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Profiles in Municipal Sustainability: An Interview with Dean Kubani
David Hsu, 14 Mar 07
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Over the past year, as climate change and other environmental issues took their place at the center of public concern, cities and municipal governments have emerged as progress leaders.

City sustainability initiatives are now the norm, rather than the exception. In the past year alone, some of the nation's largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC, have launched sustainability initiatives or announced sustainability as a goal, joining noteworthy sustainability leaders such as Chicago, Austin, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. PBS recently aired a series called Edens Lost and Found, featuring sustainability efforts in four cities. This movement among city governments is gaining broader attention for its ambition, as noted last month by Neil Peirce in the American Prospect.

The city sustainability movement has also embraced many different goals, strategies, and tactics. SustainLane, already well known for their sustainable city rankings, began a database for cities to share and cross-pollinate their sustainability best practices, and just last year, the Rocky Mountain Institute hosted a conference to discuss the many challenges inherent in municipal sustainability initiatives.

To better understand how these sustainability initiatives begin and continue to flourish, I decided to go to Dean Kubani for some perspective on the past, present and future of municipal sustainability efforts. He's the long-time sustainability coordinator for the City of Santa Monica, and one of the longest-serving coordinators. Santa Monica received early and well-deserved fame for its ambitious sustainability efforts -- appearing regularly atop the SustainLane rankings -- and the city continues to expand its work aggressively. -- David Hsu

Worldchanging: Please tell us a bit about you:

Dean Kubani: I'm currently the Environmental Programs Manager for the City of Santa Monica and have been working for the City since 1994, coordinating its Sustainable City efforts. I have degrees in geology and environmental geology and also studied architecture. Before coming to work for the city, I was a consultant, doing environmental geological consulting, developing remediation plans for contaminated sites. I was managing large projects, but it was a difficult business to be in. I felt like I was at the end of the pipe, fixing problems that never needed to happen.

So I decided to go to the “beginning of the pipe? and see if I could help to keep those problems from happening. In the early 90s I worked for a number of environmental organizations, including the Climate Institute in Washington, DC; Heal the Bay, a local Santa Monica environmental organization; and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Working with those groups gave me a good grounding in a lot of different aspects of environmental policy.

WC: How did sustainability efforts begin in Santa Monica?

DK: Santa Monica has been socially and environmentally progressive for years. The populace is highly educated. That put us in a position where the population and council were proactive about sustainability from the beginning.

Back in 1991, the city council appointed a task force on the environment, composed of experts in various areas of environmental policy. The task force was asked to review all of the city’s environmental programs and policies and report back to council. It reported that in some areas, things were going well – for instance, we had one of the first municipal recycling programs in the country – and in some areas the city wasn’t making much progress. Overall, the message was that the city was addressing environmental issues in a piecemeal way.

When the 1992 Earth Summit occurred in Rio de Janeiro, the concept of sustainability was starting to become more widely known and the members of the task force saw this concept as a way to address these issues in a much more comprehensive way. The task force worked with staff and community members to develop the program that was eventually adopted by city council in 1994 as the Santa Monica Sustainable City program.

WC: How did people first define sustainability? How did you put that into operation?

DK: Back in the early 1990s there were very few sustainability programs to use as models. We used the best parts of what we could find, but we had to develop a lot of our program from scratch. Nobody really knew what we were getting into.

Initially the Task Force worked with city staff to develop a first draft of the program goals and objectives, and then they took it out to the community to refine it. It was far from perfect or comprehensive at first, and primarily focused on environmental sustainability. There was a lot of trial and error over the years, [but] I think we have greatly improved on the original program. [The city] set goals, and the community decided to make the city accountable for meeting those goals. Beginning in 2001, we began an update process and invited numerous community stakeholders– ranging from neighborhood organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, Santa Monica Community College, the local school board, and other large institutions – to participate in defining what a sustainable Santa Monica would look like.

WC: How about the private sector?

DK: We had a number of private businesses and representatives from the local Chamber of Commerce. Across the board, the intent was to get high level people who could make decisions on behalf of their organizations and institutions to provide input in the plan.

WC: How did everyone build consensus around sustainability efforts?

DK: We began the update process in 2001 and it continued for 15 months. We used the 1994 Sustainable City goals as a starting point and asked the community stakeholders to review them, tell us what they liked, what was missing, and what they thought needed to be changed. They got rid of some goals, added some others, and in the end the entire group came up with and agreed on a new set of sustainability goals. Then they worked together in smaller groups to develop a number of indicators to measure progress towards meeting those goals. The group also set targets. That process was very fruitful in terms of getting a consensus view. Then the city council adopted the updated Sustainable City Plan in 2003.

