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August 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 7


Innovation Edge

Going Farther, Digging Deeper

Nine communities embark on ambitious journeys to reach diverse destinations

Local programs have shown us that while most governments are becoming active in sustainability, they are only involved at a relatively low level and in a narrow range of possible activities.1 The nine projects described in this article provide new methods of achieving sustainability goals in unusual ways. They expand the scope of activity and have substantial impact on the environmental, economic, and equity dimensions of sustainability.

Compressed Natural Gas Filling Station

Clearwater, Florida (population 107,685)

Clearwater embarked on a plan to build a compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station and begin the conversion of solid waste trucks and utility vehicles to further support its Greenprint initiative and promote green energy use while enhancing Clearwater’s sustainability.

The filling station provides local public and private fleets with the ability to use CNG vehicles versus gasoline-fueled vehicles. The “Clearwater Greenprint” initiative promotes a citywide mobility and sustainability vision and framework, supporting methods to increase the energy efficiency of neighborhoods, business districts, and transportation systems, while enhancing economic competiveness, livability, and overall quality of life.

Hospital Reuse Into Business Incubator

Independence, Missouri (population 116,830)

The opening of a new state-of-the-art hospital, combining two existing hospitals within the community, presented a unique economic development challenge for Independence: how to successfully reuse key medical buildings in the center of the city.

One of the buildings available for redevelopment was the former Independence Regional Health Center. The Independence Economic Development Council was charged with creating the concept of a cutting-edge business incubator to foster entrepreneurial and early-stage companies.

The Independence Regional Ennovation Center is a 40,000-square-foot, mixed-use business incubator focusing on three core areas for the development of new businesses: bioscience, kitchen/culinary, and business and technology. The incubator project maximizes such assets available in the former hospital as converting former surgical suites into eight wet labs (rooms specially designed for the handling of chemicals in liquid form) or using patient rooms for small-business and technology office suites.

The center has proven to be a vital economic development asset to Independence and teaches that economic sustainability projects like it can be a job creator for local governments.

Water Conservation with a Personal Touch

Manatee County, Florida (population 322,833)

As a way to educate residents about the economic and environmental impacts on irrigation systems for landscaping, Manatee County adopted an outdoor, water-conservation rebate program with financial incentives up to a total of $1,500 for implementing water-saving improvements in landscape and irrigation systems.

Nine rebate categories are available, including converting to an alternative water source, installing a rain shut-off switch and a soil moisture sensor control, repairing or replacing a defective irrigation system, and retrofitting landscape plantings to be more water efficient. Manatee County’s Extension Service also operates a mobile irrigation lab for landscape and irrigation evaluations and provides educational workshops for participants to help them understand how to properly operate and maintain their irrigation systems for optimum water savings.

New residents are usually unfamiliar with their new landscapes as well as irrigation systems, system care, or water requirements. A typical, inefficient, poorly managed lawn-irrigation system can waste more than 15,000 gallons of water monthly, adding an additional $67 to the monthly water bill.

Climate Change Resiliency Study

Flagstaff, Arizona (population 65,870)

To address the potential challenge to public service delivery from climate change, the city of Flagstaff completed a resiliency study. The project addresses a significant public service challenge: How can a local government reduce its vulnerability and build local resilience to climate variability and climate-related disasters?

Reducing vulnerability to the changing climate requires the city to identify how vulnerable its public services, public health, infrastructure, and economic competitiveness are to climate variability; where it lacks sufficient capacity to adapt; and what the risks are if it does not act. Using an innovative, consensus-based approach, Flagstaff conducted the internal assessment to identify vulnerable planning areas within city operations and assess the risks of the expected impacts.

The city shared preliminary findings with stakeholder groups to get views on risk factors and the cost of addressing a specific vulnerability. The resiliency study is intended to be transformed into an overarching policy that will guide decisions for other operational and capital planning.

The study assessed local systems and key planning areas that share three things in common. Each is important to the success and resiliency of Flagstaff, can be impacted by city government, and is likely to be affected by climate change.

