High Priority Action Steps (2015-2017)

1.1      High Priority Action Steps (2015-2017)

1.1.1  Recalibrating the EAP—ideas for the 2016 update and beyond…

Earlier in the SWOT Analysis the VT team offered general thoughts that relate to the format, structure, length and content for updating the EAP in 2016. Certainly this project started with the initial task of preparing the EPC and OEQ for the EAP update by providing policy briefs that focus on cross cutting sustainability policies and programs relevant for Alexandria and conducting the SWOT analysis. As the VT team gathered ideas from other cities, synthesized the latest developments in the field of urban sustainability, and met with city staff, EPC members, and representatives from regional/local nonprofits, it became clear that updating the EAP (using the same process, the same format, etc.) would be insufficient in order to elevate the EAP and Charter and infuse its principles and policies throughout the city.

Virginia Tech intentionally chose the subheading for this report—Recalibrating the EAP—which implies a more thoughtful, strategic, and potentially far reaching endeavor. City officials and staff may choose a more incremental path, but the discussion below offers several specific recommendations that Alexandria should take in the next two years as it moves forward with drafting and adopting a new EAP.

1.1.1.1     Consider multiple formats for the EAP.

As discussed in the SWOT Analysis OEQ and EPC use the EAP in different ways, so the next iteration should remain flexible and accommodate different and diverse audiences. Some staff feel the current EAP is too prescriptive and offers too many policy details. One idea to consider is to publish the EAP in different formats. Perhaps EPC can work with the city’s communications staff to develop a publicly accessible executive summary that focuses on the city’s most pressing sustainability challenges and highlights existing and upcoming initiatives? Certainly the annual OEQ update could undergo a “makeover” in terms of content and format. OEQ might develop more elaborate matrices that track internal actions taken by city departments, in fact, OEQ should work with the City Manager and the Office of Accountability to develop a simple on-line dashboard where all city departments could input their actions.

1.1.1.2     Develop an EAP Annual Action Agenda.

As EPC and OEQ prepare for the 2016 update they should carefully review the implementation sections of the Charter and EAP as it offers some ideas on how they can each leverage the flexibly of the EAP. For example, the EAP mentions that each year EPC should identify its top EAP priorities. Perhaps EPC can publicize these priorities, engage the community in workshops to get feedback, and then take actions to focus the attention of city leaders on these priorities. They could also use this exercise to more meaningfully engage other city commissions and departments. Certainly EPC and OEQ may not agree 100% on these priorities or the amount of attention they deserve, but that should not dissuade EPC from tackling this responsibility set forth in the EAP.

1.1.1.3     Move the Long Range Goals and Actions.

Another idea to help make the EAP more accessible and digestible is to limit the scope or timeframe of the EAP to a shorter period of time, say 3-5 years and move the longer term action steps and goals to a different document—one that could be more of a strategic plan that sets longer term goals and targets that EPC and OEQ could revisit every 2-3 years.

1.1.1.4     Formalize the EAP within the City’s Master Plan.

In considering other alternative documents for the long range sustainability goals, a fundamental question arises about the relationship of the EAP to the city’s Master Plan. As discussed earlier in this report, the current EAP is a Tier III document which has little legal and policy impact. Equally important, the current Master Plan does not contain environmental goals and objectives let alone sustainability policies except in some recent amendments to a handful of recent SAPs. Thus, infusing the Master Plan with a new sustainability chapter that sets forth a series of mid-to-longer term sustainability goals, objectives, and targets would make the most sense from an urban planning perspective. While updating the city’s Master Plan is beyond OEQ’s responsibilities (the city planning department would have to take the lead), it again provides another opportunity to address one of the major weakness of the city’s Eco City Initiative—the lack of consistent cross department coordination on sustainability policies and programs. Although the city incrementally updates the Master Plan with changes to SAPs and various chapters from time to time, nearly 25 years have passed since the city did a comprehensive overhaul. Sustainability was just emerging as a new policy concept. Since 1992 hundred of local governments in the US have adopted sustainability comprehensive plans and policy plans. By adopting a new sustainability chapter to its Master Plan, Alexandria would once again be recognized as a sustainability pioneer within Virginia and beyond.