For the most part, it was not problematic at all. There were specifics which created some disagreement, but we quickly found that if you put people in a room together, and start talking about sustainability in terms of a strong economy and a clean environment, and a high quality of life for future generations, who is going to argue with that?

The place where people disagree is when they are talking about the specific things that need to happen in order to get to those goals. We do have disagreements in Santa Monica all of the time about development, for example. There are some people who say that we can't build one building more in Santa Monica, because it isn’t sustainable; and we have some people say that we can do it in a way that fosters things like walkability and resource efficiency. I think these debates are healthy for a community to have.

WC: What specific actions has Santa Monica undertaken that have really been successful? What’s been the most effective single policy?

DK: It's hard to pick out one policy and call it the best. However, I think that buying 100% renewable energy likely had the most impact, in our city and elsewhere. It has helped cut the city government’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 40%. It was also a very visible action that we took, and we got a lot of positive press for that, too, which led to a number of other cities in the US taking similar action.

WC: Was that affected by the California deregulation fiasco?

DK: It was, in a positive way. We originally entered into a 5-year contract for renewable energy and were paying a 5% premium over our previous electricity bill, which gave us an incentive to make our buildings more energy efficient. When the deregulation and subsequent re-regulation occurred, the electricity prices rose statewide in 2002 and 2003. But since we had a 5-year contract for renewable energy, our costs didn’t change and we ended up saving about 5%.

WC: OK, what else has worked?

DK: Another success story is our Toxics Use reduction program, looking at how we can reduce toxics from all areas of our operations. We started this program back in the mid 90’s. One of our first areas of focus was on janitorial cleaning products.

When we started, we had a hard time finding companies that made less toxic and non-toxic products that actually work. We initially started working on this on our own and later began working with several other government agencies, like the State of California Department of General Services, the State of Massachusetts, the State of Minnesota, and a number of local governments to develop standards for green cleaning products. These standards have ultimately helped to create a nation-wide market for green cleaning products.

WC: Did you lead this effort? And what made you want to work with state governments?

DK: I wouldn’t say that we took the lead, but we were definitely one of the pioneers in this area. What happened is that when we heard some people in Massachusetts were working on this, we contacted them because we were thinking along the same lines, and the program grew from there. In recent years this work has been coordinated by the Center for a New American Dream. They are a non-profit group that, among other things, focuses on green purchasing programs, it's also called EPP [Environmentally Preferable Purchasing]. We’ve also worked a lot with GreenSeal, a non-profit organization that fosters this kind of work; and the U.S. EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. A lot of the work that we were doing has just hooked us up with similar people.

WC: What has been the most successful thing inside of Santa Monica city government that you've done?

DK: A number of City departments have really taken sustainability to heart in recent years. For example, my division recently teamed up with the library – they just moved into a new LEED [Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design]-certified building – and they became very interested in sustainability. We like to team with them, because they’re a path for outreach to the public, and now they’ve started a new sustainability lecture series. We’ve also been helping them put together a book collection that focuses on various sustainability topics. We've also been working with our local farmers markets to get our message out to the public, and recently helped to start a zero waste farmer’s market. There have been a number of collaborative efforts: for example, the Big Blue Bus, our local bus line, has been doing some effective outreach on transportation and sustainability.

WC: What department that has surprised you the most?

DK: I wouldn’t say that I’ve been surprised by any one department or division, but I’ve seen several take a leadership role over the years. Our engineering division decided a few years back that it wanted to be the leading engineering division anywhere in terms of sustainability, and now it has a full complement of LEED-certified professionals to oversee all city projects. It has also taken it upon itself to make all projects more sustainable. It was a surprise initially – even though that division is in my department – but the city engineer just made it a priority and got it done.

The open space management division has really jumped to the forefront. They've seen the connection between open space and sustainability, and all of the issues that affect them, such as water, IPM [integrated pest management], the use of pesticides and chemicals – and now they're a leader in terms of what they do. The street maintenance division is doing some great stuff too, in terms of thinking about what a sustainable street or sidewalk is.

None of these are really surprises to me anymore, since they’ve decided that they're going to do this, and came to us and said to us that we want to do this. Many of the departments that we work with have come up with some fantastic ideas in terms of saving money and reducing material use.

WC: Well, in terms of trial and errors, what have been your errors? What efforts have not lived up to expectations? Why?

DK: Oh yeah (laughs). We've made lots of errors. Back in the 90s we started our own green building program. I suppose that this doesn't really fall in the category of bad ideas, but just when we finalized it, the USGBC [U.S. Green Building Council] launched the LEED rating system, so we changed direction. Here in Santa Monica, LEED fits us pretty well. It's not perfect, but it's great for what it is, and has really kick-started an entire industry.

