9 Things Your City Can Do To Become Green: Lessons For Inner And Outer Sustainability From The Heartland

There is work that can be done at a city and state level to preserve our planet for future generations. By listening and acting with skill and mindfulness, we can do this work.

I live in Oakdale, Minnesota. In 2015, the city was presented the first-ever Sustainable City Award for our Generation Green Sustainability Program. The city council and city government staff people worked together with an appointed environmental commission to build this program and create a greener and more sustainable city. As chair of the environmental commission, I have used my experience from a career in environmental and sustainability management at 3M, a multi-national corporation, and my mindfulness practice to help our city become green.

Here are nine best practices and the lessons I’ve learned in both inner and outer sustainability.

1. Set your strategic priorities

We have Five Mindfulness Trainings in the Plum Village tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn which provide guidance in our daily lives. Like the North Star, they provide a direction for our practice and guide us along our path. By studying and observing these trainings, we express our intention to practice mindfulness.

In Oakdale, we expressed our environmental and sustainability intentions by developing strategic priorities to guide us, our North Star. We determined the most critical issues to protect and preserve our natural and built resources and to the people in our city. Our three priority areas are water, waste management, and energy/climate change.

2. Get data

Most of our perceptions are wrong and many are not based in reality. You need to have sound, science-based facts for your decision-making. We collaborated with our energy provider, waste management providers, county and state programs, and others to get data. We needed information on energy use by source, solid waste, recycling, and water use to understand the present situation . We began building bridges within our community and with others with a connection to our community. It took several years to get sufficient base year data and tracking systems. Sound data allowed us to develop a framework for a comprehensive plan for sustainability and set a 5-year greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goal.

3. Get some quick wins

While the EMC developed strategic directions, we also looked for some quick wins to show some immediate results and engage the community. We organized an annual clean-up event at the largest recreational lake in our city. We updated our “Adopt-a-Wetland” program to preserve and protect our wetlands. These actions improved our environment and brought our community together with many individuals, groups and organizations getting involved.

4. Practice listening deeply

While environmental issues are often technical with technical solutions, they are almost always emotional issues. It was important to practice listening with our City Council, city staff, the citizens of our community, environmental groups, and county and state agencies. Through listening deeply, without reacting or judging, there can be real communications with understanding and compassion for all views.

5. Maintain harmony in the community

Our commission was fortunate to have leaders who supported maintaining harmony in our community. If there were roadblocks to moving actions forward, the mayor or others on the City Council or city staff made sure there were communications to the important stakeholders both within and connected with our community. We worked to give everyone a voice.

While this sometimes slows down action or results in compromise, it is important to practice inclusiveness and maintain harmony. Moving slower is better than getting stopped or causing a break in the community. Also, sometimes you need to move slow to move fast, taking the time to listen and respect the views of others at the beginning allows you to move forward quickly once consensus is reached.

6. Embrace best practices

We have learned from the best practices developed for sustainability by others. In 2011, Oakdale joined the Minnesota GreenStep Cities program. The program, developed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, helps cities achieve their sustainability goals. This program provides 29 best practice opportunities to improve the sustainability of a city. At the end of each year, the EMC meets to develop strategic actions for the upcoming year based on the framework of the GreenStep Cities program. We align the various best practices with city priorities and other initiatives. We then evaluate actions to determine the most critical and achievable to meet environmental goals and improve sustainability.

7. Take right action

The Oakdale Generation Green Sustainability Program included a combination of energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy, and promoting sustainable practices for developers and others. Some highlights of specific actions Oakdale implemented include:

- Improving lighting, insulation and HVAC equipment at City Hall

- Installing geothermal heating at public works

- Installing rooftop solar PV system at City Hall (using a six-year lease program from the provider plus a utility rewards program, state incentives, and federal tax credits to reduce the system costs by nearly 85%)

- Using LED technology in newly installed streetlights and all signal lights

- Promoting mixed-use redevelopment and walkable neighborhoods

- Providing redevelopment assistance using tax increment financing and multiple grants

These actions reduced greenhouse gas emissions and energy use, while providing energy cost savings.

8. Practice sustainable consumption

Whether for a city or for the people in the city, the practice of mindful consumption can reduce environmental impacts. For example, our city uses renewable energy to reduce the environmental impacts from fossil fuel use and installed more energy-efficient LED lighting to reduce energy consumption. We have also promoted sustainable consumption in our community. The EMC had a booth at a citywide home improvement fair highlighting products for home energy-efficiency (e.g. LED lighting, low flow shower heads, using Energy Star appliances).

9. Consider the interdependence of environmental, economic, and social issues

Oakdale is now working on a resilient community strategic framework. This is a more comprehensive plan that includes the environmental, economic and social health of our community. We envision a community living with open spaces, abundant natural and built resources, social justice and equity, financial resources, quality education and social connectedness.

As we look at issues like climate change, we are discussing environmental, economic and social impacts on our community. For example, with the changing climate resulting in droughts there will be a need for increased groundwater consumption. The city will need to pump more water to the residents which results in more energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This results in increased energy costs with increased cost for water for the residents. This increased water cost for residents will especially impact low-income families. We will need to considers these impacts in our plan.

Even with our current political situation, there is a lot we can do at a local community level to make our cities green and advance sustainability. Building a sustainable city may seem like a tremendous challenge. However, if we act from a place of mindful advocacy and compassion, we have an opportunity to create joy and happiness in ourselves and in our community.

“The best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

Keith Miller

Aspirant for the Order of Interbeing in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Earth Holder Sangha member, and chair of Oakdale Environmental Management Commission