Idea in Brief
- Strong collaboration among cities and their education and business sectors brings economic, social, and environmental benefits to the entire community.
- Embedding sustainability within an organization’s structure ensures that it gets prioritized in decision-making.
Fort Collins, Colo., was named one of America’s Places of Invention by the Smithsonian Institution in 2015 and featured in an exhibit showcasing the clean-energy collaboration between the city, Colorado State University, and local businesses. The land-grant university and the city it calls home have been in close partnership for many years on a range of sustainability-focused outreach and research efforts beneficial to each other and to the wider residential and business communities, notes Tony Frank, chancellor of the CSU System and former president of CSU in Fort Collins.
Frank thinks Fort Collins serves as a national model for cross-sector collaboration. “It’s difficult for cities or states to hit their sustainability goals without bringing along their educational institutions, and vice versa.” There is a huge opportunity for large systems such as higher education to work with government and the private sector to create needed change, Frank says.
As chief sustainability officer for the city of Fort Collins, Jacqueline Kozak-Thiel could not agree more. Among the many examples she points to are the partnerships spawned by CSU’s Energy Institute, located at the university’s Powerhouse Energy Campus near the heart of downtown. The institute serves as a hub for energy innovation and partnership among the city, CSU, private-sector businesses, and national research agencies.
To make sustainability an organizing principle, a community must build an organizational structure to ensure that it gets adequately resourced, Kozak-Thiel says. She oversees the departments of economic health, environmental services, and social sustainability—all under the umbrella of the city’s sustainability services area.
This triple bottom line (economic, environmental, social) structure that embeds sustainability in programming and services across the municipality was approved by the city council in 2011. “The coordinated focus is what compels the city’s impressive progress toward becoming one of the most livable cities in the nation,” Kozak-Thiel says.
In 2015, the Fort Collins city council unanimously adopted climate action goals that call for carbon neutrality by 2050, consistent with those being embraced across the globe. It then went a step further and set a goal for its utilities to become 100 percent electric by 2030. Two things of note came from that process, Kozak-Thiel says. “First, it allowed us to prioritize decisions based on their impact.” In those initial years, Fort Collins dedicated more resources to business and residential energy efficiency programs aimed at reducing overall load, while transitioning more of that load to renewables.
Second, the city council allocated investments for pilot microgrid and battery storage research. “This shows the great foresight of our council and will prove important to meeting our accelerated neutrality goals, since we can spend time upfront learning how best to bring those technologies to scale once we have the processes figured out,” Kozak-Thiel says.
She credits the city’s budgeting process for bolstering the municipality’s sustainability successes. “We annually set our budget based on what outcomes we’re trying to drive, and sustainability is a consistent thread that influences our resourcing,” Kozak-Thiel says. The city also funded two key new hires: a dedicated financial analyst for sustainability and a climate economy adviser. The latter position is part of the city’s economic health office and is responsible for determining how best to leverage private capital to help businesses adapt and bring capital to projects that showcase early transition to a green economy.
The city is now on version 3.0 of its triple bottom line scan, a decision-making tool that helps project managers assess the environmental, economic, and social trade-offs and considerations for any proposed development, Kozak-Thiel says. “[Project managers] can essentially gauge how well their project would align with the city’s sustainability goals.”
Fort Collins is also using an in-house cost-benefit tool to analyze its proposed initiatives based on the dollars required to achieve specific emissions reductions. “With data, we are able to show how far each investment will get us toward our ultimate goals so that we can better prioritize our spending and see how individual projects fit into our comprehensive strategy,” Kozak-Thiel says. “This not only helps make the business case for high-impact decision-making, but also builds credibility with stakeholders concerned about costs.”
According to Kozak-Thiel, considering climate risks in financial terms and through the lens of a new energy economy has emerged as a theme in the conferences she attends and within sustainability literature. Another emergent topic centers around climate equity. For instance, how are cities addressing structural racism and the added impacts of climate change on this problem?
Municipalities must also grapple with the fact that most of the “best green places to live” can be among the most expensive, Kozak-Thiel says. In fact, affordable housing and other longtime systemic disparities have become major challenges for many cities, and these social concerns have to be seen as sustainability concerns.
Housing Catalyst, the housing authority of Fort Collins, is focused on building affordable housing options centered around health and sustainability. One partner in that process has been CSU’s Institute for the Built Environment, which advises on best practices in sustainability—including energy analysis and modeling—in support of more cost-efficient homes for residents. Other sustainability-focused considerations for Housing Catalyst projects include access to transportation, schools, and public services, as well as internet connectivity and recreation opportunities.
Beyond a focus on cleaning the air and reducing water and waste, concerted efforts to assist with responsible redevelopment projects that promote environmental and economic vitality get to the truth of what it means to be sustainable, Kozak-Thiel says. “There is a reason we created a department of economic health, not economic growth. A city that prioritizes sustainability must ultimately prioritize livability for everyone.”
Another key ingredient of Fort Collins’ success in long-range city planning is a concerted engagement process with its larger community. “City residents make their values abundantly clear, and time and again for this community sustainability is a central theme,” notes Kozak-Thiel.
Yet, engagement also must happen within the sustainability profession itself, she argues. Historically, the sustainability field was largely populated by professionals with a city planning or environmental science background. “In this decade, we will see a substantial diversifying of the sustainability profession,” Kozak-Thiel predicts. She points to the groups of nurses she has seen at climate marches as just one example.
More people of color and of diverse backgrounds and capabilities are needed—social workers and public health workers, as well as those with a business background, Kozak-Thiel says. “Sustainability increasingly will need to become cross-disciplinary in nature, which is one more reason why higher education is so important—to help us all connect the dots.”
KARLA HIGNITE, Fort Walton Beach, Fla., is a contributing editor for Business Officer.