Michelle Knapik, Environment Program Director
Atlantic City was the site for last week’s New Jersey League of Municipalities annual conference and the inaugural Sustainable Jersey™ awards lunch, but it was through no stroke of luck that 34 towns achieved the first ever certification honors. Of the 566 municipalities in the State, more than 240 municipalities enrolled in the Sustainable Jersey program during year-one and started engaging in 43 possible actions to acquire points toward their certification (100 points was the minimum for certification). The newly certified towns are those that organized quickly to meet program challenges and head down the winning path of sustainability.
To listen to the stories of how these towns achieved certification is to understand how communities can galvanize grassroots energy and action, tap leadership from every sector (business, faith based groups, environmental commissions, etc.) and inspire problem solving and critical thinking to save energy, reduce waste, sustainably use land and manage resources, reduce transportation related emissions and vehicle miles traveled, improve health and wellness, strengthen local economies and so on. The Sustainable Jersey program became an organizing theme for these towns. Residents working in different areas were able to see their contribution toward a sustainable community. The pieces of the puzzle started snapping into place, and the early successes generated momentum for the next action toward the goal of a thriving and connected community. But let’s not downplay the role of friendly competition. Mayors and local leaders of all stripes talked about wanting to go the extra mile to get the next points toward certification – they wanted to “win.”
I hope the Obama administration takes a close look at this successful “race to the top,” because as a first in the nation, statewide, green communities certification program, Sustainable Jersey is creating learning communities and communities of practice. You will soon be able to see the profiles of every certified town and the documented steps they took to achieve certification. Towns will be able to adopt, replicate and adapt successful programs from other towns. Towns will be encouraged (more points) to share strategies, resources and solutions. Winning means leading, learning, sharing; it means we all increase our chances of hitting the sustainability jackpot.
We know the stakes are high – New Jersey faces enormous economic, social and environmental threats. Yet here is a program that says change is possible, here is what it looks like, and here’s the play book for how you too can participate and succeed. The high rollers and Sustainability Champions in the inaugural year of the program included Woodbridge Township, (for towns with a population of 50,000 and up), Ocean City and Summit (for towns with a population of 5,000-50,000), and Woodbine Borough (for towns with a population of less than 5,000). Woodbridge racked up a stunning 490 Sustainable Jersey points, including a program to install solar panels on municipal buildings, the creation of a ‘green’ business recognition program, the integration of hybrid vehicles into the municipal fleet, and the planned development of a state-of-the-art enviro-technology incubator and industrial park. Ocean City is now known as America’s Greenest Family Resort due to their efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Summit engaged student volunteer interns to help map the City’s carbon footprint and create the Action Plan for a Sustainable Summit. And Woodbine Borough’s Rural Sustainability Plan includes efforts related to community forestry, trails and bikeways, as well as new green job opportunities at an expanding eco-industrial park.
The actions, big and small, don’t stop here. Numerous towns are sparking civic conversations through green film fests. Others are combining recycling and local economy efforts through programs like Recycle Bank, leveraging public funds through New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program, and organizing home composting programs (check out Montclair’s “Rotline”– a compost hotline). The job now is to recognize and raise-up these efforts.
Just yesterday, the cadre of certified towns received the first of their Sustainable Jersey media tools. What we will see is a large scale branding effort that celebrates and highlights the ongoing efforts and visions of the certified towns. As a member of Asbury Park’s sustainability committee and green team, I just so happen to have access to the new town logos and I share this one as an example:
What do you think? Will the “coopetition” inspire all 566 towns in New Jersey to enroll and move toward certification? Can we count on the incoming Christie administration to continue state departmental support and alignment of resources around this program? Do you have a favorite action you want to highlight? And are there data and research gaps you would like to see addressed to help with program hurdles? We want to know what’s on your mind and we invite your responses.
Finally, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I would be remiss not to offer great thanks to all the Sustainable Jersey partners and participants. As Dodge’s President and CEO David Grant noted in his presentation at the League’s Conference, Sustainable Jersey is a high leverage program and a shining example of how the nonprofit and local government sectors can work together, create an atmosphere of cooperation, and move the needle on positive social change.