A 'laboratory of democracies' approach: Rolling Meadows thinking local in fighting climate change
After two years in the works, Rolling Meadows is emphasizing local impact as it closes in on completing its first sustainability plan.
The plan outlines both short- and long-term goals in 10 key environmental areas like climate, energy and land use. In aligning with the broader "Greenest Region Compact" framework established by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, the city joins a few dozen fellow Chicago-area municipalities that have established concrete goals in sustainability.
Led by volunteers following the formal establishment of the city's previously ad hoc environmental committee, the plan lays out 42 goals spanning the 10 areas. Climate goals include establishing one or more greenhouse gas emissions targets, assessing threats from extreme weather events and educating the public about climate change.
"The world is starting to pay attention to (the climate crisis)," said Ald. Michael Koehler, who also chairs the environmental committee. "It's important to look at these kinds of plans, because you can have big government plans, but everything comes down to what are you doing locally. If people don't start taking action locally and it rolls up to making an impact globally, then it's not going to work."
To put the plan together, the committee looked to other municipalities' plans for inspiration, conducted community outreach, and ran an extensive pre-assessment to gauge where Rolling Meadows stood on 421 different strategies presented by the Green Region Compact framework.
That framework was released in 2016 by the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which connects 275 municipalities across the Chicago region. Rolling Meadows joins about 25 other communities that have used the compact as a template for sustainability plans, including Hoffman Estates, Grayslake and Aurora.
"The consequences of climate change, which are a big part of the sustainability agenda, are all around us. We can see them," Assistant City Manager Glen Cole said. "There's been a lot of progress, but we can all tell that things are getting less stable, that disasters are happening more often. I think it's drawing folks' attention to the critical importance of these issues."
Though the process behind creating a sustainability plan can be expedited through the Green Region Compact framework, it's "still a big lift for communities," Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives for the caucus, said.
"Someone has to pull it all together, someone has to write it up, there has to be staff that agree to it as a sustainability commission - if you're lucky enough to have one," she added. "It's still something that we really applaud a community for doing. Not everyone does it."
Cole, who is also Rolling Meadows' Community Development Director, said while cities can't carry the whole climate change load on their own, "they certainly play a key role, and that's true of cities the size of Rolling Meadows as well."
"There's limits to our capacity, but we can be more agile than certainly states, the federal government and large organizations," he said. "This is the laboratories of democracy theory of sustainability: If we can demonstrate that these things work and deserve resources at a smaller level, we're playing our part."
In addition to the compact, the caucus also developed a more specific Climate Action Plan for the Chicago metro area in 2021, producing one of the first regional climate plans in the nation.
"When empowered, municipalities are the real leaders, and they want to take on sustainability," Makra said.
Makra added that the organization plans to update the Greenest Region Compact in the coming years to better align it with the Climate Action Plan, as well as to set more specific metrics to help communities measure success such as greenhouse gas emission savings, improved air quality and reduced transportation costs.
Rolling Meadows' sustainability plan is set to go before City Council Dec. 19 for approval. If passed, implementation will begin in January.
The three-year plan calls for annual progress reports, and it also states its next major revision should include additional policies that align to either the caucus' 2021 Climate Action Plan or, if ready, the newest version of the Greenest Region Compact framework.
"I would like Rolling Meadows to be a leader on this thing," Koehler said. "We're small, but we can make things happen."
• Jenny Whidden, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.