Ironically — or maybe not, given the status of infrastructure vis-à-vis other publicly funded services such as education, safety, and health care — a discussion about sustainability ultimately becomes a discussion about resources.

Just when residents and elected officials are most interested in how public works affects quality of life, operations have the least amount of funding and staffing to invest in much beyond extending the utility of existing assets and satisfying regulatory imperatives.

The American Public Works Association defines sustainability as “seeking a balanced approach for a vibrant community today and tomorrow by delivering services and infrastructure in an environmentally and socially responsible way and that ensure the best economic choice in the long term.” Because a community is a system, the association encourages managers to take an integrated, whole-systems approach to their work. The association's sustainability conference in June walked attendees through the process of defining, articulating, leading, and measuring the results of such an operation.

In August, we sent our list of 44,000 e-mail subscribers 14 questions about how they're responding to this latest imperative. Almost 500 — 1.1% — responded. (Thank you, by the way.)

This isn't about global warming, climate change, or one of the other terms so prevalent in the media: whether it exists and, if so, why; whether it's a left-wing conspiracy to halt development or a right-wing conspiracy to make the politically connected richer.

To pretend these elements don't influence what's expected of you and your team is naïve. But we're more interested in what you're doing with the resources you do have.

Here's what we learned.

Web Extra

To find out:

  • Which programs/methodologies your colleagues have used to develop a formal sustainability action plan
  • Why they developed the plan
  • How to access the American Public Works Association's online Framework for Sustainable Communities.
  • Click here