In the aftermath of a severe economic recession that left numerous businesses and individuals struggling, the start of this decade has been a time of tight budgets and fragile futures for many. It therefore seemed like perfect timing when we, as a student group from the University of Minnesota, were asked to promote the Green Step Cities program to Minnesotan cities in 2012.
The Green Step Cities program
The Green Step Cities program is developed by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and is specifically designed for Minnesotan cities. It lists best practices in infrastructure, public transportation, and economic development that will not only save large sums of money, but also strengthen local economies and communities, and lead to great environmental benefits.
We were to work with Lino Lakes, a small suburb of Minneapolis. In an attempt to increase growth prior to the recession, large corporations were encouraged to expand to this area, green spaces were turned to parking lots and strip malls, others to “cookie-cutter” residential development. This left Lino Lakes with traditional development at the expense of their natural capital; a town stripped of its green spaces and natural gathering places for the people living in the area. In their place was infrastructure designed for personal vehicles and hydrocarbon-fuelled comfort. Then hit the recession and expansion stopped. Budgets were tight and both individuals and businesses were hit hard as there was no buffer to absorb the shock of the financial collapse. When we met with the city council of Lino Lakes, they had recently been forced to let twelve colleagues go after budget cuts following the recession. The staff that was left still faced great insecurity regarding the future of their employment.
The MPCA has created a menu of 28 best practices for cities to choose from. This is one of the strengths of the program, as it is voluntary, free, and cities can pick the best practices they want, and leave the ones they don’t. Let me present my favorite three to illustrate both economic and environmental benefits.
Best Practice 1 – Retrofitting Buildings
Energy efficiency in commercial/industrial buildings increases by 10% translates to
Best Practice 22 – Solid Waste Reduction
Best Practice 27 Local Food – A Farmer’s Market
Clearly, there are great opportunities to bolster local economies and reap great economic and environmental benefits from following the steps laid out by the MPCA Green Step Cities program or similar initiatives.
As the city follows the best practices presented by the MPCA, it earns recognition through climbing the steps of the Green Step Cities program. This way, by showing off their newly acquired status as a Green Step City on webpages and other channels of information, the city would attract conscious citizens and businesses with a strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) profile.
The Opportunities for Restructuring
When faced with a crisis like the financial collapse of 2008-09, there are enormous challenges to tackle. But, more importantly, there are incredible opportunities presented by a crisis to restructure systems to make them more resilient in the event of a new one. Adopting the best practices designed by the MPCA would leave cities with a stronger community and environmental benefits like reduced traffic, energy-efficient buildings, and clean water supplies. It would bolster local economies and create revenue for the city to spend as they see fit, preferably expanding the green initiatives that leave people with a thriving community, proper waste management, better health and increased job security. By seeing the opportunities for innovative solutions, one can reshape systems to become robust and resilient for the future.
Carl Frederik Kontny holds a BSc. in environmental science, policy, and management from the University of Bergen and a BSc. in economics from the University of Oslo. While originally from Oslo, he has lived both in Minnesota and in London before returning closer to home to attend a MSc. in energy economics at NMBU, just outside of his hometown. Carl Frederik has a special interest in energy policy and ways to effectively integrate the value of natural, social, and human capital when measuring economic growth and prosperity.