New Economic Realities for Communities Mean New (and More Sustainable) Approaches

Community-SustainabilityBy Joanna Nadeau, Director of Community Programs
Audubon International

For better or worse, many towns and cities are experiencing new economic realities. Around the country, communities that historically depended on manufacturing or farming for jobs are suffering, as those sectors continue a long term decline. Fourth Economy and Audubon International have a shared interest in assisting cities and local governments in addressing the challenges they face through sustainable solutions.

To be sustainable, a local economy must be two things: 1) diverse—that is, based on a wide range of profitable sectors—and 2) making the most of natural assets while protecting them for the future.

Through the Sustainable Communities Program, Audubon International helps communities recognize the relationship between the natural environment and local economic development. By featuring local natural assets as a central part of their appeal, towns looking to rebrand themselves can establish a new identity based on being a nature-friendly, sustainable community.

Ecofriendly communities are becoming more attractive to homebuyers and are commanding higher prices. “Going green has proven to be more than a trend; many people now seek out this way of living and want homes and communities that are more resource efficient and sensitive to the environment,” says Gary Thomas, President of the National Association of Realtors.

Towns are working through Audubon International’s Sustainable Communities Program to improve their local economic situations and create brighter futures for their communities. Many towns are looking for ways to keep young people from leaving after high school and avoid the dreaded “brain drain” that can stifle business investment.

Communities need to start by looking at their existing assets as the foundation for growth. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida explains that regions with amenities attract and retain more talent, which is necessary to compete effectively in a national and world marketplace.

Amenities, such as an area’s intellectual and cultural resources and its natural setting, are what make a town a nice place to live and to visit. Parks, waterfront, recreational opportunities, and historical sites are assets that interest talented individuals in settling down in a town. Enhancing and protecting those cultural and natural assets are therefore critical strategies for economic development. Towns can use their amenities to compete for the businesses that employ top talent as well as to draw crowds for tourism.

For example, towns located along rivers are realizing that waterways are beautiful, unique destinations available for all to enjoy – and are an asset that can distinguish them from other places. Such amenities also increase the quality of life for residents in many intangible ways. The river and its associated activities offer healthy and environmentally-friendly options for recreation. Access to nature is known to have benefits for mental health and stress reduction. If properly protected and utilized, a river can play a major role in economic development. A recent report shows communities that have made open space and conservation a priority have much higher growth rates than those managing natural resources solely for production.

Among the many strategies for being a sustainable community, local governments need to focus on supporting local businesses, whether through downtown redevelopment, “Buy Local” campaigns, or other methods. The Sustainable Communities certification also requires that communities enhance or promote ecotourism, civic tourism, or cultural and historic tourism, and reach out to adventure travelers and businesses. In practice, think of ways that your community might transform the local economy from old and dying industries to new, green job sectors, whether in green tech, like clean energy and recycling, or through the growing sustainable tourism sector. If diversification is the name of the game, sustainability is how you win.

Because there are so many connections between economic development and community sustainability, the only way to do it wrong is to not make the connection at all.

AI works with communities to build citizen-driven sustainability programs that address these aspects and more, by incorporating sustainability into long term plans and activities. A focus on measuring sustainability activities and progress indicators also provides great content for marketing your community’s achievements thus far. Pursuing and ultimately achieving designation as a Certified Audubon International Sustainable Community helps communicate their sustainability values and priorities for the future to potential business investors, visitors, and residents.