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Promoting Sustainability – the Local Government Role

Local governments can take a leadership role in promoting sustainability. We have seen this with some big cities. But cities leading in sustainability policy action only account for a small proportion of the local governments across the US.  In this project, Dr. Mildred Warner, and Dr. George Homsy, Professor of Public Administration at Binghamton University have set out to understand the drivers and barriers to sustainability policymaking among the full range of local governments across the nation, with research funding from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture of the USDA.


Click here to view the most recent publications on this subject. 

Warner Keynote Presentation, Congreso del Centro Latinoamericano de Administración para el Desarrollo (CLAD), Santiago, CHILE, November 2016.

Research Publications

Sustainability and Local Governments.

 Read full report on 2015 National Survey of Sustainability Actions of US Local Governments here.

While local governments play a critical role in environmental management, Homsy and Warner’s research shows the need for multilevel governance to coordinate local approaches. Homsy notes, “Knowledge needs to be shared throughout the system – among neighboring municipalities and with higher levels of government.”  This can lead to co-production of knowledge and policy – which builds local support, collaboration among neighbors and coordination from the local to state to national levels.

In an analysis of the 2010 ICMA Sustainability Survey, Homsy and Warner found an important role for state policy and citizen engagement, especially in smaller communities.

Homsy also found that municipally owned utilities play an especially important role in providing expertise and funding to help small and rural communities reduce energy use.

However, this pro environmental role is not found when utilities internationalize and lose their grounding in communities.

Homsy and Warner studied communities that were unlikely pioneers in sustainability policy in 2010 and found economic development was a driver of their sustainability efforts.

Incentive-based zoning also plays a role in community environmental action.


The 2015 survey of sustainability actions went to cities and counties across the US and 1899 municipalities responded.   A summary of survey results shows that almost half of local governments have environmental goals and a third have sustainability plans.  In an article describing those results, ICMA reports two thirds of communities incorporate economic development goals in their sustainability plans. The survey measured local government action on energy, water, waste, land use, transportation and included measures for social equity and economic development.

What drives local governments to take a lead in sustainability policy?  Eighty four percent of respondents said potential for fiscal savings motivated their sustainability efforts, and 71% said potential for economic development was a motivator. Warner notes, “Just like in the private sector where there is increasing emphasis on the triple bottom line – economics, environment and equity – we find in the public sector attention to fiscal and economic development concerns, along with environmental goals, motivates sustainability action.”

 Read full report on 2015 National Survey of Sustainability Actions of US Local Governments here.


Project Partners

This research is a collaborative partnership with ICMA and the Sustainability Division and the Small Town and Rural Division of the American Planning Association.  Funding provided by the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Foundational Agricultural Economics and Rural Development Grant (# 2014-68006-21834).