Integrating Sustainability and Economic Development

17 Apr

Promoting environmental sustainability and pursuing economic development strategies have typically been considered two separate and (often) competing goals. But times are changing, and a growing body of evidence supports the notion that sustainability typically delivers more enduring and broad-based economic returns. Cities across the continent are beginning to wed environmental sustainability to economic development, looking at investments in a sustainable economy as one tool to build broad-based prosperity.

We checked out some of the economic development plans in the U.S. and Canada to see which cities are doing sustainable economic development right. We found three notable examples in Portland, Philadelphia, and Vancouver. While each city had it’s own take on sustainable economic development, there were a few recurring trends.


The strongest economic development plans were framed by ambitious visions. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s 2008 pledge to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the U.S. underpins the goals set forth in their Greenworks Philadelphia Plan. Though policymakers may be squeamish about setting such a lofty vision statement for their own localities, aspiring visions can actually provide some benefit by setting the stage for deliberate and strategic planning. For example, Portland’s Economic Development Strategy sets out to build “the most sustainable economy in the world,” defining this vision based on the city’s competitive advantages.


Once a city has settled on an earnest proclamation or two, residents and policymakers need to craft realistic plans and strategies to help accomplish their goals. Vancouver seeks to achieve its vision of becoming the “greenest city in the world” by meeting a series of targets. Each target contains tactics (ways of achieving goals), outcomes (indicators of success), and measures (metrics to track success) in order to assure the overall vision stays on track. Philadelphia [PDF] takes this concept a step further by establishing baseline measurements and making projections. The tabulations predict outcomes for the city if it doesn’t take action, comparing those results to a “Greenworks” target that simulates the expected outcomes if everything goes according to plan. As the plan continues to unfold, policymakers will be able to track their progress against these expected outcomes, and change course if necessary.


The best plans recognize that their goals and initiatives will result in an increased demand for labor, and call for workforce strategies to meet this demand. Portland’s plan [PDF] attempts to bridge the gap between workforce and economic development, detailing a series of actions to align both efforts. The strategies include aligning the strategic plans of the agencies that deal in workforce development and economic development issues, convening industry experts to design and evaluate training curriculum in green fields, and enhancing services and training programs to get local residents trained. Other plans, like Vancouver’s, have more flexible standards, including tracking the number of low- and high-skill jobs created in key sectors.


The best plans acknowledge that the public sector alone cannot achieve a vision for sustainable economic development. Vancouver [PDF] calls out a list of partners, including foreign consulates, industry associations, and other key stakeholders whose involvement is vital to the success of their economic development plan. Portland assigns “responsible parties” to a given objective while Philadelphia doles out the responsibility of meeting targets to a number of city agencies. These partners should share in the values and goals presented in the respective economic development plans to ensure commitment and success.

Ambitious goal setting, a clear system of measurement, and a robust list of committed partners are only some of the ingredients necessary for a successful sustainable economic development strategy.  Periodic updates on the progress of the economic development strategy are essential too. The findings in Portland’s Three Year Status report [PDF] show that the city has been able to create upwards of two thousand jobs through financial assistance to local companies and the recruitment of new companies in the fields of sustainability and other related sectors. These plans are doing their part to establish the viability of sustainable economic development.

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