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Toolkit for Change: ICLEI's new Urban Sustainability Framework

by Alex Aylett

ICLEI%20Sustainability%20Planning%20Toolkit%20cover.jpg Sustainable cities have been a hot topic for over a decade. But never has there been a time when the challenges and opportunities of sustainability have been so clearly on display. On the one hand, billions of stimulus dollars around the world are being channeled into the green economy. On the other, we find ourselves at the tail end of a year where report after report have made clear that things are much worse that we realized; when did we start talking about 1.4m sea level rise and a 40% reduction in grain yields by the end of the century? Somehow, old classics like putting energy efficient lights on city hall and installing some LED traffic signals just aren't that exciting anymore.

Toolkit for Change
That makes ICLEI's recently released Sustainability Planning Toolkit a well-timed resource for municipalities who want to go beyond on-off projects and build a true sustainability strategy for their city. The core of the kit is a step-by-step planning guide that takes you from how to hire a sustainability coordinator to how to design, implement and monitor a local sustainability plan. Accompanying the guide, the Toolkit includes a collection of model documents, inventorying software, and even sample job descriptions for municipalities just beginning their push toward sustainability.

ICLEI is the world's largest urban sustainability association with 1,100 members worldwide and 600 in the U.S. alone. Drawing on the experience of their members, particularly New York City's PlaNYC team, stories of how other cities have implemented their own plans are woven in throughout the guide. Think of it as the sustainability planning boxed-set. And just in time for the Holidays! (or is that Copenhagen?)

Anyone already familiar with the Cities for Climate Protection program will recognize the hallmark ICLEI approach of dividing up complex problems into a series of manageable milestones. While Climate Change is still a key focus, the toolkit shows how to couple emissions reductions with wins in other areas like reducing poverty, preventing sprawl, or diversifying the local economy.

Everyone's Problem, But Nobody's Responsibility

But as many cities have already realized, the trouble with sustainability, or climate change more specifically, is that they are everybody's problem, but nobody's responsibility. They don't fit nicely into the division of labor that has kept our cities running in the past. They also ask departments that don't talk much (and may not get along all that well) to work together to get things done. It may seem unlikely, but often those dynamics (more than a lack of political will, or money, or knowledge) are why cities don't green-up more quickly.

Given that, it's great to see at the core of ICLEI's new toolkit, a detailed section on team-building, overcoming divisions between departments, and engaging the public. Their key points are strong: manage sustainability centrally (preferably from the mayor's office), bring representatives from all departments on-board, and open up the process to the community. No city has the resources to address sustainability and climate change on their own. If it is going to happen it has to be a shared project that makes the most of the expertise and skills of the local community.

Getting the Lead Out

There has been a lot of talk about the place of cities in a transition to a greener world (or at least one that won't fall apart at the seams). Somewhere between 50% and 70% of global greenhouse gases come from cities – we've all heard that statistic so often we probably know it by heart. But despite all that – even among ICLEI members – there are only a select few examples of cities making real progress of sustainability issues. We need to get the lead out, as the saying goes.

This toolkit doesn't provide one-size fits all solutions, motivational talking points or snazzy charts and graphs. What is does provide is much more substantial: a collection of organizational resources for cities who want to move past eating the low-hanging fruit, and design a locally relevant plan that addresses sustainability at a more ambitious, and rewarding level.

Alex Aylett is a Senior Research Associate at the International Centre for Sustainable Cities and a PhD student at the University of British Columbia. He is the recipient of a Trudeau Research Scholarship (similar to the American Fulbright Scholarships) and has worked as a consultant and researcher in North America and South Africa. He is currently based in Montreal. You can read his blog here.

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I would argue that cities are, in many ways, "greener" than the suburbs or rural areas. It's true that in overall terms cities use greater resources and have greater emissions. But on a per capita basis, densely populated cities often have considerably lower gas, water and electricity consumption rates than suburban or rural areas, where more people driver farther and more often. NYC has heavy integration of residential/commercial/office space, big sidewalks, and public transit. This promotes walking and biking and reduces consumption of fossil fuels. It is important to look beyond overall numbers and consider per capita impact.

Posted by: Scott Bravard on 7 Dec 09

I agree Scott - I hope it didn't come across otherwise. But the basic benefits of density are only a start. Cities can do a lot more than that. There are some great examples or cities that are really taking advantage of the influence that they have over everything from consumption patterns to building efficiency.

Here's hoping that we see a lot more of that... and soon!

Posted by: Alex Aylett on 7 Dec 09

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Posted by: lynnetjarr on 26 Dec 09

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Posted by: quintonfon on 26 Dec 09

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