6 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable City

6 Steps to Becoming a Sustainable City image
  • Share:

As we face a growing climate crisis, cities will play a critical role in testing, implementing, and sharing solutions that can be replicated around the globe. Continuously evolving regulations will demand transparency to achieve funding and compliance with local regulations. At the same time, public perception will play its own governing role in holding cities and municipalities accountable to meeting their sustainability goals. 

Sustainable cities will be the foundation for lasting resiliency, ensuring that an increasingly urbanized world will be net-zero, or net-positive, in which operations exceed net-zero by removing additional carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. By employing best practices that are adapted to local conditions, sustainable cities will build the pathway to the future. 

Prioritizing and focusing resources on sustainable practices and programs can reduce a city’s operating costs while also fostering a positive perception and relationship with the public. Providing transparency about your city’s specific climate challenges and the steps you are taking to adapt and remain resilient develops trust between you and your citizens.  

A focus on sustainability can increase your community’s desirability, attracting new residents.  Municipalities can also increase revenue while decreasing costs through sustainable frameworks such as energy conservation, water conservation, and more.

How are sustainable cities created?

Where is your city in its sustainability journey, or have you not begun your journey at all? What is your city’s vision for creating a sustainable community? Identifying a starting point and distinguishing your desired community through a Climate Action Plan (CAP) or Sustainability Master Plan (SMP) will help answer these questions while serving as your guiding principle along the way. CAPs are detailed and strategic frameworks for measuring, planning, and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and related climatic impacts. SMPs allow your city to identify the main elements of sustainability to improve upon. Both plans outline your goals and build the necessary framework to get started.  

Follow along as we take you through steps toward your city’s sustainability journey. 

Step 1: Collect data

Your city’s sustainability journey will be driven by utilizing data to track and analyze progress towards your ESG goals. This data is key to helping form and measure progress against your CAP or SMP. Gathering data across the multiple departments within your municipality can be challenging. Often a third-party consultant, like FCS, can help with data collection, setting meetings, and identifying streamlined ways to collect your data. All the data you need to improve your city’s sustainability likely already exists within each department. For example, a city’s utility data is derived from utility energy expenditure and water use, while air quality is metered through a multitude of variables in which greenhouse (GHG) emissions play a part.  

To ensure consistent and complete data collection, identify specific individuals that will be responsible for collecting that data. Assigning a specific individual or team ensures that there is an accountable point person that is taking the lead within each department. These individuals will serve as the bridge between their department and the county’s sustainability team, coordinating data collection that creates a roadmap to achieving the goals within the CAP and/or the SMP. Delegating a team member within an existing department provides an added benefit of the individual being familiar with the department's processes, as opposed to an outside member having to collect data with little to no existing knowledge of how the branch operates, or the context for meaningful data. 

Data must also be scrubbed to ensure appropriate and consistent units of measure. For instance, several types of data are collected to develop a city’s GHG inventory. This data may be presented in different formats such as waste tonnage, miles traveled by employees, energy consumed in kWh or therms, etc., while the data will ultimately be presented in metric tonnes of CO2e. Varying sets of emission factors, conversions, and any assumptions made while collecting and cleaning data must be taken into consideration to ensure your data tells an accurate story and will empower you to better compare and analyze year-over-year data to identify trends.

Step 2: Analyze data

In order to meet the targets and goals within your CAP or SMP, you will use the data you have collected to develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). You will need to work closely with the departments who will be responsible for meeting those goals and targets. A third-party resource, like FCS, can help you develop meaningful and achievable KPIs to ensure they demonstrate the impactful work that your community is doing across all departments.  

Congregating historic data from previous years allows you to create baselines and evaluate where there are data gaps. Setting baselines is important to help show the comparative progress that your municipality is making. For example, if a county has a target to achieve a 50% reduction in the level of their disposal of organic waste by 2025, it's important to know what baseline year they’re comparing the reduction to. Selecting the optimal year for baseline comparison data can be complex because it can be difficult to determine a year that is most representative of the county's operations. It is important to recognize that operational activities may have experienced anomalies in recent years due to COVID-19.

