In towns and smaller cities nationwide, local governments are looking for ways to implement greener operations and promote sustainability initiatives that will benefit their communities in a changing climate. But faced with finite resources and an urgent need to act, where should these municipal leaders start?

For valuable ideas backed up by data and years of experience, consider urban design and planning experts Michael Austin, AICP, LEED AP-ND, and Brad Barnett.

Leaders at architecture and urban design firm Cooper Robertson, Austin and Barnett can offer insight gleaned from extensive national collaboration with public agencies and government leaders — including Austin’s role as a former chair of the Seattle Planning Commission and the firm’s work in communities from California to Connecticut.

Ranging from holistic, long-range planning frameworks to specific tactical interventions, these recommendations from Austin and Barnett — outlined below — highlight discrete and impactful ways for local leaders to start making their communities greener.

Cooper Robertson Greener Communities Recommendations Picture 2

Photo courtesy of Cooper Robertson

Key Recommendations from Austin and Barnett

  • Develop a “complete communities” planning playbook with measurable goals, including for economic development, well-being and positive environmental outcomes. Austin notes that this is a strategic, long-term approach to urban planning that sets a framework for promoting sustainable, walkable communities and reducing car dependency by creating incentives to build homes near transit, offering more mobility choices and enhancing opportunities for places to walk, bike, relax and play.
    “I prefer using the term ‘complete communities’ over ‘15-minute city’ because it avoids the misconception that this approach only applies to extremely dense urban environments,” Austin said. “Framing this kind of long-term vision as about building livable communities at all scales makes it easier to garner support from important local stakeholders.”
    When it comes to implementation, Austin recommends local leaders start small with pilot programs for limited-access streets, like those used for many farmers’ markets, or by continuing limited-access street closures that may have begun during the pandemic.
  • Pursue data-based, high-impact tactical efforts, such as tree plantings and other green infrastructure. As recurring extreme heat puts pressure on communities nationwide, Barnett notes that providing shade through increased tree canopy coverage can be a cost-effective and highly visible nature-based solution — especially when paired with other infrastructure upgrades, such as permeable paving surfaces and bioswales that address stormwater surges and other related issues.
    And while there has been some pushback against large-scale tree planting drives as a climate panacea, Austin emphasizes the need to base efforts on hard data and focus on clear outcomes. As an example, he points to a recent public initiative in Bellevue, Washington, which overlaid data on impermeable surfaces with tree canopy coverage to identify districts where increased tree canopy could most effectively mitigate the urban heat island effect — resulting in reduced energy consumption and improved overall air quality.
  • Prioritize reducing local government’s fossil fuel emissions, setting the stage for broader change. Sector-wide decarbonization goals are important, but starting with a city’s own facilities and infrastructure is a good place to begin — and helps set an example for the wider community. Barnett recommends pursuing quick wins, such as electrifying municipal vehicle fleets. “If the infrastructure can accommodate electrification, it’s a great way to reduce emissions within a community, and it also offers a visible demonstration that local leaders are making environmental stewardship a priority,” he said.
    Also useful are transportation management practices, such as hybrid and flexible work models, which can reduce commuting demand during peak hours, Barnett notes. Shared parking arrangements for adjacent developments that need parking during different times of the day can also reduce the amount of land needed for parking and reduce barriers to creating more walkable neighborhoods.