Mayors Driving the Sustainability Train

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Posted on May 24, 2012

This past week corporate leaders paid a call on Capitol Hill to educate Members of Congress about the sustainability movement.   For many of the elected elite of Washington, the carefully articulated efforts to better manage operations with an eye equally on people, planet and profit is a new paradigm.  But for local governments, the sustainability train has left the station and the mayors are often in the conductor’s seat.

The National League of Cities recently published a report titled, “State of the City,” where they found that mayors are using a sustainability lens as a filter and framework for the challenges ahead. From the NLC’s blog:

Ten years ago, if you looked far and wide, you may have heard the word “sustainability” in one — possibly two — mayors’ State of the City addresses. Five years ago, a few more mayors, especially those with a large constituency of environmentalists, might have let the word slip into their speeches. Today, however, we find this term and others associated with it (livability, smart growth, etc.) commonplace in the speeches of mayors from small, medium, and large cities around the country

A May 7 GreenBiz article titled, “Why City Mayors are a Sustainability Director’s Best Friend,” referenced the NLC report, asserting that sustainability leaders inside companies should view local government as their ally. The article quoted a sustainability official at Siemens as saying, “What mayors really care about is their city — that comes first, politics come second. You come to the federal government, what they care about is how to get elected.”

I first wrote about this trend back in December of 2011. Increasingly, city governments are using a sustainability lens to rethink how they deliver services more efficiently; reduce their environmental impact; and better align their human capital with tomorrow’s job opportunities.  My hometown of St. Louis is developing an overall sustainability strategy – of which I am a part – and mirroring a corporate approach.  Like a private sector organization, we are:

  1. Surveying the competitive landscape and look for best practices among peers;
  2. Identifying the most significant risks and opportunities to better align finite resources;
  3. Engaging internal and external stakeholders;
  4. Developing a framework to measure progress and success;
  5. Communicating progress towards meeting goals.

Earlier this month, our Mayor held his second sustainability summit with about 70 sustainability leaders from across the city, the overwhelming majority of whom came from the business community.  Throughout the summit, sustainability leaders discussed with city officials and nonprofits the ways in which they could work more closely together by aligning interests to better address shared challenges and opportunities.

The city now is compiling these recommendations and will hold a series of community meetings through the summer for citizen input. We will meet again in October to discuss and finalize the city’s first ever sustainability plan.  Seeing this process leads me to believe that a city not only can mirror a business in its approach to developing a sustainability strategy, but by working in concert with the private sector, both can benefit.


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