Nearly 32% of local governments in the U.S. have adopted sustainability plans, according to results of the 2015 Local Government Sustainable Practices Survey conducted by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). The national study surveyed nearly 1,900 officials from over 8,500 U.S. local governments.

ICMA's findings suggest that local governments are most driven to put sustainable policies in place due to the positive impact they can have on the economy. Among jurisdictions with sustainability plans in place, 67.6% of those policies outline strategies or goals related to economic development, followed by energy conservation (60.1%), disaster mitigation (47.8%), public health (37.2%), and green energy production (36.7%).

The "potential for fiscal savings" is the most-cited motivator for local governments to establish sustainability plans (as 84.2% of respondents consider it as significant or very significant), but other factors include local elected officials who act as facilitators (81.6%), followed by the potential for federal or state funding opportunities (75.3%), and the potential to attract development projects (71.3%). Notably, "concern over the environment" is only the fifth-most motivating factors when it comes to spurring local jurisdictions to develop sustainable policies. (68.3%).

During 2015, local governments utilized funds allocated for sustainability efforts to enhance public buildings and facilities in multiple ways. The most common enhancement was updating lighting systems in government offices and facilities (64.4%), followed by conducting energy audits of government buildings (63.1%), upgrading heating or air conditioning systems (49.2%), retrofitting streetlights and other exterior lighting (45.4%), and upgrading traffic signals (34.9%).

“While there has been much progress since we initiated the survey back in 2010, there are still a number of areas in which local communities can improve to enhance their capacity to endure and thrive,” noted Andrea Fox, director of ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities.

There seems to be a disconnect between the concern local officials have about the environment, and policies being put into place. While 47.3% of responding jurisdictions identify environmental protection as a priority, only 31.5% report adoption of a sustainability plan, the survey finds. This is partly due to the hurdles some local officials have to overcome in order to put a policy into place. Respondents cite lack of funding as the biggest pain point, followed by state or federal funding restrictions (60.8%), lack of staff capacity/support (58.7%), lack of information on how to proceed (50.5%), and lack of community/resident support (49.0%).

It's important for local governments to encourage public participation in the development of sustainability initiatives, but the majority of officials surveyed reported that the public played a minimal role in policy planning; only 13.8% reported that local residents contributed significantly to their community sustainability strategies.

"Local governments can take a leadership role in promoting sustainability,” said Mildred E. Warner, professor of City & Regional Planning at Cornell University. “We have seen this with some big cities, but this national survey helps us understand motivators and drivers, especially for smaller and rural communities.”

The study is a joint effort of several institutions, including ICMA, the Sustainable Communities and Small Town and Rural Planning Divisions of the American Planning Association, Binghamton University, Cornell University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read the full report >>