By Drew Pierson
I recently reflected on the fact that “urban sustainability” is a term that typically narrows discussions about planning and development on environmental issues, in spite of related factors that may contribute to the general welfare of cities, such as jobs, income, and social well-being. Given that environmental problems often stem from economic processes and the social needs that drive them, one could assume that “urban sustainability” should extend its definition to include relationships among the three spheres of environment, economy, and society. As such, why isn’t “urban sustainability” more readily discussed within this framework and in a way that integrates goals from these three underlying areas at the onset? What opportunities exist that would allow entrepreneurs and planning practitioners to promote a more holistic version of “urban sustainability?”
“Community-owned energy” (i.e. “community energy”) is one such opportunity. Community energy projects are those that are both locally and cooperatively owned by farmers, businesses, schools, utilities, or other public or private entities with an interest in harnessing local resources for energy production. As an increasingly popular economic development tool, particularly in small cities and rural areas, community energy is a form of infrastructure development that allows local owners to purchase shares in a project through equity investments, subscriptions, or third-party leases. In turn, economic benefits accrue to community members as larger portions of project revenue are retained in the form of profits, lease payments, tax revenue, energy savings, and local jobs and wages. The Institute for Local Self Reliance affirms that the economic benefits of this approach are significant, as payments from community-owned projects contribute 150 to 340 percent more in revenue to local owners than do land lease payments from absentee owners.
Adopting this approach to urban areas could yield significant sustainability dividends. Given that community energy projects are often designed to (i) harness local renewable sources, (ii) create local jobs, and (iii) improve social welfare by dispersing project benefits among a broader group of people (particularly local owners), it seems to me that urban sustainability proponents could widen their scope of impact by pursuing these types of projects with greater frequency and in areas of social and economic need. I offer this idea because urban planners and entrepreneurs often focus on devising strategies that address multiple issues at once, such as those that straddle between the economy, society, and environment. And despite the obvious benefits that environmentally focused sustainability agendas offer, questions often remain on how communities can successfully build local wealth and social capital over the long-term in addition to environmental quality improvements. As such, community energy assets seem to provide one logical starting point for reframing the urban sustainability approach.