This is another installment of an ELGL original content series titled “Defining Sustainability” by Beth Otto. Beth is sharing her perspective on the varying definitions of sustainability and her experiences in implementing sustainability strategies.
Sustainability: What Does It Mean?
The goal of the “Defining Sustainability” blog series is to help demystify the term and concept of sustainability in local government. The term gets wide use, rightly so in some ways, but it may leave you wondering, what is a sustainable community, and how can my community take steps in that direction? In this column, we discuss with Susan Millhauser, City of Lake Oswego (OR) sustainability coordinator, the history and implementation of the sustainability program in Lake Oswego, and whether the success in Lake Oswego can translate to your community.
Connect with Susan: LinkedIn
Susan Millhauser is the Sustainability Planner for the City of Lake Oswego. Susan has 20 years of experience in project management, community planning, and sustainability. She has worked in the private sector (Shapiro and Associates, Inc. and CH2M Hill), the non-profit sector (Friends of Trees), and local Government (City of Lake Oswego). As the Sustainability Coordinator at the City of Lake Oswego, she has developed and implemented an internal sustainability plan, created a sustainability framework for the comprehensive plan update, and managed the development of a citywide greenhouse gas inventory. She also created a Sustainability Advisory Board and implemented community based projects such as Solarize West Linn-Lake Oswego. Susan was on the Energy and Climate Technical Advisory Committee for the development of the STAR (Sustainability Tools for Assessing & Rating) Community Rating System.
Sustainability in Lake Oswego
Susan Millhauser, City of Lake Oswego sustainability coordinator, has been working on defining sustainability for many years. She transitioned from a community planner in Lake Oswego to the sustainability coordinator. Her initial focus as sustainability coordinator was finding opportunities to better integrate sustainability (environmental, social, and economic) considerations into city operations.
Beginnings of a Sustainability Program in Lake Oswego
The first step in launching a new program is often the hardest, in the case of Lake Oswego, the City was able to get their sustainability program started in the early 2000’s due to convergence of factors
“The Mayor and several members of the Council were concerned about a variety of sustainability issues in the early 2000’s. With the hiring of a new Community Development Director, the Mayor said, ‘let’s get something done.’ They started with a focus on what was close and within their control – City Hall, examining it from an energy and resource use perspective and identifying many actions.”
Lake Oswego’s City Council has included sustainability in its adopted goals since 2002. The goals have related to green building, surface water, deconstruction/ construction recycling, food waste and alternative transportation options.
Staffing a Sustainability Program
With a plan in hand, it became apparent that a dedicated staff person would be needed to coordinate the effort.
Enter Susan Millhauser. As sustainability coordinator, Susan was first tasked with bringing a strategic approach to sustainability in City operations. This approach involved:
- Understanding the issue: Community members were engaged to express their input on how the city should address sustainability.
- Creating a volunteer Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB). The role of the SAB is to advise the City Council about sustainability in City operations, educate the public at large, and review and provide input on plans, policies, and programs that affect the community. Susan staffs the SAB and helps to implement their vision.
SAB members were interested in creating a community sustainability plan and conducting a carbon baseline,” Millhauser noted. “Things began to fall into place. We were able to use Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds to have a citywide Greenhouse Gas (GHG) inventory conducted. The City Comprehensive Plan update was just getting underway, and so instead of creating a separate sustainability plan, staff worked with the Comprehensive Plan Citizen Advisory Committee and Planning Commission, in consultation with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, to broaden the Plan’s approach and incorporate a sustainability framework. Another objective was to use the findings from the GHG inventory to identify actions that could make the biggest impact in reducing emissions.”
Sustainability Meets the Comp Plan
The City chose to integrate broader sustainability considerations into the Comprehensive Plan, instead of creating a separate community sustainability plan, because it was a more effective use of resources. From Susan’s perspective this was the ideal approach,
“I think it is ideal. Sustainability needs to be worked into master plans, strategic plans, and comprehensive plans. All of the systems that cities operate or regulate are a part of this: water, wastewater, transportation, land use, natural resources, utilities, etc.”
More recently, a change in elected leadership resulted in a narrowing of the Comprehensive Plan’s focus, with community members working to have their recommendations put into action through other avenues.
Day in a Life of a Sustainability Coordinator
Susan works largely independently and her position is part time. With limited time, Susan has become very efficient and focus on the top priorities.
“I focus on what I can do to make the biggest impact. Employee engagement is important. When City employees incorporate sustainability in their daily work, our program is successful. This is increasingly important since we are providing government services in a constrained financial environment. A robust sustainability program can look down the road and help to avoid future costs and risks. From a business perspective it just makes sense to be efficient with staff and natural resources, and having a commitment to sustainability can be a way to attract and retain employees.”
A dedicated staff person can make a big difference in assuring that sustainability issues are represented in the daily work of city staff. This doesn’t mean that sustainability is about creating new tasks or programs.
“That’s the thing I’ve realized looking back at my work and career path: it’s always been ‘sustainability’, which is what we are now calling it. It’s about good community planning and sustainable development, contributing to livable places and vibrant economies. We encourage mixed use and infill so we don’t have to extend public infrastructure and services; there are co-benefits around energy and climate.”
A Sustainable Future
Sustainability is high on most cities’ radar for now, but what does the future hold for cities in how they choose to address sustainability issues.
Susan believes that, “A sustainability framework ties together strategies for thinking more holistically about long-term impacts on people and the built and natural environment, and helps us identify opportunities to become more resilient in ways that we can afford now and in the future. We have to ask if we can continue to do business as usual in City government. We are not paying true costs. We have to look down the road and be prepared for when that changes.”