Southeastern Minnesota cities have been working to improve their sustainability in numerous ways, including plans to increase green energy, creating comprehensive climate plans for the future and focusing on eco-friendly transportation.

Chris Meyer, a coordinator for Clean Energy Resource Teams -- an organization that helps communities with clean energy projects -- wanted to see what individual cities are doing to increase sustainability.

Meyer wrote an article for the Clean Energy Resource Teams that highlights four cities in southeastern Minnesota that are planning for sustainable and resilient futures. The cities Meyer highlighted are Faribault, Red Wing, Rochester and Northfield.

“I picked those four cities because they’ve done fabulous work,” Meyer told the Republican Eagle.

This project began when Meyer received a call from the GreenStep coordinator in Albert Lea who wanted to know what other local communities were doing to increase their sustainability.

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Meyer’s report is a formal response to the question posed by Albert Lea and information for communities that may want to increase their sustainability. While the four featured cities have the same goal, the steps taken to increase sustainability are different.

“Each one of them had different stories that they talked to me about, about how they tried to improve the sustainability of their community,” said Meyer.

Melissa Baartman, the Red Wing Community and Economic Development coordinator, told Meyer that during the city’s most recent planning cycle, city staff members went “into the community, especially to reach those who historically had been under-represented.” The city created a comprehensive plan that covered everything from housing to arts and culture to physical and mental health. The environment is also a chapter in the plan. Meyer reported:

“Input to the recent comprehensive plan indicated that ‘86% of respondents think that global warming should be recognized by the city in its actions and policies,’ while ‘92% encourage the use of renewable energy,’ and ‘90% support efforts to become more sustainable.’”

Meyer wrote that in Faribault community members wanted a plan for sustainability that was simple and visionary without hundreds of pages of complex policies. Also, a sustainable industries cohort was formed in 2018. Now, about 25 to 50 business leaders meet periodically to discuss how local industries can continue moving toward sustainability.

Northfield’s program coordinator Beth Kallestad is quoted in Meyer’s piece saying, “having a strategic plan that says sustainability is a priority is different than having that plan embraced by staff and the public.”

And in Rochester, large strides have been made to focus on the environment and sustainability. Meyer explained:

“Goals have translated into specific actions in Rochester’s various plans. For example, the Energy Action Plan, approved in 2016, and the Transportation Plan, approved in 2019, call for electrifying public transit and city fleets, building electric vehicle infrastructure, encouraging biking and walking, creating a ride sharing tool, and growing transit-oriented development.”

Rochester Public Utilities is working on a plan to be 100% renewable energy by 2030.

GreenStep Cities

GreenStep was created in 2008. Its website explains that it is “a voluntary challenge, assistance and recognition program to help cities achieve their sustainability and quality-of-life goals.”

The program is free for Minnesota cities and is a continuous improvement program. The website states the program is “managed by a public-private partnership, is based upon a menu of 29 optional best practices. Each best practice can be implemented, as decided by city elected officials, staff and community members, by completing one or more actions at a 1, 2 or 3-star level, from a list of four to eight actions. These voluntary actions are tailored to all Minnesota cities, focus on cost savings and energy use reduction, and encourage civic innovation.”

The best practices that cities can take are organized into five categories:

  • Buildings and lighting (example: efficient existing public buildings, new green buildings, efficient outdoor lighting and signals).

  • Land use (examples: comprehensive climate and energy plans, mixed uses, design for natural resource conservation).

  • Transportation (examples: living streets, mobility options, efficient city fleets).

  • Environmental management (examples: sustainable purchasing, parks and trails, efficient water and wastewater systems).

  • Resilient economic and community development (examples: green business development, local food, benchmarks and community engagement).

Cities can move through the five steps at their own pace and can begin GreenStep at any point. Red Wing joined GreenStep in 2011 and both reached step five in June 2020.

Meyer is optimistic about the sustainable steps that southeastern Minnesota cities have been taking.

“We have some fabulous work that’s been going on down in this part of the state," she said.