June 16, 2011 | General

Tools To Measure Sustainability Progress and Performance

BioCycle June 2011, Vol. 52, No. 6, p. 31
To sustain sustainability in the near and long-term, metrics and indicators are being employed to quantify achievements, identify gaps and prioritize investments and policies.
Nora Goldstein

WHEN BioCycle’s Community Sustainability feature was announced in January, we stated that a paramount goal is to develop benchmarks or metrics to quantify sustainable natural resources management. “Establishing a measurable baseline, and setting achievable goals using that baseline, will be a huge step forward to truly sustaining communities,” noted the January 2011 Editorial.
Over the course of the previous year, we had accumulated quite a bit of reference material about sustainability metrics and measurements. And we certainly were familiar with measurements developed around waste diversion (e.g., BioCycle’s long-running State of Garbage In America report) and quantifying performance of green infrastructure tools such as green roofs, bioretention systems and compost-amended soils.
We were less familiar, however, with how to measure the integrated benefits of sustainable natural resources management, the underlying focus of BioCycle’s Community Sustainability feature. Take, for example, the topic of combined sewer overflows – where intense rain events overwhelm combined wastewater and storm water systems, releasing untreated sewage into surrounding water bodies. In addition to impervious surfaces, sewer pipes clogged with discharges of fats, oil and grease (FOG) are a contributing factor. Keeping FOG out of the sewers and diverting it directly to anaerobic digesters at the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) or area farm digesters, for example, not only mitigates clogged sewers, it significantly boosts biogas production in the digesters.
Energy costs at water and wastewater treatment plants have been cited as the largest utility expense to municipalities. Increased biogas production in WWTP digesters offsets energy purchases (both electricity and natural gas). Receiving FOG and other high strength organics directly at the WWTP digesters provides a tipping fee and improves overall operations of the treatment facility. (See “Anaerobic Digestion Of High Strength Organics Solves Treatment Plant Challenges,” May 2010 for a case study.)
In addition to addressing clogged sewer pipes, assume for this example that the community has installed more green infrastructure – bioretention systems, green roofs, amended soils with compost, pervious pavement, etc. to address its storm water challenges. Related benefits include groundwater recharge, reduced heat island effect, and landfill diversion of organics (via the compost). Combine those with reduced fossil fuel consumption at the wastewater treatment plant and reduced volumes of storm water requiring treatment (thus less energy demand), and the sustainability “points” get racked up.
Increasing numbers of municipalities are recognizing these integrated benefits – not just on day-to-day infrastructure and resource management but on overall greenhouse gas emissions reductions. These integrated benefits help create the framework for community sustainability programs. To garner political and policy support for sustainability initiatives, quantifying the benefits becomes critical.
“If you don’t measure, it is very difficult to translate it into public policy,” notes Julia Parzen, manager of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), an information-sharing and professional development network of over 90 North American sustainability leaders. “If the overall goal is greenhouse gas reductions, for example, you need to measure the potential for reductions in areas such as transportation, energy, waste, etc., then prioritize what needs to be done to achieve those reductions. Going through that process tells you the policies necessary to achieve those goals.”
Going through that process also helps break down “walls” between departments responsible for individual components of municipal infrastructure, e.g., streets, wastewater, public works, energy, transportation. “A big benefit of sustainability is that it can help to break down traditional silos in municipal government,” adds Parzen. “As cities move forward in their planning and operations, the potential is there to have much more integrated solutions. There is also more openness to exploring what the win-wins are. We see an emergence of a much more integrated approach and sustainability is driving that forward.”
Parzen says that a frequent discussion among urban sustainability directors is, “how do you lead change?” “Having good performance information is very important, but you also have to solve problems for people both inside the municipalities and build constituencies outside city government among those who benefit from and support that change. In other words, you need to meet others’ needs and wants thus expanding ownership of the idea. Sustainability is a platform – it gives sustainability offices a card to go talk to anyone and build a broader constituency.”

