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How Green is Your Community?

July 09, 2012 By Trevor Drake, Policy Associate

As Minnesota cities face tighter budgets, the need for money-saving innovation, without cutting services, grows rapidly. One place to find savings is through sustainability, which is where a state program aimed at a number of factors, from improving energy-efficient public buildings to innovative waste-collection systems, is helping.

In 2008, the legislature tasked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the Clean Energy Resource Teams—a group focused on community-based clean energy—with developing a proposal for expanding the state’s “Green Star” award program from individual facilities to entire municipalities. The result was GreenStep Cities, a voluntary program to measure and track sustainability progress.

Since 2010, 47 cities have joined the program, which requires communities to pass a resolution stating their intent to pursue as many of the 28 sustainability best practices as possible. Cumulatively, participating cities have completed 806 innovative actions related to buildings and lighting, land use, transportation, environmental management, and economic and community development. The extent of this progress is shown in the graph below, titled Green Step Progress (wedges represent best practices; the three rings show the level of sustainability achieved, from less sustainable in the center to more sustainable at the outside).


The bottom of this article also contains a version of this graph that compares what select cities have done individually.

GreenStep Cities' best incentive is a concrete and navigable path to implementing sustainable, innovative ideas, which for many cities is enough to make the commitment worthwhile.

As Andrea Lauer, Royalton's Mayor wrote in reference to the program, “There are more things that cities can do to impact budgets than cut staff and services. We need to think long-term and make changes that will impact not only the budget, but the environment.”

Here are some examples of what cities are doing. Maplewood’s organized residential waste collection program is expected to save approximately $1 million annually on road repair. St. Cloud has the nation’s first bus powered by vegetable oil, which costs $2.30 per gallon. Rogers has completed 13 energy efficiency projects that have a cumulative payback under 3 years. And Royalton has done a host of creative things.

From a governance perspective, GreenStep Cities is also innovative in making use of a public-private partnership of 7 organizations and government agencies, to which Program Coordinator Philipp Muessig attributes much of the program’s success.

Program Parameters

One challenge going forward may be to include more rural cities. Participating cities are categorized by size, location, and services offered. The program attempts to even the playing field by requiring more of large cities and less of smaller ones, but so far smaller cities are outnumbered: there are only 2  participants in the small-city category, compared to 17 mid-size and 22 large cities (6 are not classified). 

Cities are ranked, and recognized annually, on a scale of 3 “Steps”:

Step 1 for passing the initial resolution

Step 2 for completing a handful of actions

Step 3 for completing several actions (some are required).

Only four cities have achieved Step 3 so far: Eagan, Edina, Falcon Heights, and Saint Anthony. Fourteen cities are at Step 2.

Statistically, GreenStep Cities are larger and younger in population than the average Minnesota city, but they represent a wide ideological spectrum. One reason for this may be the freedom that cities have in choosing actions. Some cities, like Rogers, have focused heavily on cost-effective actions, like implementing quick-payback, energy saving improvements. Edina seems to be focusing more on community engagement and the environment. Eagan has completed an action in nearly all of the 28 best practices.

Whatever the approach, GreenStep Cities offers a path to innovation in a time when cities are expected to do more with less.

Progress at a Glance

The graphics below show the level of sustainability achieved so far by a handful of cities. Wedges represent best practices; the three rings indicate the level of sustainability achieved, from less sustainable in the center to more sustainable at the outside (in general, more dark-blue means more sustainable). These graphics are intended to provide an at-a-glance comparison and do not show the full extent of detail available on the GreenStep Cities website.

Note: The author has adapted these graphics from the "Value Map" designed by Chris Butters. More information on this design is available in Chris' article, A Holistic Method for Evaluating Sustainability.

Green Step Cities Program

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