GPI is thrilled to mark the 10-year anniversary of GreenStep Cities, a voluntary challenge, assistance, and recognition program that helps Minnesota cities achieve their sustainability and quality-of-life goals. GPI is proud to be a GreenStep Cities partner and take part in supporting and recognizing cities’ progress on sustainability and quality of life.
We have worked with GreenStep Cities since its inception and this milestone has been an opportunity for us to reflect on the amazing accomplishments of the program—and the cities involved—and what it can teach us as we look ahead.
Here are some key takeaways from our conversation, which is shared in full below:
- GreenStep Cities has been successful in encouraging and supporting many cities to take action on clean energy and climate.
- Clean energy and climate issues are integrally connected to other local issues in a community (such as housing, equity, etc.), so a broad sustainability program helps cities make those connections.
- Similar programs in other states are having similar success.
- The state-level, voluntary program model is a proven tool for scaling clean energy and climate action in cities.
Diana: Can you believe that GreenStep Cities is celebrating its 10-year anniversary! It seems like yesterday that we co-facilitated the advisory group that shaped the program. The group included city staff and elected officials, nonprofit organizations, the University of Minnesota, area colleges, state agencies, utilities, and businesses. We worked at different organizations in 2008, but both of us had roles in the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), so we worked together on the program planning process. We’ve worked together in different ways and in different roles since 1998. Does that date us?
Lola: It does give us some interesting perspective on the success of GreenStep Cities, and of similar state-level programs around the country, and what can be accomplished by investing in an effective program over time. The GreenStep Cities numbers are impressive:
- 140 participants (136 cities and 4 tribal nations participating)
- $8,370,000 annual energy cost savings
- 48 percent of Minnesota’s population
- Urban, rural, conservative, liberal community participation
- Cities of all sizes, ranging from 300,000 to 300 in population
- 4,210 documented actions completed
- 17 cities are tracking 18 metrics ranging from energy use to open space to jobs and employment and documenting cost savings and environmental improvements
GreenStep Cities is also an award-winning program—it was named 2012 Partnership of the Year by Environmental Initiative in the sustainable communities category, and in 2016, the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs presented GreenStep Cities with a State Government Innovation Award, one of ten awards recognizing state government entities engaged in innovation and service redesign.
Diana: The original idea was to create a program to support cities in doing more clean energy projects. Several people who came to a 2007 series of regional meetings on community clean energy opportunities (hosted by CERTs) had the idea of recognizing cities that are “green stars.” I remember at least one person envisioned a sign as you came into his city indicating they were “green” similar to the “Star City” signs around the state.
In 2008, the Minnesota legislature took up the idea and asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources, and CERTs to explore creating a voluntary program to challenge, assist, and recognize cities whose actions help the state meet its greenhouse gas emissions gas reduction goals. This led to an extensive planning process to design the program. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency supported Urban Land Institute to lead a pilot of five cities before the GreenStep Cities launch in June 2010.
Lola: We set out to start a program supporting cities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions but ended up starting a broad sustainability program. That’s because the cities (in the original advisory group and in follow-up interviews) were adamant that energy and climate are integrally linked with all the other sustainability issues on their plates.
There are many examples that have come up over the years of how energy and climate impact other city priorities. Health is a primary concern for many communities, especially today. Transportation is an equity and jobs issue as well as the largest source of emissions. Creating walkable and bikeable communities helps children get safely to school, improves health, and leads to cleaner air. Energy is a component of affordable housing, of main street redevelopment, of historic restoration, and any other building-related issues. City leaders told us that they needed to think holistically.
Diana: Another key part of the GreenStep Cities approach is how it enables communities to set their own goals and work on the things that matter most to them. For example, while some community leaders are passionate about climate, others are not. From the beginning, the advisory group focused on promoting the idea of a large menu of options for cities.
This flexibility has allowed cities to participate in the options that suit the diverse range of Minnesota cities, regardless of geography or size. Cities as small as 300 in population have taken on and achieved ambitious projects that benefit their communities and their bottom lines. Mayors and others also participate in the recognition of their accomplishments, which include wooden “step” blocks, city recognition signs, and photos at the annual League of Minnesota Cities conference every June.
When it comes to choosing from the menu of options, it turns out that clean energy and climate-related actions are among ones that are most commonly taken. Plus, they tend to save a city money! As of 2019, cities had reported the following:
- 587+ renewable energy installations
- 229+ certified green buildings
- 130+ electric vehicle charging stations
- 25 cities have climate goals
- 25 percent citywide greenhouse gas emission reductions in 35 cities over 10 years
- And many more energy-related actions
Lola: Cities have many reasons for being a part of GreenStep Cities. Most Minnesota cities have a lean staff and lots of issues on their plates. They tell us (via annual surveys) that they find it helpful to have a framework of actions that are tailored to local needs. They’ve also shared that it’s helpful to have a range of resources that add to their capacity like technical assistance, pre-vetted tools, interns and GreenCorps members, local examples, and peer networks. These resources can help them overcome challenges and make more progress that brings benefits to their communities. The proof really is in the success of the program.
Diana: I’m looking forward to the next 10 years, aren’t you? We are in the middle of a strategic planning process that will help to chart the future. As a part of that, we led focus groups of cities all over the state. They described a range of future challenges that they would like help with including water quality and quantity, energy issues, emerald ash borer, waste management, the intersection of food access and equity, and more. There are lots of opportunities for other state agencies and technical assistance providers to get more involved and use the program to connect cities to the resources they need to meet their future challenges and take advantage of opportunities.
Lola: GreenStep Cities has a long track record of successfully supporting cities as they address a wide range of sustainability issues, helping them with opportunities that would be more difficult to pursue on their own. GreenStep Cities collaborates with other similar state-level programs through the Sustainable States Network, which brings together 13 state-level clean energy and sustainability programs to share resources and best practices, foster the success of local initiatives, and collaborate on projects with the aim of making sustainability the norm in all communities (GPI manages the network). One of the beauties of GreenStep Cities and other state-level programs is that they are flexible and can adapt to help cities address new and emerging challenges over the coming decade.
GreenStep Cities is a voluntary challenge, assistance and recognition program that helps cities achieve their sustainability and quality-of-life goals with 28 best practices on buildings and lighting, land use, transportation, environmental management, and resilient economic and community development. The program is managed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and guided by a Steering Committee of eight additional partners: Clean Energy Resource Teams, League of Minnesota Cities, Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources, Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, Great Plains Institute, Urban Land Institute, the Izaak Walton League, and Rethos: Places Reimagined.
For more information about GreenStep Cities contact Kristin Mroz-Risse at [email protected]. Metro cities can contact Diana McKeown for more information at [email protected]. For more information about the Sustainable States Network, contact Lola Schoenrich at [email protected].