distribution was conducted through a collaboration of ICMA, ASU GIOS and the Sustainable Cities Network, a multi-jurisdictional partnership. The survey was provided in a print format because the local government response rate is both higher and more scientifically representative than for an electronic survey.

ICMA, the International City/County Management Association, advances professional local government worldwide. Its mission is to create excellence in local governance by developing and advancing professional management of local government. ICMA provides member support; publications, data, and information; peer and results-oriented assistance; and training and professional development to nearly 9,000 city, town, and county experts and other individuals and organizations throughout the world. The management decisions made by ICMA's members affect 185 million individuals living in thousands of communities.

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