WC: How are sustainability efforts in Santa Monica structured now? Tell us about your staff and division: do they coordinate? Do they supervise? Do they plan?

DK: We do all of those things. In the city government my division acts as a consultant to other city divisions and departments. People from my division will go out and consult and help them with [sustainability efforts]. People will come to us, and for example, ask us to help them find a particular type of sustainable cleaning product. We do a lot of research in greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, and toxic chemicals.

We work with people on the ground and assist them with becoming more sustainable in their operations; we also do the same thing with residents, businesses and the neighborhood groups. It’s a lot of research, it's implementation, and it’s providing public information. We're also collecting data on a number of indicators to track our progress toward meeting our sustainability goals, and we have a number of programs and initiatives focused on residential sustainability and business sustainability, and also for institutions such as schools and hospitals.

WC: How many people in the City of Santa Monica are working on sustainability? Are they spread throughout agencies? How do you work with other divisions?

DK: My division is 17 people; we work on water, urban runoff, energy, green building, hazardous materials and waste, and we have a sustainability section that is focused on everything else, such as data collection, reporting, green purchasing, and outreach.

The city also has a sustainability advisory team that has representatives from every department in the city. The purpose of this group is to work on interdepartmental sustainability efforts and figure out how to spread the concept of sustainability throughout the organization. It originally began entirely focused on the environmental stuff, because if you look back at the Sustainable City program in 1994, it was heavily weighted on the environmental side. That’s why my division took the lead on making things happen.

We expanded in 2003 to focus equally on the environment, the economy, and community quality of life. If you look at the program now, it looks at economic development, housing, open space and land use, transportation, and a number of other things that are obviously beyond the expertise of myself and my office.

WC: Has interest developed throughout the city government?

DK: Yes, definitely. When the Sustainable City Plan was first adopted in 1994, they only hired one person – me – but now there are dozens and dozens of people working on this. The Sustainable City plan pulls them all under one umbrella.

When people ask me how many people we have working on sustainability I tell them that it’s a hard question to answer – in the broadest sense, just about all city staff are working on sustainability in one way or another. I think most of them wouldn't specifically say that they're working on sustainability, but instead that we're helping them do their jobs in a more sustainable way.

Is there anything inherent in the governmental structure of Santa Monica that enables sustainability efforts?

DK: It's a couple of things: we've had champions at a high staff level; we've had these outside groups, the Task Force on the Environment, and now the Sustainable City Task Force, which provides external guidance and oversight; and we've had a supportive city council. That, plus a lot of committed staff members working on specific sustainability efforts, and a very supportive populace.

WC: OK, on the flip side of that, is there anything inherent in the government that hinders your efforts? Do you find that any particular view, such as cost-benefit analysis, hinders your ability to experiment?

DK: We certainly have to do cost benefit analysis, so when we're recommending certain projects, we're always looking at justifying things that make economic sense. The difficulty sometimes is – and this is true in any city when you have politicians – is that people tend to look at things on a short-term basis. At times we’ve had difficulties with that, but now we’re at the point that if we're looking at something over the long-term that makes sense, then our city council usually sees the wisdom in absorbing the short-term costs to get the long-term benefits.

The primary obstacle in the early days was that the program came from the environmental task force and came entirely from the environmental side. What that did, was that the city government and the community thought that this was something that the environmental programs division does, which often put my division in the untenable position of telling other divisions what to do. City government tends to be siloed. It's taken a long time for other departments – and we certainly haven't done it alone – to change that mindset.

Some other cities have a central sustainability office located directly in the mayor's office. When sustainability efforts have buy-in at the top, then that carries a lot of weight.

WC: Which sustainability innovations have really made a difference in people’s perceptions?

DK: Over ten years ago, if you walked down the street and asked someone about sustainability or the Sustainable City program, you'd be met with a blank stare. Now, if I look in the newspaper, I see more than one person talking on a daily basis about some aspect of sustainability. I'll go to a city council meeting and hear dozens of references to sustainability. That says success to me, in that we've changed the vocabulary of people to where sustainability is a central part of decision making.

I don't know that we've done that alone, but it’s all part of what's going on in the rest of the country, things that are going on with green building, climate change, and so on. There's been a sea change in terms of what businesses and residents are figuring out that they can do to help.

WC: How does Santa Monica's size help and hurt your efforts? What do you think is applicable to larger cities?

DK: I think just about everything we’re doing can be transferred to larger cities. If you look at Chicago, they're doing the same stuff we are on a much larger scale. The city of Los Angeles is doing a lot of same stuff, both internally looking at their own organizations, such as their vehicle fleets; their green building standards; and smart development patterns. I don't think the scale of a city is any excuse not to be undertaking this stuff.

