Why city mayors are a sustainability director's new best friends

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Why city mayors are a sustainability director's new best friends

As a temporary London resident in the run-up to the just-completed mayoral election, I was intrigued by the platforms (and I must admit, the mudslinging) of each of the vying candidates, seeing the obvious parallels to hotly contested races in the U.S.

But what really grabbed my attention wasn't happening in London and didn't include potential office-seekers on a ballot. Instead, ten cities across the U.K. voted on whether to ditch the traditional cabinet model of leadership in favor of an elected mayor. Reading through the arguments in the British media for and against mayors got me thinking anew about the powerful role of the city mayor, particularly as it relates to sustainability. Specifically, I believe that if you are a business professional immersed in driving sustainable development in our society, mayors should be your new best friends.

  1. They are employing sustainability as a framework to tackle the immense challenges facing their cities;
  2. They are decisive, accountable actors, using their administration's agility to respond to issues today in a way that is just not happening nationally and internationally;
  3. They need you as much as you need them.

The National League of Cities analyzed 2012's "State of the City" addresses across the U.S. and unearthed an interesting finding: mayors are using a sustainability lens as a filter and framework for the challenges ahead. From the NLC's blog:

Ten years ago, if you looked far and wide, you may have heard the word "sustainability" in one -- possibly two -- mayors' State of the City addresses. Five years ago, a few more mayors, especially those with a large constituency of environmentalists, might have let the word slip into their speeches. Today, however, we find this term and others associated with it (livability, smart growth, etc.) commonplace in the speeches of mayors from small, medium, and large cities around the country.

What's more, it seems that mayors are not paying lip service to sustainability and only investing in what's fashionably "green" at the moment. Instead, the brand they are modeling is one that allows them to "devise long-term solutions" for their cities, especially by "identify[ing] and captializ[ing] on the on the existing connectivity between local and regional resources, projects, and players."

Viewing the city and its challenges through a sustainability lens allows mayors to have informed conversations with urban stakeholders, but that distinction would mean little if not also followed by informed action. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City calls mayors "the great pragmatists of the world's stage," and it is this focus on forward motion that not only provides a refreshing contrast to the intransigence of many national and global leaders in progressing environmental and social issues, but also makes them a safer bet for companies eager to find committed partners to tackle sustainability challenges.

In a SustainAbility report (co-sponsored by GreenBiz) released in March 2012 titled Citystates: How Cities Are Vital to the Future of Sustainability, we argued that one of the seven characteristics that make cities ideal sites for companies to reorient innovation and initiatives they are pursuing around sustainable development is their decisiveness. Using climate change as an example, we wrote:

City mayors have their hands on the major levers of mitigation and adaptation in their cities. Dr. Rohit Aggarwala, special advisor to Mayor Bloomberg in his role as C40 [a global network of cities committed to climate change initiatives] chair, stresses that, "Mayors control the streets in most of their cities. Half of our mayors control their transit system. Most mayors have either direct control or significant control over planning decisions...[and] at least some influence over the standards to which their buildings are built." He concludes: "At the end of the day, waste, water, energy consumption and buildings and transportation policy -- those are the jobs of mayors in cities."

In addition, New York Deputy Mayor Robert Steel said recently that mayors have the advantage (and the accountability that goes along with that advantage) of "a very short feedback loop." Comparing the more palpable sense of urgency in city governments in relation to their federal counterparts, Steel quipped, "There isn't a lot of time spent discussing the Federalist Papers in city government."

While it is not surprising that cities would elevate their governing chops above their peers in federal or global bodies, what is revealing is the growing acceptance of this reality among business. A recent webinar for GlobeScan and SustainAbilty's 2012 Sustainability Leaders Survey, which saw global experts doubting the ability nearly all institutional actors (governments, NGOs, business) to manage the transition to a sustainable economy, also reflected on what positives (if any) could be unearthed from such disheartening data. Rick Ridgeway, Vice President of Environmental Initiatives at Patagonia, while agreeing unequivocally with the regressive indicators, stated that one of his "place[s] of hope" is to drive needed progress on sustainability in local governments.

At the "Cities as a Catalyst for Sustainability" panel at the VERGE DC Conference in March, Daryl Dulaney, CEO of the newly-organized Infrastructure & Cities group at Siemens, spoke about why he likes working with cities, and specifically mayors, asserting, "What mayors really care about is their city -- that comes first, politics come second. You come to the federal government, what they care about is how to get elected." This contrast is one of the reasons that "many of us in the private sector ... [think that] cities will lead the future, not just of the US, but in countries around the world."

"We love to [partner with business] because it advances our goals much more quickly." -- Alex Dews, City of Philadelphia

Why else should businesses have mayors on their speed dial? They want your help in integrating sustainability in their backyards as much as you want theirs in connecting with the city and its citizens. During the same VERGE panel, Alex Dews of the Office of Sustainability for the City of Philadelphia recalled a public-private partnership between the city and Dow Chemical, where the two ran a competition for "coolest block" that saw the winners receive energy efficient or "green" roofs (which had just become law for all new commercial and residential buildings in the city).

Residents got lower energy bills, while the city found an innovative way to promote energy efficiency legislation that would aid its ambition to become the most sustainable city in America. And Dow? Dews explained that, "In Philadelphia they're typically known as the big, bad chemical company ... [so] it was good for [Dow] to get their message out about what kinds of products they're working on now."

The benefit for Dow in shifting local perception, and connecting to Philadelphia's citizenry through something as mundane as white roof coating, also speaks to a point that shouldn't be overlooked in celebrating mayors and their city governments as an increasingly important driver of sustainable development: administrations change frequently, residents don't.

For businesses looking for leadership on sustainability and finding it in cities, as a growing number of their peers are discovering for themselves, consider mayors your friends, your champions, your partners. But their most important role? A conduit to a more engaged citizenry that want to make the place they call home -- their neighborhood and their city -- better today and tomorrow.

Be sure to visit GreenBiz's special section on VERGE and Citystates.

City Hall photo via Shutterstock.