1.1.2    Upgrade OEQ’s Sustainability Indicators and Progress Reports

In order for the City to track its sustainability progress, it must develop and implement a more robust set of goal and sustainability indicators. These mechanisms provide feedback loops to gauge and benchmark progress on a certain topic or action item. Like a speedometer in an automobile, the successful indicator provides information necessary to make informed decisions about how to proceed from that particular snapshot of time. These indicators must be set in conjunction with a manageable set of specific SMART goals within the new EAP and eventually someday across other city plans, even the city’s Master Plan could have more performance based provisions in light of cutting edge development through the STAR Communities Rating System. There are many possible actions the City should take within the next two years. Below we offer several priority actions that should be taken in tandem with the next iteration of the EAP.

1.1.2.1     Evaluate and reassess existing indicators.

Before the EPC and OEQ establish new EAP goals and targets they should reassess the existing environmental indicators to determine if the results track meaningful outcomes and ensure the city can easily compile or gather the data. The student policy brief by Jimena Pinzon provide a solid set of questions and frameworks for doing such an evaluation. OEQ and EPC should also ensure the city has sufficient capacity to measure/gather or obtain data to track the revised targets and goals over time.

1.1.2.2     Align new EAP SMART goals and targets with a revised set of sustainability indicators.

A critical step in recalibrating the EAP is to set SMART goals supported by measureable, sustainability indicators (not just environmental). As EPC and OEQ develops its list of innovative action steps for the next EAP, they should simultaneously develop measureable and specific indicators. Setting more robust and meaningful indicators also offers EPC and OEQ another avenue for engaging other city departments, the city manager’s office and the Office of Performance Accountability.

1.1.3    Recalibrating the EPC Mission and Scope of Activities

EPC’s current mission focuses on review of existing city policies and programs, suggesting changes, advocating for changes that will improve the city’s environment, perhaps acting as an educator for city leaders, staff, and the community. In essence EPC remains the “environmental voice” or conscience of the city. Beyond its substantial investment in Earth Day, the EPC’s current mission requires it to focus more on policy and less on implementing program actions.

RECOMMENDATIONS: The EPC should consider spending more time on launching and supporting other activities beyond Earth Day, especially in light of the lack of dedicated staff, resources and capacity. Perhaps refine and expand EPC’s Mission to support more program and project activities, such as:

  • Recruit Eco-City Ambassadors from existing citizen and neighborhood associations, perhaps designate an Eco-City rep from each citizen association;
  • Convene a meeting where all Ambassadors assemble to develop citizen-based activities that each neighborhood association could sponsor and lead;
  • Hold a summit as an annual convening of Eco-City Ambassadors, and City and local leaders to increase the attractiveness of the Eco-City Brand and Earth Day festivities.
  • Hold monthly events designed to create socializing and networking as a community – government platform for dialogue. Include ACPS and Eco-City Cafes.

These are a few quick activities for the EPC to consider launching and supporting in the next 18 months. The EPC and its members likely have other activities that it could develop and adopt to expand the range and intensity of its Eco City agenda. Certainly some of these activities could then eventually be handed over to the Sustainability Coordinator once that person comes on board.

1.1.4    Create and Fund a Sustainability Coordinator (SC) Position

As discussed earlier in the SWOT analysis perhaps the single most important recommendation is for the creation of a SC position. The Coordinator would act as a champion and be in charge of Eco-City’s communication and outreach programs and sustainability projects. This role would be able to pull from a plethora of dedicated funding strategies, as two-thirds of SC funding in other cities comes from special fees, foundation grants and partnerships and cost savings the SC position helped achieve in the first place.[1] A majority of the SC interviewed for this project were able to secure grants that in fund in part or in whole their position along with additional staff and projects. For Alexandria, perhaps the most promising sources of dedicated funding for the SC would be a stormwater utility fee the city is now reconsidering. Other cities, such as Santa Monica, California, dedicate a small percentage of their stormwater fee to cover the costs of their SC and support staff. Alexandria can also learn from the funding mix developed for the City of Richmond, Virginia’s SC position and staff. The SC is needed in order to facilitate and shepherd many of the small yet important tasks that are set forth within the Charter and EAP. In the excellent student policy brief, Chuck Egli sets forth a number of alternative strategies for bringing the SC on board as well as priority action items that ideally could start as part of the fall 2016 EAP update:

  • Convene a study visit of 3-4 SC from other cities in Virginia and Metro WDC to get their feedback directly on how best to create a SC in Alexandria
  • Join national networks of SC, such as the Urban Sustainability Developers Network, that can provide technical assistance and peer learning
  • Partner with local nonprofit organizations to give Alexandria greater capacity to achieve EAP action steps such as ACE in Arlington and the newly formed AETC in Alexandria.
  • Convene a major annual awards ceremony celebrating local public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders—the movers and shakers of sustainability.
  • Create and implement a sustainability communication plan.
  • Upgrade websites / social media accounts to be more user friendly and aesthetically pleasing.
  • Create a City mobile app that provides better access to public data and can help recruit Eco city volunteers and organizations.

 

1.1.5    Hire a Dedicated Sustainability Planner

Many of the High Priority and Shorter Term Recommendations set forth in this report involve infusing the latest in sustainability building practices and technologies throughout the city’s residential commercial and office buildings. In order to ensure these new green building, design, and engineering policies and standards take hold in Alexandra and can flourish, the City will need additional technical capacity to review these specialized type of development proposals, make informed recommendations, and help the development industry, homeowners, and city officials keep current with this rapidly evolving field. Many of these sustainability practices are performance based, thus it would be essential to have internal capacity to monitor their performance over time.

By the start of fiscal year 2017 (if not sooner) we would recommend the city hire a dedicated, certified sustainability planner who would review these plans and track their performance. They would not only review and monitor the city’s newest suite of green building policies (as outlined in this report), but also other sustainability polices covering such topics as urban forestry, open space, green infrastructure, community energy, complete streets, etc. They could be a critical resource in updating SAPs with sustainability provisions and could take the lead with making the Eisenhower Valley a Green Innovations Park.

We understand city planning and building departments have adequate staff to review the city’s current development and building requirements, but as the city adopts these and other green building standards and practices as proposed in this report and from the new EAP, it will be critical to have a dedicated planner (FTA) whose exclusive focus is on sustainability building, planning, and design standards. Beyond plan and permit review, this position could also work in tandem with the sustainability coordinator on community outreach and perhaps convene special workshops with the regional and local development industry and Alexandria landlords and home owners.

1.1.6    Convene a City Manager Cross Departmental Working Group on Sustainability

During the creation of the Charter and EAP, staff from OEQ convened mid -level city staff to get their insights, buy-in, and feedback to various drafts of the Charter and EAP. This Environmental Coordinating Group (ECG) has met periodically to address policies and programs that affect other departments outside of OEQ and T&ES. In order to elevate the Charter and EAP’s holistic principles of “ecological sustainability,” we recommend recasting the ECG so that it becomes a regular vehicle for cross department collaboration and coordination on a wider range of issues beyond just environmental policies and programs. In light of increasing daily work demands, we would recommend the city manager’s office take on this natural role as the convener of a cross departmental working group. By having a deputy or assistant city manager facilitate the working group, department heads and their mid-level managers will take this effort to infuse sustainability throughout city operations, plans, and policies more seriously.

A good starting point for this new “sustainability working group” (SWG) would be focusing on the three cross cutting EAP themes identified above: 1) urban greening, 2) transportation, land use, and housing; and 3) green buildings, and community energy. The SWG could also be the appropriate place for having initial cross department discussions to overhaul the city’s Master Plan and transforming the EAP into a Sustainability Chapter of a new, more holistic Master Plan. Once a sustainability coordinator comes on board he or she could in fact become the city managers point person for the SWG—yet another reason why any future coordinator should report to the city manager’s office.

[1] Johnston, Sadhu Aufochs, Steven S. Nicholas, and Julia Parzen, The Guide to Greening Cities, (Washington: Island Press, 2013), 156.