Brendle Group Blog

Engineering Sustainable Change

The Thorny Challenge of Regional Sustainability Planning

LULZBrendle Group has been involved in several regional approaches to sustainability planning over the past few years. Some of these efforts – like our work in the Western Greater Yellowstone Region – are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Sustainable Communities Initiative. Others are being funded by a mix of public and private sources, even foundations looking to help improve a region’s quality of life. For example, our work in Toledo-Lucas County, Ohio on their “Going Beyond Green” plan is supported by local companies, a university, and local government funds. Our newest such project – a Livable Communities Plan for Mecklenburg County, North Carolina includes funding from a local foundation and local government funds.

While all of these projects are in various stages of progress – some just starting, others wrapping up – what we’ve found is that regional planing is hard. It’s politically and logistically complex. And yet there is so much that can be gained from it in terms of shared vision, resources, and opportunity.

We’ve discovered so far, by observing both what’s worked and hasn’t worked, that there are at least some ingredients that seem to be key for a regional sustainability planning effort to succeed:

– A broad-thinking and effective engagement strategy for the whole region and its stakeholders from the beginning. We’ve observed some regional planning efforts being pushed by a small number of interest groups or motivated individuals that eventually stall because not everyone was at the table.

– Flexibility in desired outcomes.  For example, while a sponsoring agency or organization may have particular outcomes in mind – more renewable energy, let’s say – in the end through meaningful regional dialogue other priorities may emerge – housing affordability, transportation choice, and so on. What may be most beneficial in terms of outcomes is that you were able to have regional dialogue in the first place – and set up the region for further collaboration. Find a topic that all can agree makes sense to tackle as a region.

– The right language and lenses. What is “sustainability” to one group may mean something very different to another in a region. Thoughtful approaches to the use of terms and approaches to frame the conversation are a necessary hook to get people to be interested and pay attention.

– Consideration of governance. Particularly in regions without any current regional planning agency – such as a regional economic development authority or a metropolitan planning organization – governance of a completed regional plan must be carefully considered.  Who will be charged with implementing the plan? Monitoring performance? The brightest and most innovative regional planning efforts can be squandered if there isn’t serious dialogue on who will own a plan and ultimately implement it – whether it’s an existing regional planning entity, a stakeholder steering committee, or an entirely new created organization.

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