New Study Reveals Nearly a Third of Local Governments Have Adopted Sustainability Plans

Staff Report From Georgia CEO

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Thirty-two percent of local governments have adopted a sustainability plan, according to a national survey of U.S. cities and counties. Among the responding jurisdictions that have adopted plans, nearly 68% indicated that those plans contain goals or strategies related to economic development. Other plan priorities include energy conservation (60%) and disaster mitigation (48%).

Building on the data collected through a 2010 survey—which was the first nationwide study to establish benchmarks for sustainability initiatives among U.S. communities—Local Government Sustainability Practices 2015 was conducted by ICMA, the International City/County Management Association; the Sustainable Communities and Small Town and Rural Planning Divisions of the American Planning Association; Binghamton University; Cornell University; and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Through this 2015 survey, ICMA and its partners can examine the progress of U.S. cities and counties in addressing issues that have a direct impact on a community's sustainability," said Andrea Fox, director, ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities. "While there has been much progress since we initiated the survey back in 2010, there are still a number of areas in which local communities can improve to enhance their capacity to endure and thrive."

"Local governments can take a leadership role in promoting sustainability. We have seen this with some big cities," says Mildred E. Warner, professor, City & Regional Planning, Cornell University. "But this national survey helps us understand motivators and drivers, especially for smaller and rural communities."

The survey findings include the following notable results:

  • A plurality of local governments (47%) identified environmental protection as an overall community priority, in contrast to the nearly 91% that identified economic development as a key community issue.

  • Local governments rated the potential for fiscal savings (84%), leadership of local elected officials (82%), federal or state funding opportunities (75%), potential to attract development projects (71%), and concern over the environment (68%) as either significant or the most significant factors motivating sustainability efforts in their communities.

  • For 88% of jurisdictions, lack of funding is a significant or the most significant factor hindering local sustainability efforts, followed by state or federal funding restrictions (61%), lack of staff capacity/support (59%), lack of information on how to proceed (51%), lack of community/resident support (49%), and opposition of elected officials (49%).

  • In addition to conducting energy audits (63%), the most often cited actions taken by local governments to enhance energy efficiencyincluded upgrading or retrofitting:Nineteen percent of local governments dedicated budget resources specifically to sustainability or environmental protection. When describing staffing, 9% had dedicated staff across multiple departments, another 9% had dedicated staff across a single department, and 6% had dedicated staff in either the chief elected or chief appointed official's office. Forty-two percent of local governments had no staffing, recognition of goal accomplishment, or task force or committee dedicated to sustainability issues.

    • Facilities to increase lighting efficiency (64%),

    • Heating or air conditioning systems (49%)

    • Streetlights and other exterior lighting (45%), and

    • Traffic signals to increase efficiency (35%).

  • More than three-quarters of local governments indicated that they had no sustainable building policy in place. Only 12% of those that did indicated that the policy resulted in more green buildings.

  • Seventy-six percent of local governments indicated that they had responded to a major disaster during the past 15 years. Among those, 53% had dealt with a flood, 51% with a blizzard or ice storm, and 24% with a hurricane.

  • Despite the increasing importance of internet access to sustaining daily living, 84% of local governments have no plan or programs in place to provide such access to all residents.