Blog: Matthew Naud & Jamie Kidwell

Ann Arbor has had an energy office longer than most cities - and also happens to know where each of its 14,000-plus water pipes are located (many cities don't). Matthew Naud and Jamie Kidwell, key players in Ann Arbor's sustainability planning effort, will write about using these advantages and others to forge a new sustainability framework for the city.

Jamie Kidwell: How Do You Measure Zero % Waste?

Food sustainability, fiscal sustainability, social sustainability. Sustainability isn't just linked to the environment anymore. Sustainability is a far-reaching word. It is making its way into daily conversations, and it is being discussed more and more at the local government level.

The Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) is a group of local government staff joined together to spur innovation and push sustainability forward in cities across North America. The idea of USDN is that city governments can learn from one another to further sustainability initiatives. Why reinvent the wheel if another city has some lessons to share about how to best track sustainability, or install bike sharing in downtown? Additionally, cities are teaming together to tackle new issues. Three city governments working on greening rental housing is better than one.

With my second blog post, I thought I would tackle a few more of the lessons learned at the USDN conference. Cities are a great starting place for thinking about sustainability in a broader sense. City sustainability is about keeping a system functioning. The "triple-bottom line" approach to sustainability posits that sustainability includes balancing economy, environment, and equity. This isn't the only way to think about sustainability, but it works as a good example. Cities are charged with managing several assets. For instance, Ann Arbor maintains a variety of natural systems, such as the Huron and our parks system. The city also invests in infrastructure to provide services to residents that raise the quality of life. Managing all of these assets means that cities must think in terms of tradeoffs and balancing. Cities are systems, and are the perfect agent to take on key sustainability challenges.   

Sitting at the USDN conference, one key thing kept running through my mind, and clearly it was something other cities were focused on as well. You can't keep track of what you can't measure. We can set good goals, like zero percent waste diversion, but we also need to set targets and measure our progress. How do we create good indicators that measure our performance?

Ann Arbor's environmental indicators offer an example of how we can take data and use that data to measure our progress. For example, we have seven indicators to measure progress towards our goal of clean air. This is a start towards monitoring our sustainability goals at the city, but with Ann Arbor's sustainability framework project, we are taking a more integrated approach. We want to expand upon the environmental indicators and track progress towards our social and economic goals as well.

Other cities at the conference had examples of social and economic sustainability indicators. For instance, Minneapolis has a set of indicators that includes health and community sustainability factors. However, a key challenge to creating indicators is where to start. A message I took from other cities at the conference was to start with what you can get your arms around.

Last week, Ann Arbor started on this step. Four of Ann Arbor's commissions met to set priorities for the city within four areas (climate & energy, community, land use & access, and natural systems). We are now creating clear targets and actions in the upcoming sustainability action plan project that will begin in January.

To learn about other approaches beyond the triple-bottom line approach to think about sustainability, check out the lecture given to the city's energy, environmental, park advisory, and planning commissions. Also, look for the September 27th joint commission meeting on CTN's webpage soon!