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Local Governments and Sustainability: The Power of Public Goods

Public goods are what governments produce every day on behalf of their citizens. The government produces them because the market cannot or because a society decides that all citizens should have access because the societal benefits are so important. “The history of civilization,” writes Martin Wolf, an economist at the Financial Times, “is a history of public goods.”

While public goods include thousands of goods and services that benefit our lives every day – from education to infrastructure, food and drug safety to public safety, street lights to snow plowing – one of the most powerful, and sometimes unrecognized, public goods a government can provide is environmental sustainability, which ultimately affects the survivability of our civilization and perhaps our planet.

Each level of government has a role to play in sustainability. At the national level, the passage of laws decades ago like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have mightily benefited our environment and improved the quality of our lives. Some of us can recall when smog was so thick it was hard to breathe and polluted rivers that caught fire.

But these days as federal action is increasingly stalled, it is important for local governments to recognize and use their powers to foster sustainability.

Local governments have significant power and influence to determine whether policies and programs under their authority create sustainable or unsustainable conditions.  For example, local governments largely have control over land use and development.  Through land use regulations and building codes, municipal and county governments can promote and shape new development that is sustainable: development that is compact, conserving land and reducing the need for auto travel; powered by renewable energy, energy and water-efficient and affordable to people from all walks of life. Or, local governments can perpetuate unsustainable development that gobbles up open space and farmland, forcing more people to make more auto trips that worsen traffic, increase air pollution and increase use of fossil fuels.

Through their policy choices about public transit, local governments can promote transit-oriented development and reduce reliance on personal autos.  They can convert public transit fleets to alternative fuels to help reduce the impact, and rate, of climate change.  In their choices for maintaining recreation areas, school soccer fields and parks, as well as cleaning supplies for public buildings, local governments can choose sustainable practices. They can use benign organic methods to control weeds, mosquitoes, and maintain healthy grassy areas, or they can perpetuate toxic chemical dispersion through use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides increasingly linked to cancer, neurological disorders in children and elders, and asthma.

A local government can influence citizen and business behavior in either sustainable or unsustainable directions by setting an example in its own behavior – “getting its own house in order” – as well as in raising community awareness through education about similar choices that households and businesses can make in shaping whether their decisions contribute to sustainable or unsustainable trends.

Local governments can take “carrot or stick” approaches to increasing household and business recycling, disposing of toxic wastes, and reducing usage or banning plastic bags – a program nearly 100 municipalities have put in place.

More and more municipal and county governments and their staff are making choices that move in a sustainable, rather than an unsustainable direction. Hundreds of local governments have signed on to climate change reduction and are converting public fleets away from fossil fuels, switching to renewable energy sources, and “greening” their public buildings. Local and state governments have passed regulations reducing if not eliminating synthetic pesticides from maintenance of school fields and playing grounds. Some local governments have gone even further, such as San Francisco’s decision to adopt the precautionary principle – “First, do no harm” – as the overarching policy for its purchasing guidelines and product use. Local public buildings are becoming models of green development, such as the Chicago City Hall’s “green roof” of vegetation that absorbs storm water, reduces the urban “heat island effect,” and reduces the building’s heat and cooling power costs, thus saving taxpayer dollars.

A particular group of local governments is taking a systems approach to changing their policies, programs and practices toward a sustainable direction.  Since 2005, almost 30 municipal and county governments have adopted a uniform set of overarching sustainability principles as official guiding policy and are working to integrate these policies broadly throughout their departments and agencies as well as their larger communities. Each worker, every day, can change his or her practices and program administration in a sustainable direction. (For examples of official resolutions, see http://www.instituteforecomunicipalities.org/Eco-municipalities.html.)

A 2010 survey of these particular local governments, known as “eco-municipalities,” shows a broad and systematic reorientation to sustainable practices occurring in the space of about five years. For example, developing comprehensive sustainability plans, building new public buildings using the LEED green building guidelines, sustainable purchasing policies, energy and waste audits, green street design and green industrial parks, and conducting inventories of how they measure up to their sustainability standards.

The sustainability principles adopted by and guiding these nearly 30 local governments are the four sustainability objectives of the American Planning Association’s Planning for Sustainability Policy Guide (see Section III of www.planning.org/policy/guides/adopted/sustainability.htm).  They are:

  1. Reduce dependence upon fossil fuels, underground metals and minerals.
  2. Reduce dependence upon synthetic chemicals and other unnatural substances.
  3. Reduce encroachment upon Nature (land, water, wildlife, soils, forests)
  4. Meet human needs fairly and efficiently.

As one example, the City of Portsmouth, NH conducted training for its department heads, elected officials, board members, and citizens in how to apply these principles in order to change policies, programs and practices to sustainable ones. Portsmouth is currently designing ongoing sustainability education for its new and existing employees. Working with nonprofit community organizations, Portsmouth has organized sustainability fairs to showcase best practices in sustainability for thousands of citizens and business people throughout the region to demonstrate how these best practices meet the four sustainability objectives. The sustainability fairs practice what they preach, all the trash from each fair event can be taken away in one household-sized garbage bag.


Authors: Sarah James is the co-author of The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities & Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices (New Society Publishers, 2004) and operates a consulting practice in city planning based in Cambridge, MA.She can be reached at [email protected].  June Sekera is leading an initiative on public goods and managing in the public interest. She can be reached at  [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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