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Planning for Environmental Sustainability in California Cities

Published by Aubrey Hicks on

Dr. Myungjung Kwon, Professor at California State University, Fullerton and Dr. Shui-Yan Tang, Professor of Public Administration at the USC Price School

Dr. Myungjung Kwon, Professor at California State University, Fullerton and Dr. Shui-Yan Tang, Professor of Public Administration at the USC Price School

by Justine Dodgen

As many of us are aware, climate change is a key public policy issue that has been garnering greater attention in recent years. According to Dr. Shui-Yan Tang, Professor of Public Administration at the USC Price School and Dr. Myungjung Kwon, Professor at California State University, Fullerton, local governments are essential to implementing climate change policy because they possess the critical means to influence citizen and institution behavior and monitor compliance at the grassroots level.

In an effort to address climate change by encouraging cities to establish dedicated sustainability plans, the California State Assembly and State Senate passed measures AB 32 and SB 375 in 2006 and 2008, respectively. AB 32 mandates that California reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 by establishing regulations that expand the use of renewable energy, cleaner transportation, and energy efficiency land use. AB 32 was the nation’s first initiative to establish a comprehensive and long-term strategy to address climate change, making California a pioneer and testbed for innovative strategies. SB 375 requires cities to develop a sustainable community strategy that establishes land use, housing, and transportation guidelines for meeting greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets.

As part of a faculty research project funded by the Bedrosian Center, Tang and Kwon examined the number of cities in California that have already developed strategic sustainability plans and if these plans are contributing to rigorous actions, such as smart-growth land use. Smart-growth land use actions restrict land development in order to limit GHG emissions, such as through LEED certification requirements.

The Bedrosian Center provides several grants each year for USC Price faculty to conduct research on governance issues, with one of the conditions being that the principal investigator present his or her findings to fellow USC Price faculty and students. Tang and Kwon presented their findings to a diverse group of students, faculty, elected government officials, and other community members.

Tang and Kwon’s data came from a survey conducted by Kwon in 2011 that asked California cities about sustainability plans and actions, the types of obstacles or factors that influence the city’s plan design, and whether plans have been implemented and enforced. The survey included data from 131 of the 482 cities across the state.

To the question, “does your city have a formal climate change or energy plan, separate from the general plan?” Tang and Kwon found that 35% had a separate climate change or energy plan, while 64% did not. Of those that did have some type of sustainability plan, 40% had community-wide bicycle and pedestrian accommodation guidelines and 19% had LEED or other green development certified building requirements.

Tang and Kwon noticed that cities face many challenges in developing these plans because they can be costly and it can be difficult to garner community support and buy-in. In their survey, cities perceived cost/lack of funds, conflict with other budget priorities, lack of time/expertise to design a plan, and lack of political will in the decision-making process as the main obstacles to developing and implementing a sustainability plan. Tang and Kwon also note that empirical evidence points that having an elected mayor is the strongest positive factor correlated to the presence of a sustainability plan. An elected mayor can help garner the political and community support necessary to galvanize action.

As we move forward with climate change initiatives, Tang and Kwon argue that state and federal government can play a crucial role in the process by providing technical and financial support to cities to encourage planning and help them overcome barriers to implementation. Further, they propose that creating incentives to facilitate collaboration amongst cities could help cities find the necessary technical expertise even with limited resources. As climate change continues to be on the policy agenda, Tang and Kwon’s research presents a great starting point for future research on the role of local government in building sustainable communities from the bottom up.

For more information on this topic, check out the ICMA’s great collection of resources for local governments on how to become environmentally resilient.



Bedrosian Center