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Local government action to promote sustainability

April 20, 2011

The results of a major survey developed by the Center for Urban Innovation in cooperation with the Alliance for Innovation and the Sustainable Cities Network in the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU are being published in The Municipal Year Book 2011. 

The 2010 survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the first of its kind, measures how and to what extent local governments are acting to promote sustainability.

“Sustainability has emerged as a major public policy issue facing countries throughout the world,” writes James H. Svara, director of the Center for Urban Innovation and Professor in the School of Public Affairs, in a chapter in the Year Book. “Sustainability requires a broad range of actions that must include contributions from all levels of government, from all sectors of the economy, and from all of the citizenry. City and county governments are uniquely positioned to make a significant contribution to the effort. They are directly involved in providing or regulating many of the human activities that affect resource use, promote economic development, and affect the protection and inclusion of persons from all economic levels and racial and ethnic groups. The ICMA Local Government Sustainability Policies and Programs survey of 2010 is a major effort to examine how local elected officials and administrators have acted so far to address the sustainability challenge.”

Overall, the responses to the survey demonstrate two opposing tendencies: most local governments are becoming active in sustainability, but most governments are involved at a relatively low level and most of the possible sustainability actions are not being widely utilized. Most governments lack goals, targets, or specific plans. Only a quarter of local governments have citizen committees and staff dedicated to sustainability, and only one in six have a separate budget to promote sustainability although local governments are spending money on specific actions. 

The governments that are likely to be doing more to promote sustainability are larger governments, governments in the west, and governments that use the council-manager form of government, but there are many exceptions.  

According to Svara, it appears that American local governments are still in the early stage of adopting sustainability actions with most local governments closer to the lower end of the spectrum rather than in the middle.

“This pattern is puzzling,” he concludes, “in the sense that sustainability is not a new idea, but it may be understandable because of the relative newness of sustainability as a challenge that local governments are taking on beyond the traditional and mandated activities they have been doing for some time.” 

If local governments are going to make a major contribution to advancing sustainability, most still need to expand their commitment and more fully organize their efforts.

The Municipal Year Book 2011 will be released on April 22nd. For more information visit: