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Directors Share How Cities can Thrive Through Sustainability

October 17, 2016
This article appeared in the October 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Georgia’s Cities sat down with the city of Atlanta’s Director of Sus­tainability Stephanie Stuckey Benfield and the city of Savannah’s Sustainability Director Nick Deffley to learn more about their re­sponsibilities and how cities of all sizes can incorporate sustainabili­ty into their programing and practices. While their backgrounds and experience differ—Benfield, who served as the executive director of GreenLaw, a firm that provided legal and technical assistance to environmental and community groups statewide and Deffley, who has always been interested in the natural environment, studied po­litical science, communication and environmental policy—both are motivated to ensure that future generations have the same quality of life as ones enjoy today.
 
How does your office define sustainability?
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Nick Deffley
ND: Our definition is really making sure that we have a high qual­ity of life, community health and economic vitality, while protect­ing our natural resources for not only today’s generation but future generations. We do that through a triple-bottom lined approach. We balance the impact of everything we do through the lenses of en­vironmental resources/environmental protection, community and economics. The closer we can get to overlaying the economy, planet and people together, the more sustainable our impacts will be.
 
What are some of your day-to-day responsibilities?
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Stephanie Stuckey Benfield
SB: Day to day it’s a variety of activities. But I can put things in several buckets: I do policy work, I also do a lot of outreach and communications and a lot of program­ming. We have four main program areas: air, water, land use and waste management.
 
ND: What I really try to do is bring an understanding that I am not a subject-matter expert in all of the different areas that sustainability touches. A lot of our job here is to bring all of the subject-matter experts to talk about some of these problems we are facing and coming up with different ways to solve those challenges.
 
What role do cities play in reducing sustainability consumption?
SB: I firmly believe that cities are where the action is. I really see cities as powerful incubators for change. I started realizing that while I was in the Georgia legislature (Prior to joining GreenLaw, Benfield served as a State Representative for 14 years, during which time she was a member of the Judiciary and Natural Resources Com­mittees.). I found that where I could be most impactful in the work I did was at the local level.
 
How have you seen sustainability drive economic development?
SB: Sustainability is critical because you can make a cost savings argument for almost every sustainability initiative. Even if you’re a small city you can afford to have a sustainability component because you’re going to see savings. For example, the energy efficiency and water conservation measures are going to save money. In our electric vehicle (EV) programing, we take gas guzzling vehicles that are in need of replacement and swap them out for EV cars. The maintenance has dropped con­siderably and we are not spending money on fuel.
 
How do cities engage in sustainability on a meaningful level, while also engaging elected officials and residents?
SB: It’s all about knowing your audience. So, I am very mindful when I talk to coun­cilmembers that their number one priority is to protect the interest of their consum­ers and be advocates for their districts. Before I speak to a councilmember, I do my homework and make sure I understand the dynamics of their districts so I can tailor what I am presenting based on their needs. It’s a two-way street, I want them to sup­port sustainability, but I also want sustainability to support them.

Some of the programming that you see across the board are energy, water and fleet efficiency. Those are the foundations on which the Atlanta office was created. That’s the strongest case for sustainability. And, when you look at the statistics of what contributes heavily to greenhouse gas admissions for cities, it’s our building. So I think those are really easy ways for cities to get engaged in sustainability on a meaningful level.
 
ND: Cities can set various policies in place to help promote more sustainable living. We can use economic incentives and disincentives the promote certain types of en­ergy and transportation. We can also encourage other practices like composting and carpooling. Another way to engage is with a green business challenge where the city is not dictating policies but collaborating with the private sector to highlight those businesses that have gone above and beyond to focus on the local economy.

The biggest way (to engage city officials and residents) is explaining how all of these systems are linked—how litter that you throw on the street ends up polluting our water and impacting the natural habitat of animals that we depend on. But more than that it’s saying “How does this one piece really impact your daily life?” We are talking about how to live smartly and efficiently and provide all of the quality of life pieces that you need in order to really survive, succeed and thrive.