We wouldn't be promoting various sustainability ideas if they didn't make any sense in the long run, that's why you see cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles all pursuing these types of initiatives.

WC: What would you be able to accomplish on a larger scale?

DK: The bigger the city you have, the more leverage you have in various areas. The biggest difficulty we have is that we are a small city in a much larger metropolis. We have regional issues, such as transportation, housing, and economic development that can only be solved if all of the other cities in the area are involved in creating the solutions. We talk a lot about regional cooperation in the Los Angeles basin on a number of different issues. LA’s new mayor is a strong supporter of sustainability, so we’ve been talking to the staff over there: they're doing a lot of pieces of sustainability already. We’ve also been talking to a number of smaller cities about specific programs and projects. Some cities are interested in comprehensive programs, and some are interested in specific issues, like homelessness. And we work with a number of regional groups to address things like local economic development and transportation.

Have the SustainLane rankings helped publicize your work?

DK: I don't know the direct effect that the SustainLane rankings had on what we are doing, however we get people calling all of the time; I get a call a day from other cities and organizations about our sustainability program or about what we're doing about a specific piece of the program. I work closely with the USC [University of Southern California] Center for Sustainable Cities; we get a lot of requests from universities to come visit. Right now in my inbox I have requests from a delegation of business people from China; and a delegation from the Ukraine is coming next week. Later this year [2006] we're hosting the National League of Cities, and they specifically requested a sustainability tour of Santa Monica. We've had visitors from Japan, the Phillipines, Korea, India, and even the oil minister of Nigeria.

Do you have any quibbles or commentary on SustainLane's rankings?

DK: I have no quibbles. Just being ranked by them was pressworthy here, it made people in Santa Monica stand up and take notice. A rating system will always be somewhat imperfect, and different systems will rank things differently. We got dragged down in the SustainLane rankings because of regional issues, so they were things that we couldn't control. It's inherently difficult to compare cities because of geography and size. I think that rating systems like SustainLane are interesting and are great for raising awareness about sustainability.

WC: Now that a lot of cities are getting new sustainability coordinators, and since you’ve been around for awhile, do you have any advice for new sustainability coordinators?

DK: Set very clear goals; track progress towards those goals; and don't be afraid to change course and make adjustments. As far as the organization itself, it works much better if it is centrally located in government. We’ve had to learn to adapt, and make things work along the way. And be patient! It's taken a lot longer than I ever thought it would, but now that things are just popping up everywhere, it's all been worth it.


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LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, not "Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design", though they've been making great strides in energy efficiency recently thanks to their work with Ed Mazria.

Posted by: Evan on 15 Mar 07

oh this article is fantastic, it answers questions i just came up with this morning

Posted by: hibiscus on 15 Mar 07

How to kill pests without killing yourself or the earth......

There are about 50 to 60 million insect species on earth - we have named only about 1 million and there are only about 1 thousand pest species - already over 50% of these thousand pests are already resistant to our volatile, dangerous, synthetic pesticide POISONS. We accidentally lose about 25,000 to 100,000 species of insects, plants and animals every year due to "man's footprint". But, after poisoning the entire world and contaminating every living thing for over 60 years with these dangerous and ineffective pesticide POISONS we have not even controlled much less eliminated even one pest species and every year we use/misuse more and more pesticide POISONS to try to "keep up"! Even with all of this expensive pollution - we lose more and more crops and lives to these thousand pests every year.

We are losing the war against these thousand pests mainly because we insist on using only synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers There has been a severe "knowledge drought" - a worldwide decline in agricultural R&D, especially in production research and safe, more effective pest control since the advent of synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers. Today we are like lemmings running to the sea insisting that is the "right way". The greatest challenge facing humanity this century is the necessity for us to double our global food production with less land, less water, less nutrients, less science, frequent droughts, more and more contamination and ever-increasing pest damage.

In order to try to help "stem the tide", I have just finished re-writing my IPM encyclopedia entitled: THE BEST CONTROL II, that contains over 2,800 safe and far more effective alternatives to pesticide POISONS. This latest copyrighted work is about 1,800 pages in length and is now being updated chapter by chapter at my new website at: .

This new website at has all of my original IPM encyclopedia in its original form and will continue to have more and more free, updated Chapters every week. So far we have electronically updated The Introduction, Chapter 11, 15, 16A, 16B, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28 and the Glossary of Terms. All of these copyrighted items are free for you to read and/or download. There is simply no need to POISON yourself or your family or to have any pest problems.

Stephen L. Tvedten
2530 Hayes Street
Marne, Michigan 49435

"All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence." – Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader

Posted by: Stephen L. Tvedten on 16 Mar 07



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