Step 3: Report on progress

The residents of your city and the public appreciate visibility on the steps you are taking to create a sustainable future. Regional initiatives can be shared by publishing dashboards of your city’s data that demonstrate areas of improvement in key metrics. A third-party consultant, such as FCS, may prove helpful in determining which type of dashboard best presents your progress and goals in an easily digestible manner. For example, a bar graph may be useful for depicting your GHG data, while a line graph may be better for illustrating water data. It is important to develop a narrative that accompanies your data. People care about what you are doing, and they also care about why you are doing it. Compelling narratives give your sustainability mission purpose and the ability to convey the conviction behind your city’s actions. Developing and disseminating these narratives is critical in demonstrating progress. 

Leading the way in sustainable governments, the County of Santa Clara published their SMP along with examples of the dashboards they utilize to visually communicate their sustainability journey to their residents and the general public. They also created an easily accessible landing page for full transparency on their commitments.

Step 4: Implement improved processes

After sharing your progress towards your sustainability goals, you can identify trends and opportunities to improve, and design and implement new strategies based upon what you have learned.  

As an example, taking the average utility energy data over 10 years can help identify your city’s energy expenditure benchmarks. This data can help inform a decision to implement practices that conserve city-wide energy use and decrease energy expenditure-related costs. Perhaps energy-saving light bulbs and updated HVAC systems can be installed throughout the city. Cool roof systems and window tinting can be used on buildings with high energy consumption. Energy data benchmarks can be utilized to identify low energy use periods in buildings. Mandatory ‘lights-off’ policies during these time frames are another simple strategy for utilizing the data you gathered. Subsequent energy data can then be analyzed against your previous benchmarks to track improvement. This process can be scaled across departments to reach KPIs and monitor progress towards other relevant targets and goals.

Step 5: Automate system updates and streamline processes

As city departments integrate data collection as part of their standard procedures, it is helpful to create a centralized location for your teams to house and monitor all your data. Your data is the building block to your sustainability framework. It is essential that this data is organized and easily accessible. Using spreadsheets and other manual processes can leave room for error and version control, and can be time-consuming to store and access. Automating the data collection process can reduce the time your team needs to prepare and submit the data. For example, automatic reminders to check periodic updates on data could be sent on a regular basis and could track when departments are behind in supplying data. 

CleanChain, an ADEC Innovation, is a data customization tool that identifies key items required for data tracking and automation, allowing cities to streamline data collection, and update processes accordingly. 

Step 6: Build upon what you’ve done.

The end of your sustainability journey is just the beginning. Now that you have created your dashboards, and the data and organizational processes have been implemented, it is time to review and refine. New KPIs can be identified and added to your dashboards to ensure that you continue to make progress and optimize the processes and momentum that you have developed.

Are you ready to start your city’s sustainability journey? Our environmental professionals and sustainability experts are ready to collaborate with you no matter which step you’re at. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how we can bring your ideas to life. 


This article was a collaborative effort and written with help from our dedicated and knowledgeable FCS and ESG team.

Adrienne Garcia. Adrienne Garcia is an ESG project manager specializing in ESG Disclosures and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting. She provides ESG consulting services and supports clients in reporting on their ESG efforts in alignment with global reporting frameworks and sustainability indices. Since 2018, Adrienne has assisted companies in maximizing performance in CDP, data management, and developing comprehensive CSR reports. 

Liza Baskir. Liza Baskir is an ES Project Manager who leads the preparation of CEQA and NEPA documents, including EIRs, IS/MNDs, Environmental Assessments, and more. She is an expert in aesthetics, land use and planning and land use compatibility, transportation and circulation, utilities and services systems, alternatives analysis, evaluating large public infrastructure projects, and public outreach.

About the author

Mary Bean

Mary Bean thumbnail

Mary is FCS's Environmental Services Director and has more than 24 years of experience managing the preparation of CEQA and NEPA documents in both the public and private sectors.
She is knowledgeable about a broad range of environmental topics, backed by her experience in the field, research, technical writing, and planning. She specializes in leading interdisciplinary teams in the preparation of technical studies that support environmental clearance at the local, State, and national levels. Her depth of experience allows her to be particularly effective in strategizing with clients about the most efficient approach to environmental review. In her 7 years with FCS, Mary has successfully led FCS’s services on more than 450 projects.

How we can help

In an ever-changing regulatory and sustainability environment, FCS understands the challenges you face. Our highly qualified environmental specialists, energy management consultants, and technical experts deliver integrated, industry-specific solutions that move your project forward—so that you can focus on what matters.