How can Flagstaff, for example, better manage its urban forest to protect from increased danger from wildfires? What might be the economic impact to the community if the ski industry is no longer viable? How should the floodplain regulations be revised to take into account significant flooding events? While local governments have recognized the danger of climate change, Flagstaff has created a model for how they can prepare.

Greening Lakewood Business Partnership

Lakewood, Colorado (population 140,305)

The need for energy improvements for the Lakewood Learning Source, home of one of the largest adult literacy programs in the United States, sparked the formation of the Greening Lakewood Business Partnership. GLBP’s mission is to bring energy efficiency to older, existing office, and commercial buildings in Lakewood while providing job training, particularly for military veterans returning from overseas.

The partnership includes the city of Lakewood, which has worked with these organizations:

  • Utility company, banks, and state to help fund energy efficient retrofits.
  • Red Rocks Community College, which created a program for students to train in energy auditing and provide free audits to businesses under the supervision of experts in the field.
  • Alameda Gateway Community Association, which introduces the program to Lakewood businesses.
  • Veterans Green Jobs, which mobilizes the military veterans to enter the Red Rocks program.
  • Jefferson County Workforce Center, which coordinates funding for the students’ paid internships.
  • Better Business Bureau, which markets the partnership.

The partnership helped Learning Source reduce its monthly heating bills from $3,500 to $200 and provides a model for the potential of partnerships to create sustainable energy practices.

Energy Smart and SmartRegs

Boulder, Colorado (population 97,385)

Boulder’s staff knew that the highest consumption of the community’s energy was in residential buildings and that there was a broad disconnect between residents undertaking an energy audit and taking action to reduce energy use. They designed a new service and delivery mechanism called “Energy Smart and SmartRegs.”

Energy Smart aims to be a one-stop shop solution for residents, including an initial visit to install low-cost efficiency measures, provide education, and promote additional offerings of deeper energy efficiency retrofits. The model revolves around an energy adviser, who works with homeowners throughout the entire process, “translating” a technical energy audit report to prioritize upgrades, identifying rebates and financing options, and helping with associated paperwork.

The city also developed a program called SmartRegs to overcome the split incentive that often prevents wide-scale adoption of energy efficiency upgrades in renter-occupied properties. A split incentive exists when tenants do not have an incentive to invest in energy upgrades in units they rent, and landlords do not have an incentive to invest in energy upgrades since they don’t pay the energy bills.

SmartRegs is the nation’s first local energy code for rental housing, and it works with an innovative point scale that can be applied to any type of housing unit. SmartRegs and EnergySmart service provide models for local governments on how to provide landlords with implementation assistance and rebates for these required energy efficiency upgrades.

Bags to Benches

Kingsport, Tennessee (population 44,130)

Bays Mountain Park’s “Bags to Benches” program is a creative and environmentally friendly project that keeps plastic bags from ending up in landfills by recycling them into such tangible products as park benches for public use.

The program began as a simple recycling program to fund environmental stewardship curriculum. As popularity grew, however, Bays Mountain Park needed benches for visitors. Research revealed that the Trex Company from Winchester, Virginia, had a unique recycling program for schools and other groups to receive free park benches in exchange for plastic bags.

This program became the perfect match in providing eco-friendly seating for visitors, and the Bags to Benches program was born. The program began with two collection points but through such public outreach as flyers, word of mouth, social media, newsletters, and regional television stations, more collection points were soon added at local schools, businesses, industries, and other city facilities.

The program continues to grow and today Trex not only provides benches but now provides monetary compensation for the bags. So what began as a park-driven program designed to demonstrate the positive environmental impact of recycling exploded into an effort that receives broad community support from individuals, schools, and businesses.

Deconstruction Initiative

Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada (population 86,659)

Aligning with Lethbridge’s environmental interests, the Facility Services Department for the past four years has taken responsibility for mitigating the impact on the environment when a city facility or community building has reached the end of its useful life cycle and is destined to be removed.