The Sustainable Cities Institute (SCI), an initiative of The Home Depot Foundation and based in Atlanta, developed a pilot metrics and indicators list to guide municipalities through the process of sustainability performance measurement. “The SCI Team created the list by gathering information from metrics and indicators currently used by cities that are considered leaders in sustainability performance measurements, as well as metrics and indicators suggested by subject matter experts,” explains Andrea Pinabell, SCI’s Director. “Sustainability performance measurement is a necessary undertaking because it allows a municipality to quantify its achievements, identify gaps, and prioritize ongoing sustainability initiatives.” (Live link at www.jgpress. com/sustainability.html. [ checklist/feature.checklist/ Checklist_Metrics_Indicat] The list contains a few social indicators, but primarily serves as an inventory of possible environment-related metrics. The Excel spreadsheet includes seven primary categories – Natural Systems, Planning & Design, Energy & Climate, Economic Prosperity, Employment & Workforce Training, Health & Safety, Affordability & Social Equity – and numerous metrics within those categories. One column in the spreadsheet has sources of data that can be used to generate the data for that metric; another lists resources available on SCI’s website. The expansiveness of the metrics provides baseline knowledge across the board, and shows the number of pathways that can be taken to meet sustainability goals.
The integrated benefits of various sustainability initiatives are an underpinning of the metrics, says Pinabell. “You can’t talk about energy without talking about water and you can’t talk about water without talking about green infrastructure. They are all interconnected in the overall ecosystem. Nothing stands in isolation. And they are all pathways to get to sustainability.”
The Institute strives for the triple bottom line approach – environment, economics and social, she adds, which is reflected in the pilot metrics. “The environmental and financial metrics are easier to quantify, and can be an easier ‘win’ within city governments,” Pinabell says. “Social metrics, on the other hand, are tackled differently by different cities, e.g., some are based around health, others are based around education and measuring school dropout rates.” The City of Minneapolis, Minnesota, for example, uses six indicators in its “A Healthy Life” category that include teen pregnancy, “healthy weight,” asthma and lead poisoning. The measurable target under teen pregnancy, for example, is “reduces the pregnancy rate among 15- to 17-year olds to 46 pregnancies per 1,000 by 2010.”
With current constraints on budgets and funding, the ability to measure and show financial returns is critical. “Communities need to benchmark where they are starting from, set some goals, and provide metrics in a systematic way to measure progress,” Pinabell explains. “Many communities start their sustainability programs with energy efficiency because it is very easy to quantify, and show a return on investment. For example, an energy coordinator staff position was created in Atlanta and in the first year, the city saved $500,000.”
SCI is the communication arm of USDN, and acts as an information clearinghouse for USDN members. “One of the primary reasons SCI was launched is that cities were having difficulty discerning what was good information and were reinventing the wheel,” Pinabell adds. “One of SCI’s roles is to vet the information and provide best management practices that cities can implement in a way that works for them.”

A key to building permanence into community sustainability is quantifying the impacts on job creation and overall economic development. Many environmental initiatives have translated into direct savings to municipal departments, whether related to energy efficiency, green infrastructure, renewable energy production and more. The Center for Neighborhood Technology, a nonprofit organization in Chicago, has been a thought-leader and innovator for many years in proving the connections between sustainability and community economic development. An underlying theme of CNT’s initiatives is development of distributed/neighborhood systems versus centralized systems. “On the technology side, we have proof everywhere that distributed systems work,” says Scott Bernstein, founder and president of CNT. “Where we’ve been challenged is coming up with a strategy for widespread deployment.”
Examples of neighborhood systems include energy efficiency and distributed and renewable energy, food production and access, transportation and storm water management via green infrastructure. Conversely, the sanitary district in Chicago is an example of a traditional centralized system. The district built so much capacity to treat water and wastewater, says Bernstein, that its plants require a set volume of human and industrial waste, and rainwater. “They are locked into a set amount of flow to make the plants work efficiently,” he explains. “They need rainwater as a waste product, not as a valued resource. This is terrible in terms of the outcomes we are trying to achieve.”
One key to changing how decisions are made and dollars invested is to measure the outcomes. “First, look at cost of living – do the investments actually make a place more or less expensive to live,” Bernstein asks. “Second, look at value creation and value capture – are you investing in a way through taxes and user fees to sustain essential services? Third, examine the quality of the jobs, e.g., the wages, sustainability of the jobs long-term, etc. A related metric is whether the jobs created through the investment in turn create and sustain jobs through the supply chain, i.e., the spending of wages that people earn supports the businesses and industries that service them. Those are all direct and can be easily measured.”
For the past several years, CNT has been quantifying job creation related to the American Resource Recovery Act (ARRA) stimulus funds directed to highway construction versus mass transit projects – the “shovel-ready” jobs. The ARRA program created a “pretty robust” methodology to report on jobs created, notes Bernstein. “After the first year, we were able to get data on all highway and mass transit projects invested in. What we found was that transit-related projects were producing twice as many jobs for the dollars invested than highway projects. The next year’s data showed a 2.2:1 mass transit versus highway construction jobs to dollars invested. Why? With mass transit, jobs were created around both construction and system operations. With highways, it is only construction. Contrary to the image of ‘shovel ready projects = highways,’ we found that local transportation projects including mass transit were simply more ready to go. So an important metric is also capacity to deliver, or readiness. That is increasingly important in a volatile economy.”
Sustainability initiatives create an opportunity for communities to make smarter public investments, adds Bernstein. “Rather than only meet internal system goals, whether they are related to green infrastructure, clean technologies, alternative transportation, etc., local governments should develop these programs so that they are externally focused as well. Simultaneously set goals for maximizing employment and reducing the cost of living, for example. Share benefits back to the region. Create and sustain jobs that provide decent wages.”
Quantifying and measuring provides the real-time data to gauge the effectiveness of programs, and to make modifications as needed. “It provides the ability to be more strategic – to apply continuous improvement to everyday endeavors,” he explains. “Utilities managing our infrastructure operate on long-term plans with interim evaluation. It is hard to turn that ship around if you don’t evaluate more frequently. You need to know how you are doing in real time in order to show the economic value of doing the right things. Having that data provides cover to move forward with innovation.”

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