Friday, December 1, 2017

What Sedona must do to be credible as a sustainable destination

In our recent assessment of Sedona's sustainability practices, we uncovered that there is little public evidence for Sedona's commitment to sustainability, despite the fact that a) sustainability is a foundational principle in the community plan, b) they have done supportive actions and c) are hoping to brand this region as a sustainable destination.

Courtesy Stuart Miles,
For example, if you google "sustainability" and "Sedona, AZ" you get nothing official. I got, in order, a local interior designer, a page I wrote for the Chamber and our website at the Sustainability Alliance. Do a similar search of Santa Fe (a comparable community that we like to benchmark against) and you get several .gov sites. And many of their plans/reg's have sustainability in their title (eg, Santa Fe's Sustainable Land Use Development Code). If you go on City of Sedona's own site and search for sustainability, you get the long-defunct committee. Nothing else. Any commitment to sustainability is invisible.

Low key is good if you have nothing to show, but we're starting to fall behind the rest of the world and that's not good for our reputation. Just a month ago, I saw a visitor was standing by a timeshare dumpster with a paper bag of food scraps, looking bewildered. "Don't they compost here?" she asked. I had to apologize that we did not. I told this story to a friend who lives here part time, Seattle the rest of the year, and she said not having composting, "Makes me crazy." Residents and visitors are starting to wonder if we're all we claim to be. Are we smoke and mirrors or are we truly enlightened, focused on health and well-being, with a reverence for nature and culture?

We need at a minimum to keep up with everyone else. If we become a true leader, the opportunity is to send our millions of visitors home with insights they can implement in their communities.

In my previous consulting practice, I used to tell clients not to go public with their intent to pursue sustainability until they have 4 things in place:
  1. A clear business case for pursuing sustainability; why it was important, why it made smart business sense such that they have enduring top management commitment.
  2. Sustainable targets, interim goals, metrics and a plan in place to get there.
  3. Measurable progress toward those goals (to show it's not just words on paper).
  4. Good performance in some areas as compared to competitors. Saying, "Oh, we finally recycle too," isn't impressive. Saying you're a leader when you're not is green-washing. Saying that our recycling rates put us in the top 10 small US towns (if this were true) would be noteworthy.
So where is Sedona in these 4 steps?

1. Sedona's Business Case

In at least one way, Sedona has addressed the first requirement. Data gathered by the Chamber and the Sedona/Verde Valley Tourism Council indicates that sustainable tourism (aka eco-tourism, responsible tourism, etc.) is a growing expectation. Last year, Sedona had an assessment done against the National Geographic Sustainable Destination certification so it's not just talk. It's also explicitly mentioned (although not well defined) in the Community Plan voted on by the community.

In terms of leadership's commitment, my sense is that the City Manager, one or two of the Council members and the Chamber are on board. If the other council members are willing to keep an open mind, understand that this is about meeting expectations to maintain our tourist-based economy, and be comforted by a process where all projects would be subjected to normal need/cost/benefit analysis, then I think the City can move forward to the next step.

2. Targets, Goals, Metrics and a Plan 

The Community Plan exists, but what is missing is a clear set of targets that define sustainability for our community, along with interim goals and a plan to move in that direction.

Deciding what the targets should be is not that hard if you use a reputable sustainability framework that goes to full sustainability. We use The Natural Step's 4 principles a lot because they're systemic, high-level and based on accepted scientific principles (like the Laws of Thermodynamics). When you overlay those principles to issues and industries in our area, you easily end up with a short list of focus areas and indicators. You have to temporarily suspend concerns about how this might get done or what it would cost with existing technologies. That will work itself out in time. But you have to define what fully sustainable is. Otherwise you're just working on being "less bad," slowing the rate at which we destroy our children's future.

Off the top of my head, here are 4 focus areas (tied to the 4 principles) and some suggested targets.

Stabilize the climate: These targets are often framed as being climate neutral, an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 or 100% renewable energy. Each of those choices presents different opportunities and constraints. My advice would be to choose the first or second of those options because they are most inclusive of sources of climate disrupting gases and allow the greatest flexibility for how to get to the target.

Eliminate toxic emissions to air, water or soil: We have legacy toxins from mining operations. We throw things in the dump or down the drain that end up in nature. Fossil fuels are a significant source of air pollutants.  If we put more toxins into the environment faster than nature can break them down, then they will build up. So we need to move away from doing this.

Targets here might include zero waste (nothing goes to landfill, everything is either reused, recycled or composted/consumed). We should also get our water (drinking and riparian) and air quality to meet safe standards.

Protect nature and the services it provides: Nature provides a host of services for free that either we can't do ourselves or would be extraordinarily expensive: it pollinates our crops, cleans our water and air, builds soil, provides renewable resources like trees, etc. Nature's like a game of pick-up-sticks: you can't be sure which stick will bring the structure down. So we need to keep all the pieces

Targets here might include river and aquifer levels returning to historic levels (or at least arresting the draw-down), biodiversity (no additional endangered species, maintaining or increasing acres of high-quality habitat.) Rural areas outside of Sedona might also want to measure depth of topsoil on agricultural lands.

Provide a high quality of life: Social and economic issues are also an important part of sustainability. These targets are more open to debate because we set expectations, not nature. We might set workforce housing goals (eg, 75% of the people who work here can live here). Zero hunger and homelessness. Predictable and acceptable transportation times between VOC and West Sedona. 100% living wage jobs. Engagement with high-quality life-long learning to adapt to our rapidly changing society.
Note: We recently conducted a survey of our members, people who are knowledgeable about aspects of sustainability, to determine what they thought our priorities and targets should be. I'll share those results in another post. 

Once we have targets, we can set reasonable goals over time to get there and start identifying projects to help us make progress. It's perfectly legitimate to postpone working on one area or another, waiting for technologies to mature. Some of the goals might be tied to outcomes (if we need to have an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050, where should we be by 2020 and 2035?) Other goals might be tied to projects and processes (like access to household hazardous waste drop off events.) But knowing what we need to shoot for is a critical next step.

As Alice in Wonderland famously said, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there." We need to have agreement for where we're going, and I hope that is toward a sustainable society where we provide a high quality of life off the 'interest' of nature, no longer drawing down the 'principle.' To strive for anything less is selfishly stealing from our kids.

What are other communities measuring?

Whistler is probably one of the best examples. They're a small tourist based mountain/ski community in British Columbia that used The Natural Step principles early on to inform their sustainability work in the community. Their community indicators are a well-designed website. Take a look at what they measure and report on.

According to VVREO (Verde Valley Regional Economic Organization), Santa Fe is one community we like to benchmark ourselves against. Here’s a 2015 report on their community indicators. It’s a good first generation report but over time, think it could be improved by showing more trend data and also having clear sustainable targets (instead of comparing themselves just to other communities as in the case of water usage.)

What about in Arizona? Here's a one-off sustainability report for Coconino County/Flagstaff. this report talks a lot about sustainability but it's not clear what framework they are using and it represents a snapshot in time. There's no effort that I know of to update it.  

Tucson is large enough to be assessed against the U.N. Sustainability Goals (which we have used for our Dashboard of Community Indicators). This article shows how they rate. We aren’t large enough, probably, to use this method but the indicators are still largely applicable.


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