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Peer Learning Network Advances Leadership in Sustainability


Karalee Browne is a program coordinator for the Institute of Local Government and can be reached at kbrowne@ca-ilg.org.


Local officials face a deluge of data, studies and reports on a variety of topics such as the economic, social, fiscal and environmental impacts of programs and activities. Finding the most relevant information from trusted sources can be challenging. Furthermore, public expectations for efficient and effective programs are growing, and agency staff increasingly needs to gather good ideas and information quickly. In a time of staff layoffs and budget constraints, local agencies need to do a lot more with a lot less — and it can be overwhelming.

With this in mind, the Institute for Local Government (ILG) launched the Sustainable Communities Learning Network (SCLN) (www.ca-ilg.org/sustainable-communities-learning-network) in partnership with the Information Center for the Environment at the University of California, Davis, and with support from the Strategic Growth Council. The SCLN includes nearly 2,300 individuals from nonprofit, governmental, private-sector and community organizations throughout California who are engaged in a variety of areas related to sustainability.

A Catalyst for Collaboration

Like other social networks, the Sustainable Communities Learning Network does not employ a top-down approach directed by any one group or individual. Rather, it is guided by its participants and is intended to “meet local officials where they are” by focusing on their priority issues and concerns. The network serves as a means for effective collaboration and communication among the participants and provides a place to share best practices and lessons learned related to local agencies’ day-to-day operations. It helps its members become leaders by sharing their expertise, learning from one another and expanding opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. The idea is that as more communities become aware and adopt sustainable innovations, the universe of best practices and lessons learned in sustainability and climate action will continue to grow.

Because cities and counties are in various stages of implementing sustainability policies and programs, the SCLN is divided into four main areas — Learn, Share, Connect and Lead — reflecting the unique knowledge, perspectives and needs of individual participants.

  • The network helps local government officials and staff members learn how to apply effective policies and best practices related to land-use planning, the environment, healthy communities and climate change through informational articles and webinars.
  • Local officials and staff possess sustainability expertise that is a valuable resource and is helpful for others interested in undertaking similar programs, so members are encouraged to share their accomplishments, hardships and best practices.
  • In addition to representatives from local agencies, the network also comprises professionals with expertise on specific sustainability topics. Local government staff and officials can connect with their peers in local agencies as well as representatives from nonprofit organizations that provide technical assistance, along with major utility companies that can help cities and counties save energy and   reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Cities and counties that lead in sustainability are encouraged to apply to participate in the Beacon Award recognition program (www.cailg.org/BeaconAward). As participants they receive recognition for their voluntary sustainable activities.

Best Practices Framework

Prior to launching the learning network, ILG released the Climate Action and Sustainability Best Practices Framework (www.ca-ilg.org/climatepractices) in 2009 to help local officials and others become familiar with the range of activities that local agencies can pursue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote sustainability. ILG worked with an advisory group of leading sustainability practitioners from the public and private sectors to craft the best practices framework, which includes policies, programs and activities in 10 topic areas:

  1. Energy efficiency;
  2. Water and wastewater systems;
  3. Green building;
  4. Waste reduction and recycling;
  5. Climate-friendly purchasing;
  6. Renewable and low-carbon fuels;
  7. Efficient transportation;
  8. Land use and community design;
  9. Open space and offsetting carbon emissions; and
  10. Promoting community and individual action.

The best practices framework is currently being updated with assistance from participants in the learning network, local agency staff members who have helped implement unique voluntary sustainable activities and experts with specific knowledge in areas such as energy efficiency, waste management and green building. Individual best practice activities can be used to undertake stand-alone programs or can be part of a broad-based climate action plan.

To foster learning, sharing, connecting and leading on these sustainability best practices, the network recently set up a LinkedIn group where members are encouraged to initiate and contribute to discussions, ask questions and connect with peers and professionals working on sustainability policies and programs locally and statewide. The Sustainable Communities LinkedIn group now boasts more than 300 participants, including many from cities and counties participating in the Beacon Award sustainability and climate change recognition program and the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative (www.CaliforniaSEEC.org).

Drawing on Colleagues’ Knowledge

Alana Rivadeneyra serves as sustainability coordinator in the City of Rancho Cucamonga, which is participating in the Beacon Award program. Rivadeneyra has worked in the City Manager’s Office for less than two years. In that time she has helped calculate emissions for a greenhouse gas inventory report, developed a new green business recognition program and utilized a new guidebook to help streamline the city’s solar permitting process.

When the Rancho Cucamonga City Council became interested in creating an electric vehicle-charging ordinance, Rivadeneyra turned to the network for help. Just minutes after she posted an inquiry on the SCLN LinkedIn site, participants from Santa Clarita, Redlands, Irvine, Sacramento and Manhattan Beach came to her aid with suggestions and resources. A dialogue quickly followed with her counterparts working on similar projects — some of them in communities close to Rancho Cucamonga and others from communities hundreds of miles away.

With shrinking travel budgets and a growing desire to make local communities more efficient, Rivadeneyra is always seeking new sources of ideas. “We have a lot on our plates. To make sure we are using the best practices to develop our programs, I often turn to my colleagues or search the Internet for help,” she says.

Dave Peterson, an assistant planner in Santa Clarita, was among those who responded to Rivadeneyra’s request for help, and the responses made a significant difference for her. “Our electric vehicle-charging ordinance should be approved in the next two months,” says Rivadeneyra. “I think it would have taken much longer if we didn’t have the opportunity to connect with other agencies.”

The comments of network participants reflect its Learn-Share-Connect-Lead philosophy. Peterson believes that sharing experiences with participants in the LinkedIn group can help make it easier for other local governments to adopt sustainability practices. “If my accomplishments can help another city or county implement sustainable practices better or more quickly, that’s really exciting,” says Peterson. “We are all in this together.”


Links to Related Resources

SCLN landing page: www.ca-ilg.org/SCLN

Linkedin Group: www.ca-ilg.org/SCLNlinkedin

Best Practices: www.ca-ilg.org/climate-action-sustainability-best-practices