In the context of physical construction, “deconstruction” is the selective dismantling of building components, specifically for reuse, recycling, and waste management. It differs from demolition where a site is cleared of its building by the most expedient means.

Deconstruction focuses on giving the materials within a building a new life once the building as a whole is no longer useful. The process known as waste streaming involves identifying and assessing various building elements prior to deconstruction so they can be diverted accordingly.

Ultimately, deconstruction is a method of harvesting what is commonly considered waste and reclaiming it into useful building material. Deconstruction provides a different option for local government to reuse the sustainable elements of a building.

Geothermal Ice Rinks

Brooklyn Park, Minnesota population 75,781)

In the face of the Great Recession, local governments have to continue to identify ways to be more efficient. While one-time cuts can help a city or county balance their budgets, long-term financial pressure means local governments have to improve the sustainability of their services.

Brooklyn Park saw an opportunity to improve the efficiency of its facilities and with this mindset, sought to redesign its two ice rinks. Brooklyn Park underwent a complete redesign of the two rinks, which are located at the Community Activity Center.

The improvements use geothermal heat from the city’s water system to efficiently cool the rinks and heat portions of the building. The project was completed in October 2010 and is considered one of the most energy efficient ice rinks in the world.

Lessons to Learn

The nine communities highlighted in this article embarked on ambitious sustainability journeys, using new methods to arrive at the destinations they envisioned. These diverse projects share some common characteristics and provide helpful insights for communities seeking inspiration to purse new sustainability goals.

Define multiple objectives. The classic definitions of sustainability have focused on the three “e’s”: economic, environmental, and social equity. Most of these projects meet more than one objective simultaneously. The sustainability movement began with an effort to reconcile economic growth and environmental protection,2 and a number of projects are both good for the economy and improve or protect the environment, including Clearwater, Independence, and Lethbridge.

Lakewood added a social equity dimension by training veterans for new green jobs. Boulder’s energy code for rental properties gives tenants the savings in utilities that result from efficiency and energy improvements.

Pinpoint uniquely local solutions. The nine examples of sustainability actions each draw on unique aspects of their respective communities. Independence, for example, converted the problem of a vacant hospital in the core of the community into an opportunity to rethink how such a specialized building could be retrofitted to serve entrepreneurs in different industries.

Boulder responded to its housing market that is half rental, but its solution is widely applicable since most communities have a considerable number of renters.

Connect to like-minded partners. None of the communities went it alone. Lakewood found a half dozen partners who had such diverse interests as energy efficiency, training for returning veterans, and local business interests including the utility company, which all attached themselves to a portion of the effort in order to make it fully successful.

Make it relevant. Manatee County identified water conversation as an important goal, but it couldn’t achieve that without serious citizen involvement. Recycling is the most common and traditional sustainability practice. Kingsport, Tennessee, wanted to elevate recycling and environmental stewardship in its mountain parks. Its Bags to Benches program brought a high level of attention from the public and got the secondary result of free benches for visitors and new revenues.

Go over the top. Lethbridge proved that deconstruction can be a point of community pride while saving significant space in the community landfill. Brooklyn Park translated its budget woes into a geothermal ice rink solution that is now one of the most energy efficient rinks in the world.

Address bigger questions. The causes of climate change are a matter of some controversy; however, the evidence of climate change is already visible. Flagstaff connected its city departments and residents to one another in evaluating which human and engineered systems might fail due to climate-related disasters.

There are more than 100 distinct actions that local governments interested in sustainability usually pursue. The communities featured here used local knowledge, ingenuity, community partners, and their passion for excellence to develop new approaches that will help ensure their viability into the future.


1 James H. Svara, “The Early Stage of Local Government Action to Promote Sustainability,” The Municipal Year Book 2011 (Washington: ICMA, 2011), 43–60.
2 Kent E. Portney, Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003.

Karen Thoreson is president/chief operating officer, Alliance for Innovation, Phoenix, Arizona (kthoreson@transformgov.org), and Greg Stopka is central regional director, Alliance for Innovation, Barrington Hills, Illinois (gstopka@transformgov.org).

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