In the past few years, hundreds of local government officials have announced commitments to reduce emissions and follow sustainable development practices in their communities. The communities that are making the most progress toward their goals are the ones that have strong, ongoing support from top local executives and a knack for collaboration among various public works disciplines. But also, they have public works leaders who are knowledgeable about environmental issues and are driven to implement sustainable practices in their operations.


Sustainable communities are those that operate and develop in ways that recognize the limitations of the current environment and create ways to preserve its quality for the future. For instance, refusing to recycle is not a sustainable practice, because it will leave future generations with overflowing landfills and possible toxic waste problems. Allowing manufacturers to dump chemical waste in a river is an unsustainable practice because it will threaten the water supply for future generations. “Sustainability is a way of seeing the world differently, of making sure that by doing your job, you're not diminishing the ability of the next generation to do theirs,” says Ron Norris, public works director for Lenexa, Kan., and chair of the Sustainability Task Force of the American Public Works Association (APWA). “When you [develop that new perspective], you start opening your mind to the possibility of doing things differently.”

As local government officials have become more aware of the effects their decisions will have on their children and grandchildren, many are changing their policies to ensure less environmental degradation. Policy decisions to become more sustainable often begin with energy, water and transportation, which fall under public works jurisdictions. “[Public works officials] often find themselves in the position of leading early sustainability efforts,” says Darcy Hitchcock, author of “The Business Guide to Sustainability” and co-founder of the Portland, Ore.-based International Society of Sustainability Professionals.

Sustainability actually is a very old habit among public works officials, although it might not have been known by that term, Norris says. Public works projects always are measured by their effects on the economy, the environment and residents' quality of life, which are the same measurements used to determine the value of sustainability initiatives. “The movement toward sustainability is giving [those old habits] a structure, making us more deliberate about our approach,” Norris says.

Even if the basic tenets of sustainability are familiar to public works departments, mandated change can be difficult. In many cases, elected officials are setting community goals for sustainability and emissions reduction, and leaving it up to public works departments to devise and execute plans to meet those goals. When goals are set for political reasons, elected officials might not take the time to determine whether they are really feasible, and public works departments have no chance to buy in or contribute — creating a significant disconnect between elected officials and public works leaders. “Very often these grand goals are set on some overall percentage reduction or as a response to a goal set by another municipality, [rather than through] a strategic understanding of what it will take to actually get there,” says Hillary Brown, principal of New York-based New Civic Works, former assistant commissioner at New York City's Department of Design and Construction, and founder of New York's Office of Sustainable Design.

Norris calls such plans “ceremonial goals,” because they involve elected officials jumping on a bandwagon without knowing how they are going to get to the destination. The more favorable type of goal is one that is based on feasibility. “These are goals set by public works in consultation with governing bodies,” Norris says. “They are meaningful goals established in time frames that are achievable and budgets that are achievable.”

Elected officials who want to see their sustainability goals come to fruition should involve public works officials from the early stages of the project, Norris says, and that early planning should result in goals that can be accomplished in a reasonable time frame. For instance, energy savings are often the subject of a community's sustainability plans, and alternative energies, like wind and solar, are generating a lot of interest. But, some wind energy plans offer payback periods of 70 years. “[That kind of plan] doesn't make sense for the economy because the infrastructure won't last that long,” Norris says. “That's not sustainable, so you have to come back together and find alternative energy sources that do have a reasonable payback period and make it work.”


Even when public works officials are involved in goal-setting, the various groups within their departments tend to be extremely fragmented, Brown says. There might not be a common language among the street department, the water department, and the transportation department, and often the groups have a hard time working together. Under those conditions, developing new habits or devising community-wide programs to meet environmental goals can be daunting.

