Article Features by Steve Sanders and Karalee Browne

Collaboration Helps Cities Become More Prosperous and Sustainable

Steve Sanders is sustainable communities program director for the Institute for Local Government (ILG) and can be reached at; Karalee Browne is sustainable communities program manager for ILG and can be reached at

Neighbors helping neighbors, people pitching in to help a family build a Habitat for Humanity home, local fire departments providing mutual aid to fight a wildfire threatening thousands — all of these actions convey how collaboration and partnerships can build a strong community.

Partnerships can also help local communities by attracting state investments that advance climate action and sustainability. Each year, state agencies such as the Strategic Growth Council, the Natural Resources Agency, the California Air Resources Board, the California Energy Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission invest hundreds of millions of dollars in projects and programs designed to address climate change, save energy and improve the environment.

The state recently extended its cap-and-trade auction system through 2030. State agencies are poised to invest billions more dollars in the coming decade in projects that can directly support local communities. California climate investments can help cities:

  • Expand transportation options;
  • Revitalize neighborhoods;
  • Provide more affordable housing;
  • Minimize flooding and wildfire risks;
  • Conserve farmland and open space;
  • Improve parks;
  • Ensure an adequate supply of clean water; and
  • Reduce the adverse health impacts of air pollution.

In many cases, local collaboration is the key to success, as two examples from cities in Southern California illustrate.

Ontario Collaboration Secures Major State Investment to Transform Downtown

The City of Ontario is celebrating a $35 million grant awarded through the state’s Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) Program, administered by the Strategic Growth Council. The funds will be used to revitalize the city’s historic core by:

  • Enhancing public transportation, bike lanes and sidewalks; and
  • Promoting energy efficiency, affordable housing and new green spaces to improve health outcomes and quality of life for Ontario residents.

Ontario attributes its success in obtaining the TCC grant to regional collaboration. Because the Strategic Growth Council was unlikely to award more than one large TCC grant to communities in the Inland Empire, surrounding cities helped champion Ontario’s proposal; they understood that the grant’s economic benefits would also flow to their residents.

“We are proud of the local, regional and state partnerships that led to our Transformative Climate Communities grant,” says Ontario Mayor Paul Leon. “This investment will transform downtown Ontario while helping improve the region’s air quality and quality of life.”

Ontario points to two key investments that catalyzed its ability to implement such a large, transformational project. The first was a $500,000 investment received in 2010 through the state’s Catalyst Projects for California Sustainable Strategies Pilot Program, provided by the Department of Housing and Community Development using Proposition 1C funds. The funds from this pilot project enabled Ontario to develop plans and overhaul its zoning codes, which helped position the city to compete for the TCC grant.

The second investment comprised two grants from Kaiser Permanente’s Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) Zone Initiative. The city received $1 million in 2012 and another $1 million in 2016 to help improve health and increase access to food and physical fitness activities for families in the city. Ontario used the funds to boost programs for community engagement and education.

The education, outreach and marketing programs supported by the HEAL funds helped the city and residents build a trusting and supportive relationship. The focus on health created bonds between city and community leaders and served as the basis for defining the city’s future vision.

Partnerships also played pivotal roles in other grant opportunities, including several Active Transportation Planning grants and two Urban Greening grants in 2012 and 2014, that set the stage for securing the successful TCC grant.

“State and local partnerships are key to achieving California’s air quality goals, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and boosting community health and vitality,” says California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols.

In Ontario’s case, local collaboration reinforced this state-local partnership with more than $39 million in state sustainability funding that will directly benefit the residents of Ontario and neighboring communities.

Gateway Cities Prepare for Climate Change and Compete for State Investments

Cities are at the forefront in the effort to combat the causes and consequences of climate change. More than 200 communities statewide have adopted a Climate Action Plan, and over 100 other communities are in the process of completing plans. Climate Action Plans are voluntary and typically include an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), a GHG reduction target, climate action measures that will reduce GHGs and an emissions monitoring program to assess progress in meeting the plan’s targets over time.

However, many communities do not have the resources or capacity to undertake long-range climate planning. This makes it more difficult for the state to reach its ambitious GHG reduction goals, because local action is a big part of the solution. It also makes it harder for individual cities that lack a Climate Action Plan to compete for funding from the growing number of state programs designed to address climate change.

For example, grants from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund — billions of dollars in cap-and-trade auction proceeds — require an analysis of how much the proposed grant will help reduce GHG emissions. The tools provided through a Climate Action Plan make it much easier for cities to conduct this analysis and successfully compete for state funding for transportation, affordable housing, urban greening, energy efficiency and other programs.

Many smaller cities and those with limited capacity have learned that working together can make it more feasible to prepare and adopt a local Climate Action Plan. Twenty-six cities in south Los Angeles County are collaborating to develop a Climate Action Plan Framework that these jurisdictions can use to prepare a Climate Action Plan tailored to their specific local conditions, priorities and circumstances. The cities, located in the region stretching from the Port of Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles, range in population from a few hundred residents to 150,000. In these communities, 75 percent of the residents live in census tracts identified by the state as disadvantaged, with high levels of environmental contamination, poverty, unemployment and exposure to pollution.

The project is being implemented through the leadership of the Gateway Cities Council of Governments (COG), in partnership with the Institute for Local Government (ILG). Assistance from ILG helped the Gateway Cities COG secure grants from the California Energy Commission and the Strategic Growth Council to develop the Climate Action Plan Framework and an Opportunity Assessment and Readiness Plan for local jurisdictions that are interested in applying for implementation funding.

“The Climate Action Plan Framework is intended to help individual communities advance their goals for economic development, public health, air quality, climate resiliency, equity and job creation while planning for the impacts of climate change,” says Nancy Pfeffer, executive director of the Gateway Cities COG. “Implementing the Climate Action Plan Framework will provide the Gateway Cities with a competitive advantage in pursuing state and regional climate investments.”

By tackling this task collaboratively, each city can capitalize on the opportunity to participate without spending scarce local resources or devoting limited staff time. When the project is completed later in 2018, each city will have access to the information, tools and resources it will need to plan ahead for climate change while also competing effectively for funding to improve the prosperity, health and quality of life of its residents.

The Beacon Program Supports Sustainability Efforts

To help local governments in their efforts to become more sustainable, the Institute for Local Government and the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative (an alliance to help cities and counties reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy) sponsor the Beacon Program, which:

  • Provides a framework for local governments to share best practices that create healthier, more vibrant and sustainable communities; and
  • Recognizes local governments that are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, saving energy and adopting policies that promote sustainability.

For more information, see “Beacon Program Helps Cities Lead the Way to a More Sustainable State.”

Photo Credit:Jamel Goodloe, courtesy of the City of Lynwood (Tree Planting); Courtesy of the City of Paramount (Eco-Friendly Fair); Stephanie Cadena (Girl playing game).