As the former sustainability manager for the village of Oak Park, I’d like to respond to last week’s article [Oak Park plans environmental cooperative with nearby towns, News, Dec. 3] regarding the elimination of the sustainability manager position in favor of creating a new nonprofit entity to address sustainability for area municipalities, share costs and promote collaboration.
While I agree that collaboration and fiscal responsibility are hallmarks to sound local government, the most successful municipalities marry them with sustainability planning and programming.
Five years ago, Oak Parkers, their village administration and elected officials recognized this natural synchronicity and decided to put their tax dollars to work by creating a position to implement their vision of urban sustainability. After serving on the Environmental and Energy Advisory Commission, where I received Oak Park’s 2009 Volunteer of the Year award for creating and spearheading the “Idling Gets You Nowhere” campaign, I applied for and accepted an offer to fill the sustainability manager position. Over the next four years, through teamwork with village staff and many community stakeholders, we accomplished a number of “firsts” for Oak Park, including:
• Creation of PlanItGreen, the sustainability vision plan for the villages of Oak Park and River Forest. The planning process emphasized collaboration among all major stakeholders, residents and businesses of both villages over a two-year time period;
• Installation of a 100-kilowatt solar array to offset energy use at the Avenue Garage, made possible through a $590,000 grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity;
• Creation of the Community Choice Aggregation program, which saved Oak Park residents and businesses over $4.5 million on their electric bills and was the nation’s first 100% renewable energy portfolio standard;
• Collaborated individually with Oak Park stakeholders, including both school districts, the Oak Park Residence Corporation, Hephzibah Children’s Association, the YMCA, and several houses of worship to educate them about renewable energy, energy efficiency upgrades, and available grant opportunities (several were awarded);
• Successfully applied and was awarded two energy efficiency grants for village hall lighting upgrades;
• Guided local environmental organizations, including Root Riot, Sugar Beet and Green Community Connections, to resources that have since led to the creation of Oak Park’s first community garden, its first food cooperative, and a highly successful grassroots organization that raised the level of awareness on local solutions to climate change;
• Attended dozens of meetings to educate village staff and the Oak Park community on the consumer benefits of smart meters. That work led directly to the village being considered, and ultimately selected as, the location for smart substation upgrades that have led to increased reliability in Oak Park. The village was also chosen as the site for a multimillion-dollar community solar panel and battery storage project involving a number of state, national and international entities, including ComEd, Argonne National Laboratories, University of Chicago, and South Korean government, research and business entities; and,
• Developed, in collaboration with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, residents and the Oak Park Environment and Energy Commission, the village’s first water conservation plan.
These accomplishments further led to national recognition including the USEPA’s Green Power Community and Green Power Partner awards; an American Planning Association design award; and becoming the leading authority on municipal aggregation. This list doesn’t include other initiatives like Oak Park’s annual Earth Fest or the dozens of meetings with other Illinois municipalities resulting in sustainability programs in those communities.
Most importantly, the list doesn’t include the complete gratification I felt in serving the Oak Park community as its first sustainability manager.
In four short years the combination of collaborative efforts and a staff sustainability position resulted in programs and projects, not just meetings and plans. The question residents must ask is whether the same can be accomplished with a committee-style approach.
Nationally, the trend for local government is to fund positions because action by committee is rarely accomplished. By putting the onus on a staff position to conduct research, apply for grants, network with local stakeholders, initiate collaborations, and manage sustainability projects, local governments are seeing results. Metrics are tracked, goals are accomplished, resources and tax dollars are saved, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, and residents experience a pride of place not accomplished through other government programs.
Since the 1960s, Oak Park has been a leader in courageously tackling some of the nation’s most challenging social issues, including fair housing, historic preservation, and now urban sustainability. It was an honor to contribute to the early stages of this new benchmark era and witness the momentum of activities in our schools, businesses, neighborhoods and agencies.
As always, I wish Oak Parkers the best in furthering their urban sustainability vision.
K.C. Doyle is the sustainability coordinator for Lake County.