Shift Happens

Urban materiality and a new network of sustainable cities

green city, sustainability strategy
ShutterstockElla Sarkisyan
From peer networks to materiality-focused reporting, cities are borrowing from corporate sustainability practitioners to hone their environmental and social policies.

Cities around the world are growing faster than ever before. From Karachi, Pakistan to Lagos, Nigeria or Shenzhen, China, large urban areas around the world have grown into bonafide megacities in the new millennium.

According to the United Nations, more than 50 percent of the world’s population now resides in urban areas — and that proportion is expected only to grow.

With baby boomers retiring and millennials entering the workforce, the two largest generations in history are leading an exodus out of the suburbs and back to the central city. As these demographic trends continue, and the world’s finite resources become increasingly strained, building sustainable and resilient cities is growing in importance.

Cities across the globe are weaving sustainability into their urban fabrics by bolstering citywide sustainability departments, linking social and environmental challenges, and identifying and disclosing their most material issues.

In the process, cities are experimenting with a range of sustainability strategies — some of which echo the efforts of peers in the world of corporate social responsibility — such as peer-to-peer learning networks, stronger executive leadership and the adoption of new reporting frameworks. 

The ultimate goal: creating regional networks attuned to the most pressing sustainability risks facing the cities where we work, live and play.

Building a baseline

To better understand the risks and opportunities embedded in urban sustainability, cities are test-driving a range of approaches.

In the U.S. and Canada, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) unites government professionals from over 135 cities to accelerate urban sustainability in North America. Formed six years ago, USDN aims to share best practices, promote shared innovation and create lasting impacts through local government partnerships.

Rob Phocas, energy and sustainability manager for the city of Charlotte, uses the USDN as a sounding board and support network. He considers the information sharing "invaluable."

As society pushes for greater integration between economic and environmental, social and governance (ESG) management, mayors are also leading by example through the measurement and disclosure of sustainability performance.

The city of Charlotte, for instance, continuously collects and reports sustainability information through an electronic Environmental Dashboard. The dashboard serves as a reporting mechanism for Charlotte’s Environmental Focus Area Plan, which sets several aggressive citywide environmental goals.

"Over the past couple of years, sustainability data has become more in demand and popular," Phocas explained.

As the city builds capacity, Charlotte hopes to add community-wide data to the dashboard, providing a visual representation for Charlotteans to track their city’s sustainability progress.

Communicating sustainability

Many cities recognize the need to act on sustainability within the global context — managing, measuring and reporting through internationally recognized approaches.

Cities including Chicago; Bloomington, Illinois; and Atlanta, for instance, have all reported using the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) — the world’s leading sustainability reporting framework. Most S&P 500 Companies use the guidelines to disclose their ESG performance in a strategic, consistent and credible manner.

Around the world, the GRI Guidelines are being written into law, integrated into stock exchange listing requirements and incorporated into procurement policies of companies and government agencies.

Cleveland, for example, provides incentives to suppliers through its Local Producer, Local Food Purchasing and Sustainable Business Program. This unique program offers a bid discount to potential suppliers that report using the GRI or other sustainability reporting initiatives.

For city officials and procurement officers, such information is useful for at least two reasons: cities often are not aware of all the leading corporate sustainability examples surrounding them, and cities wanting to "buy responsibly" quickly can see how their largest suppliers are working toward sustainability goals.

Earlier this year, Atlanta became the first city to report using the new GRI G4 Guidelines. Rather than focusing on quantity of disclosure, G4 focuses on the robust disclosure of material topics. This trend toward individualized granularity allows an entity freedom to discuss sustainability as it relates to a specific situation.

"By reporting to G4, Atlanta is able to identify what’s material, create goals and management processes to achieve our goals, and track and report on our progress," said Jairo Garcia, sustainability management analyst for the Atlanta Office of Sustainability.

Jenita McGowan, chief of sustainability for the city of Cleveland, provides an example of "the American Southwest focusing on water conservation, while Cleveland is focused on water quality."

A city sustainability strategy could focus on the economic, social and environmental (ESE) topics relevant from a regional perspective — the built environment, social equity, economic growth, transportation. Tying together relevant ESE topics provides a detailed, holistic view of the community, enabling and accelerating the city’s success.

Taking the pulse

Identifying the needs of your stakeholder groups is the first step in identifying topics material to any organization, including a city.

Cities can start by identifying sustainability approaches — common interests and opportunities — taken by their anchor institutions. These institutions play an integral role in the community and their strategies are intricately linked with societal benefit.

Many anchor institutions — universities, health care providers, museums — are already reporting on their sustainability performance though programs such as AASHE STARS, the Healthier Hospitals Initiative and PIC Green Network. Additionally, public and private companies provide additional sustainability insights in their public reporting.

Associations, too, are a good source for sustainability initiatives and performance. For instance, utility companies across the United States are working together toward a cleaner future. Cities also can turn to their peers for stakeholder engagement and material topic identification best practices.   

While benchmarking a city’s institutions and peers provides insight into important ESE topics, personal stakeholder engagement is crucial.

In Cleveland, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability has been engaging its many stakeholders through an Annual Sustainability Summit. Since 2009, the event has attracted about 500 annual participants, including government officials, business executives, nonprofit employees and interested citizens.

The event is part of Cleveland’s Sustainable Cleveland 2019 program, which seeks to transform Cleveland into a "Green City on a Blue Lake" within 10 years. McGowan said the summit "gives the Office of Sustainability an annual touch point with the community and increases transparency."

Several successful working groups — the energy efficiency-focused Cleveland 2030 District, local food company Tunnel Vision Hoops and water nonprofit Drink Local Drink Tap — also have spun out of the collaborative event and contribute to the city’s sustainability.

"The City Government doesn’t have the resources to tackle everything ourselves," McGowan said.

Building capacity

As regional sustainability strategies develop, cities have the ability to build capacity in their region through continuous community engagement, targeted professional development and strategic partnerships.

These engagements both can aid in effective communication of sustainability messaging and provide community members with tools to help achieve regional sustainability goals.

One such initiative, Sustainable Pittsburgh, leads Southwestern Pennsylvania in executing a regional sustainability strategy through programs such as the Green Workplace Challenge and Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurants.

Through its programs, Sustainable Pittsburgh leverages the expertise of experienced entities, including UPMC, the city of Pittsburgh and Bayer, to educate and empower area local small businesses, nonprofits and regional governments. These programs create a central hub for sustainability in the city and beyond — disseminating knowledge, ideas, best practices, goals and initiatives throughout the region.

Ideally, a multitude of stakeholders simultaneously can create the perfect storm of a sustainable local economy.

Cities, chambers of commerce and local non-profits can work together to identify and understand the common issues that plague every member of the local community. Universities and students can get involved by helping to identify not only the issues, but also the regional connections between successful economic growth and sustainability.

Sustainability reporting, then, can become a way for all of these groups to share best practices with the world. Through city and regional capacity building programs, cities can serve as the developer, architect and general contractor of their own sustainable futures.

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