Sustainable Jersey: Creating a National Network of State-level Sustainability Programs

Posted on by Randall Solomon, Co-Director, Sustainable Jersey

SJ Report

Sustainable Jersey releases Statewide Sustainability Report

Imagine what we could accomplish if we worked together. The idea of starting a multi-state conversation about state-level sustainability programs originated during a national American Planning Association session in 2014.

A group of us who lead state-level sustainability programs sat around a table and realized the potential impact of sharing best practices and leveraging resources.

Within the year, we reconnected over a series of phone calls to design and plan a larger face to face convening for 22 representatives across 10 states. The convening was held this past December in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Representatives came from Energize Connecticut, Florida Green Building Coalition, Green Tier Legacy Communities (Wisconsin), Massachusetts Green Communities, Minnesota Green Step Cities, New York Climate Smart Communities, Sustainable Jersey, Sustainable Maryland and Sustainable Pennsylvania.

Most of us had never met each other despite running very similar programs. One participant said, “I’ve been running this program for years and I never knew there others were out there working to solve the same problems.”

This comment and many others were generated during a session when the group was asked: Why form a network? Although this question was prominent throughout the convening, it wasn’t the only focus. We also tried to provide space for each of us to share knowledge and experience and build relationships with each other. The state programs agreed that it would be beneficial to form a national network to set common standards and share resources and best practices.

Sustainable Jersey Releases National Study of State-Local Sustainability Initiatives

OneCommmunityYesterday, Sustainable Jersey released a study on a new breed of bottom-up meets top-down state-local sustainability programs in the United States. Municipal certification or recognition is a signature element of these programs; yet, certification is merely the visible tip of an iceberg of collective action aiming to coordinate priorities, policy, and resources among state and local, public and private actors.

Funded by the Surdna Foundation, this study was guided by a working group comprised of representatives of five state-local sustainability programs including: Minnesota GreenStep Cities, Sustainable Maryland, Sustainable Pennsylvania, Wisconsin Green Tier Legacy Communities and Sustainable Jersey. Key personnel from Green Cities California, Clean Energy Communities (CT), the Florida Green Building Coalition, Massachusetts Green Communities, Michigan Green Communities, Climate Smart Communities (NY) and Go Green Virginia also contributed to the report.

“This study sheds light on a growing trend where organizations operating at the statewide level form partnerships to amplify the role of local government to make change,” said Helen Chin, director of Sustainable Environments at the Surdna Foundation. “This is a growing model where statewide organizations, including state government, engage communities to set standards together and cooperate to identify needed resources that enable the communities to make measurable change on the ground. Hundreds of local governments are now placing sustainability on the policy agenda and implementing thousands of discrete sustainability projects within a short span of time.”

Melanie Hughes McDermott, Ph.D., a senior researcher at Sustainable Jersey and one of the report authors said, “This report is the first part of a multi-year effort to support the growth of state-local sustainability programs for the certification or recognition of municipal sustainability and evaluate their potential. In addition to providing insights across the board, the report includes program profiles of each of the 12 state-sustainability programs. We hope to show a path forward toward collaboration across the United States to move these local efforts to the next level.”

A few themes emerge from the comparative analysis of the 12 state-local sustainability programs:

  • Most of the programs set standards and rate community performance on dimensions related to sustainability and/or energy, and provide a form of certification or recognition to local governments.
  • Most of the programs go beyond rating communities and work to provide resources in the form of grants or technical assistance to help communities make progress.
  • Some programs are led by NGOs or universities, while others are led by state government. The organizations generally embody some kind of public-private cooperative relationship.
  • State-led programs as a whole tend to have larger budgets and higher rates of entry-level participation.
  • A higher proportion of participants in programs led by NGOs and universities attain certification (or equivalent recognition).
  • Funding available to the programs is a key driver of local participation, but is not the only driver.  Funding for operations and direct grants to local governments is the number one need cited by respondents.
  • All twelve programs strive to demonstrate widespread impact. Thus, the participants in this study expressed a keen interest in networking to engage national partners, attract resources, and learn from each other how best to make (and measure) impact – one community at a time.

We see great potential in the programs coming together to learn from each other, share resources, and also to engage national partners. We agreed that it would be beneficial to form a national network to set common standards and share resources and best practices. We continue to meet and plan to have a second convening this September.

Imagine what we will accomplish if we work together — stay tuned!


Randall Solomon, Sustainable Jersey

Randall Solomon has 20 years of experience working in government, academia, and the non-profit sector. He is one of the principals that founded and directs the Sustainable Jersey Certification program.

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