Planning Magazine

A New Book Digs into 4 Approaches to City-Level Sustainability

Also in this roundup of planning odds and ends: a documentary on combatting climate change and three podcasts tackling global issues at the local level.

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Kiss the Ground offers concrete ways to combat climate change through better soil management. Watch it now on Netflix. Photo by Fancy Free Photography.


Sustainability Champions Needed

"Without someone keeping a spotlight on sustainability, there is a significant risk it will fall by the wayside," write Rachel M. Krause and Christopher V. Hawkins in Implementing City Sustainability: Overcoming Administrative Silos to Achieve Functional Collective Action. That's their conclusion from a wide-ranging survey of U.S. cities with over 20,000 people, augmented by detailed analyses of sustainability efforts in Fort Collins, Colorado; Kansas City, Missouri; Orlando, Florida; Providence, Rhode Island; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Oakland, California; El Paso, Texas; and Gainesville, Florida.

Implementing City Sustainability: Overcoming Administrative Silos to Achieve Functional Collective Action by Rachel M. Krause and Christopher V. Hawkins

The survey found that "less than half of midsize to large cities in the United States have staff dedicated to their sustainability efforts." The most popular sustainability-related activities reported include sidewalks, mixed-use development, open space preservation, and local farmers markets. The least popular were tax credits for LEED-certified commercial buildings, renewable-energy incentives, and encouraging reduced use of plastic bags.

The authors examine experiences with four different governmental approaches to sustainability: lead agency consolidation (Fort Collins), lead agency coordination (Orlando and Kansas City), relationships and bargaining (Ann Arbor, Providence, and Oakland), and decentralized networks (Gainesville and El Paso). The difficulty everywhere seems to be that no one is quite sure which box to put sustainability in. "Between 2010 and 2015, the administrative location of the sustainability headquarters unit moved in 16 percent of U.S. cities but reveal no pattern or coalescence around a single best-practice type."

Perhaps surprisingly, the authors do not endorse a single best approach to local sustainability. At a minimum, they prefer a "clear headquarters unit having sufficient influence to ... obtain cooperation from other city departments." In their view, the key to success is "a designated and influential champion — whether an individual or entire unit."

The least likely way to succeed? The attitude that "at some point we'll work ourselves out of a job because sustainability will be a core part of every department's mission."

— Harold Henderson



Save the Soil, Save the World

Despite its humble position, the planet's thin layer of arable topsoil is essential to life. It's both incredibly important and complex, two themes explored in Kiss the Ground, a recent documentary about regenerative agriculture from directors Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell.

The main point, delivered with charm and a calm folksiness by Woody Harrelson, is simple: Soil is alive. Every handful of healthy dirt contains more microorganisms than there are humans on the planet. Importantly, all these magical little critters are hard at work around the clock, exchanging water and nutrients, breaking down organic matter, feeding plants, and sequestering carbon.

But when abused — through mechanized plowing and the application of chemical fertilizer and pesticides — the soil dies. This process, known as desertification, has accelerated dramatically in recent years, just when we most need to be keeping our excess carbon in the ground.

The genius of this film and the science behind it lies in making the connection between healthy, sustainable farming and the potential to prevent (and even reverse) climate change. By redefining our role in the system as stewards of the soil, we can discover ways to work with nature, not against it.

Better yet, it shows a way forward through examples at all scales, including no-till farming techniques and even urban composting — each a beacon of hope that we can make actual on-the-ground progress.

— Ezra Haber Glenn, AICP


Local View

These podcasts take a hyperlocal look at some of our most pressing global issues.


Doorsteps features host Cody Price from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency in conversation with a variety of nonprofits, experts, and residents on the same topic: Ohio's state of housing, from the rural to urban and everything in between.


Cities@Tufts Lectures

Cities@Tufts Lectures, a limited series from Tufts University and, spotlights community change through "cutting-edge thinkers and doers pushing the envelope for more just and sustainable cities."


Street Speaks

Street Speaks, a new podcast from the Coalition on Homelessness and its long-running publication the Street Sheet, aims to tackle poverty in San Francisco by talking to the experts: the people experiencing it.


— Lindsay Nieman

Harold Henderson is Planning's regular book reviewer; send news of forthcoming publications to Ezra Haber Glenn is Planning's regular film reviewer. He teaches at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning and writes about cities and film; follow him at and @UrbanFilmOrg. Lindsay Nieman is APA's associate editor.