Public works officials can take the lead in building a culture of collaboration among their various agencies and working across traditional boundaries. For instance, strategic tree planting has been proven to help reduce harmful emissions, Brown says. But, if a city's forestry department simply started planting trees in small plots alongside roads and sidewalks, the trees eventually would become unhealthy with no place for roots to grow. To ensure healthy trees, they could trench under sidewalks to connect trees and their root systems, which could also solve problems for stormwater management and underground utilities at the same time. But, to accomplish such a multi-pronged solution requires cooperation from officials in charge of roadways, sidewalks, stormwater, utilities and trees.

To encourage cooperation, chief executives need to find the champions for sustainability in those departments, and encourage them to motivate their colleagues, Brown says. That strategy worked in New York, where in writing the city's green building and infrastructure guidelines, Brown's team sought out those interested in sustainability issues across other departments and recruited them to help write new procedures and build support for sustainability among coworkers.


Once citywide sustainability goals have been set, public works departments should use them as a guide for developing their own internal goals and action plans, Brown says. Each department should pinpoint their own priorities because they have knowledge of their inner workings, which might be overlooked if created by outside parties.

After Mayor Michael Bloomberg established New York's citywide plan for sustainability, employees at the New York Department of Environmental Protection (NYDEP) developed their own climate change action plan, which looks more closely at the effects of climate change and at specific methods for adapting and meeting citywide goals. The NYDEP goals “dovetailed nicely” with PlaNYC 2030, the city's sweeping plan to enhance its urban environment, says Brown, who led infrastructure sustainability planning efforts as a consultant. “It worked well because the [NYDEP] plan really represents their own best thinking,” as opposed to change mandated by outsiders.

Some cities ask all departments to develop their own sustainability plans and use those plans as blueprints for setting citywide priorities, Hitchcock says. “This doesn't have to be as onerous as it might seem, and these plans often give people permission to do creative, cost-effective projects they've been dying to do,” she says.


To see real progress, some public works departments may need to develop a more open attitude toward change. “Public works departments are sometimes steeped in so much tradition and habit that they dismiss things out of hand,” Norris says. “The real challenge is to be open to new ideas and to be willing to take reasonably calculated risks; you don't want to be silly, but you can't look for absolute certainty either.”

An open-minded approach may include looking outside local government for ideas from other experts. In developing New York's green buildings program, Brown and her team contacted the Natural Resources Defense Council to find expertise that was not available on staff.

To really effect lasting change, government officials may have to develop entirely new ways of thinking about infrastructure and meeting communities' needs. Brown advocates that sustainable infrastructure must be designed to serve more than one purpose, must capitalize on nature and natural processes, and must be designed with sustainability and climate change in mind. “Each time we build a road or a bridge the way we've been doing it, we're committing ourselves to 50 to 75 more years of doing business as usual, chaining us to fossil fuel consumption,” she says. “We have to recognize the imperative of radical change.”

It can be difficult for public officials to think about long-term issues, such as future transportation needs and water supplies, when there are immediate problems to deal with, Hitchcock says. “But if they don't, we'll have even bigger problems in the future;” she says. “As hard as it is for public works officials to ‘just keep the lights on,’ they somehow have to find the bandwidth to make time for these larger out-of-the-box explorations.”

Hitchcock recommends planning opportunities for employees to explore what a fully sustainable version of their service might look like. “If you can envision it, then you know what is on that path and what is away from it,” she says. “The real solutions aren't found in concrete and pipes and pavement; it's the mental models we use to design our communities and serve our citizens.”

Sidebars/Case Studies

Nancy Mann Jackson is a Florence, Ala.-based freelance writer.

Public works professionals to meet for sustainability conference

The Kansas City, Mo.-based American Public Works Association is hosting a conference on "Sustainability in the public works sector" March 26-27, 2009, in Charlotte, N.C. The conference will explore the evolving role of public works professionals in the creation of sustainable and livable communities, and will include sessions about the new APWA Center for Sustainability, the hallmarks of sustainability, creating sustainable management plans, greening fleets, tapping alternative energy sources, and more. Find more information at