GUEST COLUMN: A vision for Columbia's sustainability program

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | 9:48 a.m. CDT; updated 11:04 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Based on the award of federal stimulus money, the city of Columbia is considering hiring a sustainability coordinator for a three-year term to initiate a sustainability program.

The rationale for embarking on a sustainability program is, ultimately, to save natural resources and reduce municipal operating costs associated with water, energy, public works, transportation, materials and communications. A properly planned sustainability program would focus emerging community efforts on reducing energy and resource use, as well as on generating less waste. A successful sustainability program will delay or avoid expensive capital expenditures for new or expanded infrastructure.

However, the creation of a sustainability program in a manner that is beneficial to the public is far from simple and straightforward. A program that will seriously embrace conservation requires study, coherent discussion, planning, testing and, finally, effective communication of proposed new procedures to all those who will be required to implement the program or will be affected by changes in municipal policies.

Organization of a sustainability program

Since the initiatives of a sustainability coordinator can be expected to run counter to established municipal management practices (e.g. moderating, rather than meeting, demand), the appointment of an independent, analytical and forward-looking facilitator is critical.

Columbia’s sustainability coordinator should be supported in both planning and coordinating the efforts of the workers who will implement the program. In the short term, an independent, external technical consultant should be retained to provide the coordinator with support for planning.

Political support for sustainability initiatives that may result in even modest changes in lifestyle is critical, lest perceived inconveniences outweigh the benefits of community-wide conservation efforts. If we reject the idea that our lifestyle is unsustainable, we are not likely to achieve significant success with implementing a sustainability program.

A sustainability program will also benefit from the establishment of a Sustainability Advisory Board. This board would be charged with recommending policy, formulating goals and assessing progress towards water, energy, transportation, materials and communications sustainability. This board may also recommend employee incentives and promote voluntary community efforts.

Economic benefits

In the last analysis, Columbia’s sustainability program must demonstrate its capacity for and success in reducing resource consumption. It must also lower the municipal costs of providing basic services for the people of Columbia. There is an urgent need for realistic accounting of progress in both regards by the time federal stimulus money has been expended.

Columbia will not be the first to embark on a journey towards sustainability. Many programs are under development. In tailoring our specific program, our coordinator should critically evaluate and take advantage of the successes demonstrated by these other sustainability initiatives.

Finally, if we acknowledge the challenges presented by the increasing costs and declining availability of natural resources, the long-term development of an effective sustainability program for Columbia may represent the most important initiative that the city can take on behalf of its citizens — and future citizens.

John O’Connor is a Columbia resident.

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Steven Hanson June 25, 2009 | 1:01 p.m.

Dr. O'Connor,

Your commentary is spot on regarding the challenges and needs that the sustainability initiative will have. If you haven't already, I'd urge you to review the documentation presented to the city council during their retreat earlier this month available at The need to have a strong community focus to the sustainability plan has been the primary driver behind the formation of our non-profit organization Columbia Sustainability Partners. Together with our member non-profit organizations, businesses, and individuals, we hope to shape the development of a sustainability plan that builds off of the of successes of sustainable activities already happening in the community, utilizes the wide variety of expertise in the community, and actively works with and through existing community organizations in its educational component.

More information on Columbia Sustainability Partners can be found at and

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 25, 2009 | 1:03 p.m.

Such a person needs to have significant input on Planning and Zoning, since so much of moderating demand has to do with managing sprawl. It's not just the far flung developments themselves, it's the road, electrical, water and sewer costs they entail, as well as potential public transportation subsidies.

Without the ability to manage, or at least have input, on the growth of sprawl, the impact of such a position will be limited. Limited enough that IMO it would not be worth creating. Policy and regulation can address energy use, conservation, recycling, and volunteer efforts without having a person, or department, devoted to it.


(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr June 25, 2009 | 1:27 p.m.

Mark Foecking Very well said.

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