Lessons on Outreach From Richmond’s Sustainability Planby Don Knapp
Sustainability professionals understand that the key to developing a sustainability plan is getting strong buy-in and participation—both within a local government and among the greater community. But it’s easier said than done. Richmond, VA’s new RVAgreen plan, which was approved by City Council in July 2012, rests on a strong foundation of internal and external support, cultivated over many months under the leadership of Mayor Dwight C. Jones.
I spoke with Alicia Zatcoff, City of Richmond’s Sustainability Manager, who shared her strategies and lessons learned with engaging community members and municipal colleagues in the development of RVAgreen.
Right: Alicia Zatcoff, City of Richmond Sustainability Manager
Richmond’s new sustainability plan presents triple bottom line goals across five focus areas: economic development, energy, environment, open space and land use, and transportation. RVAgreen outlines initiatives to lower energy consumption city-wide and expand renewable energy sources, increase green jobs and help local businesses become more sustainable; among many others.
“We went into the planning process with a goal of having a realistic plan that made sense for our community, rather than a pie-in-the-sky document that sits on a shelf,” says Zatcoff. “I think that’s a key piece—to be realistic about where you are on this sustainability continuum, and to be realistic about what you can accomplish. What’s important is to build on your existing successes and reflect them in your plan.”
Getting Buy-In From Municipal Colleagues
A challenge for any sustainability office is to engage other municipal departments in sustainability planning and initiatives. Staff can be wary of being given new work or may express concerns about directives to change an institutionalized business practice. That makes establishing credibility a key for any sustainability office. “We’re not here to tell public works or other departments how to do their job better—they’re the experts, not us,” explains Zatcoff. “But we can work with them to see if there is a different way to operate that can save money and use resources more wisely. When we work together to achieve a success or savings, we can help that department get credit for it. And that’s how we earn their trust.”
Go Broad With Community Engagement
“We’re excited that we got a lot of good feedback and buy-in from our community during the planning process,” says Zatcoff. “And we’re proud that the plan reflects the priorities and interests of our residents and businesses.”
City staff made a strong effort to engage and invite a broad diversity of individuals and groups to the table, especially those that might not typically participate. “Environmental advocates are often eager to participate in this type of process, but we also wanted to hear from critics [of proposed sustainability initiatives] and people with different priorities, because they had important things to say,” says Zatcoff.
To ensure broad engagement, the City formed two main groups: an advisory committee for the planning process, made up of business leaders, residents, academics, city department officials, and even individuals from other government agencies. A second stakeholder group consisted of representatives from 75 organizations that operate within the city and perform work related to one of RVAgreen’s five sustainability priorities. These two groups played a key role in developing and prioritizing RVAgreen’s initiatives. And finally, a third group consisted of the residents that attended public workshops to provide input and actively discuss sustainability approaches in small groups. Approximately 180 people attended the first workshop.
“We couldn’t have developed a successful plan without the participation of all these individuals, leaders, and organizations,” says Zatcoff. “Community partnerships are such a key part of sustainability work, and we’ve developed strong partnerships through this planning process. We’re ready to move forward together and get a lot of work done.”