Struggling with Sustainability, Some Small Cities Shine

Flush a toilet in South Daytona, Florida (pop. 12,252) and the waste comes back to you to water your lawn. The small city, only three square miles in size, acts big in terms of sustainability as it faces a major challenge – providing safe drinking water to a rapidly growing population. Water conservation is increasingly commonplace in many American cities, but South Daytona goes a step further. Every day, the city buys millions of gallons of reclaimed sewage water from a neighboring municipality. Formerly, the sewage was just dumped into the ocean. Now, after being highly treated, the water is pumped through a second network of water pipes that snakes back around the city. The water is not for drinking, but can be used by residential and business customers for landscape irrigation. Property owners pay for the service just as they would any utility.

This and other sustainability efforts by places such as South Daytona often go unnoticed by the mainstream media and most Americans. The attention is often focused on the sustainability successes of the biggest American cities. While important, these do not tell the whole story. More than half of Americans live in smaller cities, suburban towns, or rural communities, which face enormous political, fiscal, and technical challenges when they seek to protect the environment. Many of those, such as South Daytona, Florida, are defying the odds and finding that sustainability can be both environmentally and economically successful.

Another aggressive community is Columbus, Wisconsin (pop 4,991). In 2007, when Boyd Kraemer (now retired) came on board as city administrator, he was charged with turning around a largely moribund local economy. The city applied for and received a $40,000 sustainability grant, which Kraemer used to fund a new sustainability director position; the new person was charged with boosting both economic development and environmental protection. Columbus wanted to create for itself a marketing persona as a sustainable place. Now, with every policy and purchase, the city considers its green reputation. Columbus received grants to convert all of the street lights to high-efficiency LED fixtures – one of the first in the nation to do so. When it came time to repave the municipal parking lots, they added electric car plug-in stations. The city made extensive energy efficiency renovations in all of its municipal buildings and provides subsidies to homeowners for energy audits, air conditioner tune-ups, and the purchase of high efficiency washing machines. City residents can also receive a $50 grant towards the purchase and planting of deciduous trees to shade buildings and reduce air conditioning costs during the summer.

From an economic development perspective, the green marketing is working. Articles about these programs have appeared in statewide economic development and construction magazines. In just twelve months starting at the end of 2011, the city saw about $30 million dollars in capital investment including a new housing development, an assisted living center, and the expansion of a packaging operation. An arts incubator chose Columbus over Madison, the state capital, and a local pump manufacturer has broken ground on a larger facility that will anchor a new business park. Kraemer estimates that 50 percent of his community’s recent success is attributable to its sustainability image. People are impressed, Kraemer reports, when they hear that the city has all high-efficiency LED street lights. “We can turn them on with a laptop and we can change them in high crime areas.” He says it gives them a media and attitude edge over other communities.

All these efforts save money for Columbus city coffers, as well. The city’s 2013 Economic Development – Sustainability Report finds that the city has reduced electricity usage by 15.4 percent from 2007-2012. Much of this was due to the 2011 conversion of streetlights to LEDs, which cut energy usage 49 percent. Efficiency upgrades to the wastewater treatment plan, scheduled for spring of 2014, will save an estimated $18,000 a year in electricity costs.

The sustainability actions in South Daytona and Columbus demonstrate that environmental protection and economic development are not in conflict. Small cities, suburban towns, and rural communities can make important contributions to sustainability – and do it in a way that fits their local circumstance. Indeed, Boyd Kraemer of Columbus believes smaller places may have an advantage. He points to the nearby state capital of Madison, which has more eco-friendly students and many more resources, but they do not get as much done because of their bureaucracy. “You’ve got to make it easy to get things done. If you get tied up in committees and studies and consultants, it doesn’t last.” So while big cities boast of their green successes, there are many unlikely innovators taking advantage of their agility.


This post is based on an issue brief co-authored by CCPA assistant professor George Homsy for the ICMA Center for Sustainable Communities. Titled “Defying the Odds: Sustainability in Small and Rural Places,” Homsy and co-author Mildred Warner of Cornell University are conducting research into the sustainability practices of small cities and rural communities with funding from the US Department of Agriculture.

The entire issue brief can be found at:


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