Garrett Fitzgerald: Helping local governments advance their work in sustainability
Fellow Garrett Fitzgerald is the Strategic Collaboration Director at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), where he helps the organization’s local government members advance their work in sustainability.
Peer learning and collaboration represent the core of USDN, according to Fitzgerald. Every year, the organization asks its roughly 1,000 members what they are interested in learning about and working on together, and all of the organization’s activities are based on member responses. USDN hosts two dozen or so peer learning groups on selected themes through which members engage in monthly calls to learn about best practices, challenges, and ideas from each other and invited experts.
This year, and for the last few years, the electric vehicles (EV) peer learning group has been among the network’s most popular. Fitzgerald estimates that the group has 100 participants in 2019, representing 80 or so local governments in the United States and Canada.
He says USDN member discussions about electric vehicles often focus on issues related to infrastructure, planning decisions, utility collaboration, community engagement, and the vehicles themselves. City staff are asking questions like: What can local government do to accelerate adoption of EV technology? What levels of investment in infrastructure are fundamentally necessary, such as a minimum density of publicly accessible charging stations? How can we safely enable EV charging for people who park their vehicles on public streets? How can electric mobility options help to create a safe, clean, affordable, and accessible road transportation system, which prioritizes the mobility needs of people of color, low-income residents, and people with disabilities?
(Fitzgerald says that only a small number of network members have delved much into issues around autonomous vehicles to date. USDN plans to facilitate a field strategy exercise for members at the end of this year, and he expects the topic to come up more regularly in the future. Many members are concerned that autonomous vehicles will lead to an overall increase in miles driven, potentially wiping out the GHG reduction, air quality, and community benefits of other mobility-related progress.)
Local governments have opportunities to influence the speed and community benefits of electric transportation advancements through their decision-making roles around public infrastructure, use of public space, building code requirements (in some states), and a variety of local and regional planning processes, says Fitzgerald. Cities are scrambling to understand and leverage emerging new mobility options. USDN members are collaborating with colleagues in their land use planning, transportation, and other internal departments to help orient their communities to these opportunities.
While they have influence, local governments rarely have the power to effect large-scale change on their own. Sustainability directors in cities seek inspiration and advice from peers, and forge partnerships with community organizations and others to develop plans and advance their work locally, says Fitzgerald. “A lot of our conversations in the network have moved beyond the technical solutions to focus more on how local government can better collaborate with community partners in understanding and solving challenges and making life better,” he says.
One thing is clear: cities are increasingly viewing electric vehicles as a critical component of their local climate strategies. “Ten years ago, cities asked: What can we do in local government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” says Fitzgerald. “Now more and more cities are asking: What will it really take to solve the problem? They’re setting higher ambition targets based on the science, and concluding that electric vehicles powered by a clean, renewable energy grid have to be part of the solution.”