Toolkit for Change: ICLEI's new Urban Sustainability Framework

[This piece on ICLEI's new Sustainability Toolbox is currently running over at worldchanging. Reposted below for your enjoyment.]

Sustainable cities has been a hot topic for over a decade.
But there has never been a time when the challenges and opportunities of sustainability have been so clearly on display. On the one hand, billions of stimulus dollars around the world are being channelled into the green economy. On the other, we find ourselves at the tail end of a year where report after report have made clear that things are much worse that we realized; when did we start talking about 1.4m sea level rise and a 40% reduction in grain yields by the end of the century?

Somehow, old classics like putting energy efficient lights on city hall and installing some LED traffic signals just aren't that exciting anymore.

Toolkit for Change
That makes ICLEI's new Sustainability Planning Toolkit a well timed resource for municipalities who want to go beyond on-off projects and build a true sustainability strategy for their city. The core of the kit is a step-by-step planning guide that takes you from how to hire a sustainability coordinator to how to design, implement and monitor a local sustainability plan. Accompanying the guide, the Toolkit includes a collection of model documents, inventorying software, and even sample job descriptions for municipalities just beginning their push toward sustainability.

ICLEI is the world's largest urban sustainability association with 1,100 members worldwide and 600 in the U.S. alone. Drawing on the experience of their members, particularly New York city's PlaNYC team, stories of how other cities have implemented their own plans are woven in throughout the guide. Think of it as the sustainability planning boxed-set. And just in time for the Holidays! (or is that Copenhagen?)

Anyone already familiar with the Cities for Climate Protection program will recognize the hallmark ICLEI approach of dividing up complex problems into a series of manageable milestones. While Climate Change is still a key focus, the toolkit shows how to couple emissions reductions with wins in other areas like reducing poverty, preventing sprawl, or diversifying the local economy.

Everyone's Problem, But Nobody's Responsibility
But as many cities have already realized, the trouble with sustainability, or climate change more specifically, is that are everybody's problem, but nobody's responsibility. They don't fit nicely into the division of labour that has kept our cities running in the past. They also ask departments that don't talk much (and may not get along all that well) to work together to get things done. It may seem unlikely, but often those dynamics (more than a lack of political will, or money, or knowledge) are why cities don't green-up more quickly.

Given that, it's great to see at the core of ICLEI's new toolkit, a detailed section on team-building, overcoming divisions between departments, and engaging the public. Their key points are strong: manage sustainability centrally (preferably from the mayor's office), bring representatives from all departments on-board, and open up the process to the community. No city has the resources to address sustainability and climate change on their own. If it is going to happen it has to be a shared project that makes the most of the expertise and skills of the local community.

Getting the Lead Out

There has been a lot of talk about the place of cities in a transition to a greener world (or at least one that won't fall apart at the seams). Somewhere between 50% and 70% of global greenhouse gases come from cities – we've all heard that statistic so often we probably know it by heart. But despite all that – even among ICLEI members – there are only a select few examples of cities making real progress of sustainability issues. We need to get the lead out, as the saying goes.

This toolkit doesn't provide one-size fits all solutions, motivational talking points or snazzy charts and graphs. What is does provide is much more substantial: a collection of organizational resources for cities who want to move past eating the low-hanging fruit, and design a locally relevant plan that addresses sustainability at a more ambitious, and rewarding level.


2 Responses to "Toolkit for Change: ICLEI's new Urban Sustainability Framework"

Anonymous said... 7 December 2009 at 18:03

I am a citizen, not a member of a local government and as such have no password to access the toolkit. From your article the toolkit looks very impressive and valuable so I wonder if you could post a copy of it?

Alex Aylett said... 7 December 2009 at 19:53

Hi Anonymous,
unfortunately ICLEI's policy is that materials are available only to member cities. Where are you located? It may be that your city is already an ICLEI member.

If not, you can point your local politicians to .

This link also has more ressources related to the toolkit that are available to the public:


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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