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Creating A Sustainable City? Start With These Building Blocks

As an organization that works to accelerate learning and innovation around sustainability, you can say that ‘change’ is what we do. Our stage just happens to be cities.

We work with cities and municipalities around the world, helping them network, share knowledge and get new sustainability initiatives off the ground. Our mantra is co-creation , and our tools are planning guides and leadership training workshop that help teams catalyze sustainability.  

The Adversary Is Apathy

Lack of information, silos, bureaucracy, and budget cuts are common barriers we face in our work. But we consider them opportunities for doing things differently, rather than serious obstacles. The real problem is apathy.

In our work, apathy comes when stakeholders don’t feel a vested interest in the project. That’s why, when working with our cities on participatory planning initiatives, we ensure that groups be a part of the solution by making sure they are contributing to the solution.  This gives all parties ownership and begins dialogue.

The language used to speak about a project is very important. The terminology used by an NGO might not be accessible to an engineer or a business owner, and may in some instances be prohibitive.  Making your initiative accessible by avoiding jargon and adopting simple and straightforward language is key to good ongoing communication.  Defining any industry ‘buzzwords’ along the way allows everyone to participate in meaningful exchanges, making a common goal shared and understandable.

Start With The Goal

There are many different approaches to any project. So it’s important to map out what the goal is, and stick to it.  Are you engaging first to build consensus for a successful project? Are you starting with a project to garner excitement in the hopes that people will become engaged?  Starting with a definition of your goals builds trust and defines leadership.

Once you’ve nailed the goals and vision, the approach will flow. For example, if you want to build engagement, the logical approach would be to have the community lead the process. If you want to create breakthrough work or create thought provoking initiatives, perhaps a crack project team should lead.

Always Remember…

Insight is crucial. Establish a working model that allows teams to work creatively and with insight. In a creative team, insight can unlock ideas and concepts that have not existed in the past, and can be integral to the success of your project. It is not enough to go out and conduct surveys, use ‘averages’, or hire experts. You can’t just ask people - you have to learn about them.

For example, a person living in a developing community who uses burlap sacks and discarded oil drums to create a vegetable garden provides insight into shifting ideas about gardening, the necessity of reliable food access, the potential for expansion, and income generation. Finding the ‘story’ is just one example of how insight can broaden creativity and thus manifest into aspects of a sustainability plan.

Use the power of groups - Participatory engagement is a key piece of the puzzle. In order to get an engagement effectively moving, you might engage 100 people or so. But 100 is an unwieldy number. When it comes to specific tasks like vision-building, you might start to work in groups of 15 or 20. Identify these groups and the part their activities will play towards the common goal. Don’t forget though, communication is crucial - it is very important to continue to communicate and feed back progress to the larger group in order to maintain the sense of ownership and responsibility to the shared goal.

Fail Forward - Last, but not least, be open to learning from mistakes and hearing what is not working. Although there is recognition that an asset-based approach is appropriate when involved in public processes or in actually moving a project forward, a true learning environment invites the ability to have a level of trust that can allow the sharing of both the positive and the negative.   


Jane McRae is the CEO of Sustainable Cities International, an organization that co-creates with cities around the world to catalyze action on urban sustainability.

Jane has worked in the sustainable development field for over 16 years, starting with her role as… [Read more about Jane McRae]

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