University of Wisconsin–Madison


Written by Walker Kahn, Griffin Beronio, Gianmarco Katz

What's the Problem?

Cities and towns all over the United States are already experiencing multiple complex and interlinked environmental crises, including climate change, environmental degradation, pollution, biodiversity loss, and natural resource exhaustion. Municipal infrastructure is often highly susceptible to climate change and reliant on fossil fuels that contribute to our environmental problems. Further, poor communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution and environmental degradation because zoning and land use policies favor placing polluting industries near underserved communities.  

We cannot wait for the state or federal government to take actions that are already too late and might never come. Communities can act now to improve environmental sustainability and resilience by using data-driven planning in areas like energy and transportation infrastructure, zoning regulations, building codes, and water management. While these efforts require buy-in from all local stakeholders, it is especially important to include voices from historically disadvantaged communities to address ongoing environmental racism 

What are People Currently Doing?

Addressing long-term issues requires long-term planning, and cities and towns across the country have engaged in comprehensive, data-driven planning as a first step to addressing ongoing environmental issues. Sonoma County's Regional Climate Protection Authority sets countywide goals for emissions reduction that are adjusted to reflect the varying capacities of individual communities within the jurisdiction. Cities like Carson, Encinitas, Richmond, and Gonzales have developed comprehensive climate action plans that identify needs and risks, establish goals, define strategies, and create legislative and policy implementation roadmaps. Seattle’s Climate Action Plan provides clear timelines and progress monitoring for transportation and land use initiatives for reducing emissions. Seattle has also created a public advisory board to offer community input and guidance on the city’s implementation of their local Green New Deal. Local governments can strengthen these plans by taking advantage of resources and experts at universities and other anchor institutions. Critically, these plans cannot succeed without input and buy-in from the local community, and extra effort must be made to incorporate the voices and needs of those communities that are disproportionately burdened by environmental problems. For illustration, the ProGov21 library contains resources with successful engagement strategies and programs for simultaneously building environmental resiliency and community wealth in disadvantaged communities. Lastly, long-term environmental planning should incorporate state-level regulatory mandates and funding opportunities, which differ greatly across the country. For more information on state preemption of local policymaking, please see the ProGov21 Home Rule Roadmap.

To address environmental problems, municipalities must reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A good first step in this effort is energy benchmarking, or tracking building energy performance, establishing performance, and sharing performance data publicly. Chicago’s benchmarking ordinance requires owners of buildings over 50,000 square feet to publicly share energy and water usage, which allows tenants to better account for the utilities costs they pay and incentivizes landlords to improve building performance—or risk losing tenants. Without benchmarking, prospective tenants often have no way to anticipate future utility costs—benchmarking enables market forces to incentivize landlords to upgrade their buildings. Municipalities like Raleigh, NC, and Boulder, CO have compiled inventories of their carbon emissions to determine major point sources and exploit opportunities for mitigation across municipal facilities and operations.

The ProGov21 Library contains information on other strategies for reducing GHG emissions. Our Procurement Roadmap offers best practices for using public spending to incentivize environmentally-friendly business practices, and cities that commit to renewable energy procurement can directly reduce their environmental impact. Carbon pricing taxes commercial activities based on the volume of emissions they release, which reduces pollution while generating money to fund resiliency efforts. Boulder’s carbon tax initiative determines its rates by calculating the amount of revenue required to reduce GHG emissions from each sector.

Transportation policy frameworks are largely made at the state and federal levels, but local governments can still find ways to improve transportation sustainability (see the ProGov21 Home Rule Roadmap for more on preemption). Complete streets policies reduce emissions by facilitating walking, bicycling, and public transit, all of which reduce overall emissions. This roadmap from the State Smart Transportation Initiative reduces single-occupancy vehicle (SOV) travel and associated emissions by integrating transportation and land use strategies like mixed-use zoning, eliminating off-street parking requirements, walking-and biking-specific infrastructure, and improving first- and last-mile connections to high-capacity transit to. Public transit is inherently environmentally friendly: A single bus can transport more people than 40 cars while producing far fewer emissions.

Green building practices can lower energy costs, reduce waste and pollution, and enhance climate resiliency. King County’s green building guidelines incorporate renewable energy generation, stormwater management, and water consumption considerations. Cities can also place more stringent regulations on construction practices to reduce overall waste generation. Pierce County’s GHG Reduction Plan includes detailed strategies for reducing waste in construction and demolition, food waste, and energy. Cities can install green roofs that sequester carbon, filtrate stormwater, and reduce the urban heat effect. For more on green building (and especially building retrofitting) see the ProGov21 Building Energy Efficiency Policy Roadmap.

Localities can also promote sustainability by investing infrastructure in renewable energy and waste reduction. Zero-waste plans like those from the City of Madison and the City of Fort Collins are often effective means of encouraging recycling responsibility and waste management infrastructure development. Renewable energy investments can be paired with existing water management infrastructure as seen in Oroville, California, which installed a solar energy system in its wastewater treatment plant that cut energy costs by 80 percent.

Taking it to the Next Level

Meaningful climate action must meaningfully include historically excluded BIPOC communities who have been disproportionately harmed by toxic land uses, discriminatory zoning, and insufficient and unenforced environmental laws. Local governments can begin to address this history by using community-based advocacy strategies to better integrate marginalized voices into rulemaking, environmental review, and sustainability planning. Incorporating indigenous peoples’ environmental management strategies has proven to improve equity in environmental conservation projects.

Crafting local environmental policy requires understanding the relationships between native species, invasive species, and regional ecosystems. Preserving native species is paramount for improving ecosystem resilience. For municipalities struggling to manage stormwater and flooding, native planting models offer a cost-effective solution by reducing erosion while increasing soil water storage capacity and absorption rates. This Westchester County executive order promotes and protects native plants and habitats to improve stormwater management and environmental health. Municipalities like Sarasota County, FL; Pasco County, FL; Sanibel, FL; and Gilbert, AZ are using ordinances to promote sustainable landscaping practices through practices like water-efficient landscaping, native vegetation requirements, and integrating landscaping, irrigation, and pest management programs. Appleton, WI to Lewisville, TX  are overturning municipal rules requiring manicured lawns and encouraging wildscaping practices that support native plants and wildlife habitats. Invasive species, however, exacerbate environmental problems: local governments improve their management of invasive species by involving residents and forming public-private partnerships in eradication efforts.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations

  • The Greenlining Institute is dedicated to fighting environmental racism and advocating for progressive change in communities and across the country.
  • Eco-Cycle Solutions Hub is a non-profit organization committed to zero waste, reducing climate emissions, creating green jobs, and promoting social justice.
  • Georgetown Climate Center is a non-partisan research center working to reduce GHG emissions, support clean and resilient transportation, and help communities adapt to climate change.
  • Mayors Innovation Project is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.

Mayor's Innovation home page

Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


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