Earth Day, Every Day

April 22, 2015


oday is Earth Day – another opportunity to celebrate our coalition cities. Cities of Service was founded just over five years ago on the firm belief that effective elected officials are in the best position to lead the charge for local change. Our model for impact volunteering requires city chief executives to partner with community and nonprofit leaders where they live in order to realize – and sustain – positive social change.

Whether you call it sustainability, resiliency, or citizen engagement, our call to action to leverage local resources and residents is being answered. Since its establishment, Cities of Service has grown from 17 founding members to more than 200 cities in the U.S. and UK. We have helped mayors and their staffs assess and assert new approaches to environmental stewardship that are applied citywide and perennial in purpose. Some examples:

ATLANTA – Mayor Kasim Reed’s team started Volunteer Recycling Ambassadors as part of its sustainability Earth Dush in 2013. The city designed to go deeper than simply sorting – enhancing efforts with education. More than 200 volunteers reached nearly 4,000 residences to encourage and better ensure participation in waste reduction and sustainability practices. The program increased household recycling by 17% in more than a third of households reached, and upped landfill diversion rates by 21%. Today, Cartlanta includes education in elementary schools and is one of Atlanta’s multiple initiatives built on impact volunteering.

AUSTIN – Through “Eco Invaders”, the City of Austin engages hundreds of volunteers whose data collection on invasive plant species helped pinpoint resources to areas of critical need – locations where invasive species proliferate and threaten not only Austin’s, but also the state’s ecological resilience. With Cities of Service, “the focus on impact begins from the literal ground up, to decision making in the mayor’s office and city watershed department,” said Chief Service Officer Sly Majid. In one year, 469 volunteers representing 17 communities removed 30 acres of invasive grasses, and have canvassed 152 acres and counting. New Mayor Steve Adler continues to support sustainability efforts begun under former Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

NASHVILLE – The City of Nashville plugged into low-income communities where sustainability efforts could produce valuable environmental and economic impact. Nearly 1,000 volunteers participating in “Change for Chestnut” performed energy efficient upgrades in more than 150 homes, reducing overall utility use[1] in served households, and lowering homeowners’ energy bills by $454 per home, per year. Nashville, a founding Cities of Service member, didn’t stop there: under Mayor Karl Dean and Chief Service OfficerLaurel Creech, its strategy to improve waterways and expand green infrastructure through coordinated restoration and resiliency efforts – with partners Cumberland River Compact, Hands On Nashville and community volunteers – has diverted more than 13 million gallons of storm water annually via tree plantings and rain gardens created as a direct result of Storm Busters – designed and implemented after Nashville’s devastating 1,000-year flood. Read about their recovery and sustainability success here.

PHOENIX – No stranger to very long, very hot summers, the City of Phoenix also experiences an urban, heat island effect that compounds carbon emissions and utility usage. Using Cool Roofs, Mayor Greg Stanton’s office mobilized a 205-volunteer workforce which in turn painted 52,000 square feet of city-owned rooftops with reflective white coating, reducing annual CO2 emissions by 20.34 tons. The bottom – or top, as it were – line? Applying impact volunteering to sustainability initiatives helped Phoenix recalibrate how they measure results – and build for future success. They’ve decreased the city’s carbon footprint and are forward marching in additional impact areas.

PHILADELPHIA – The City of Brotherly Love is another example of how our model moves municipalities toward greater civic sustainability as well as environmental sensibilities. Through its Waste Watchers initiative, volunteers engage spectators at major events as well as residents in their communities to both improve recycling and landfill diversion rates. Volunteers at the last three Philadelphia Marathons have succeeded in diverting 86% to 88% of waste, leading the city to expand the program to guide spectators to sort trash, recyclables and compost at additional annual events. Philadelphia Chief Service Officer Catie Wolfgang notes, “Cities of Service created capacity and access to resources that helped Philadelphia build opportunities at large scale, that wouldn’t have been possible without that infrastructure and partnerships.”

UK – Across the Atlantic, a pilot in Plymouth aims to create Energy Champions modeled after Sustainable Home Makeover. Volunteers will work with 10 targeted communities to help 150 families to save on their annual household energy bills, among other measures.

Earth Day and sustainability campaigns can amount to more than cause célèbre. City leaders working with us today are sowing the seeds of lasting change. In addition to environmental gains, they are creating relationships, convening partners and influencing collective action greater than the sum of its parts. With renewed strength of community, we are better able to tackle local challenges. With the right systems and support, we can build on and replicate success – across a number of issues – worldwide.

What a wonderful world of possibility.

[1] (i.e. Reduced cooling and heating loads by 16%, decreased air leakage by 24%, saved 4,619 kilowatt hours and reduced carbon dioxide emissions)