TIMES ARGUS 04/20/23
VTDIGGER 05/16/23

By Michael Shank

Cities around the world are increasingly investing in new approaches to engage communities in the co-creation of climate action and policymaking. There are several remarkable shifts happening across city ecosystems at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance as we build and scale out new, more effective climate strategies. Vermont cities and towns, take note. The Copenhagen case study below is the latest in how cities are reconfiguring municipal structures to tackle climate change.

First, our cities are rethinking their roles and identities and hiring climate and environmental justice directors, chief heat officers, green new dealers and climate budgeters to work across all city departments. Vermont cities and towns could benefit from these roles, too. These new hires work outside silos, and they send important messages about governance – that this work is intersectional and multi-disciplinary and that just and equitable participation is essential.

Second, our cities are revamping their approach to the community, using appreciative inquiry approaches to co-design the future with all stakeholders across a city ecosystem. They’re launching action networks to mobilize entire communities around carbon reduction initiatives, and they’re shifting power by establishing community-operated resilience hubs within local neighborhoods. All of this is good for the climate and good for democracy. Again, Vermont cities and towns could tap into these opportunities, too.

Third, our cities are radically reconfiguring their municipal infrastructure. One of our cities – Copenhagen – is reworking its entire municipal structure, getting rid of city scaffolding that might get in the way of engagement, and embedding local climate officers within the community for up to five years at a time. The strategy they’re using is based on asset-based community development thinking.

These municipal staff aren’t reporting to a city desk and a city office every day but are based in the community for years at a time. Their office is the community. Their desk is the day-to-day goings-on within the locality. Their job is to both represent the city to the citizenry but also to advocate for the community to the municipality. They have two bosses, in essence – the public as well as policymakers.

The new approach restructures the way in which the community engages with the city and vice versa. It begins to decentralize climate action in Copenhagen and democratize climate policymaking by ensuring a more seamless and constructive dialogue and partnership between city staff and city residents.

It’s innovative, and it’s the way forward for cities rethinking citizen engagement – something Vermont cities and towns could definitely improve upon. There’s a growing recognition among cities that past precedent and prior approaches to engagement – which have often taken the form of missives from government to the public in a unidirectional fashion – haven’t moved or mobilized the masses in the direction needed to slow climate change. Thus, the new approaches are very welcome and much needed now.

Copenhagen’s new approach, launched last year, to post climate officers within local communities is already yielding results. The city is witnessing a more engaged public, a richer conversation on climate policies, a more actionable climate agenda, and more human resources available to make it all happen.

The community of the willing – to advocate, activate, and actualize – has grown substantially as a result. And that’s going to be critical if Copenhagen is to meet its aggressive climate goals, which are some of the most ambitious goals of any city in the world. It’s going to require that everyone is on board the community’s and the city’s climate agenda to make it a reality.

This step is an exciting one, and it’s appropriate that such a climate leader like Copenhagen would lead in this way. Now it’s time for other local governments to consider how to decentralize city infrastructure and decision-making and shift power to the community, especially if we want to move on climate fast enough – and move together, united. If Vermont cities and towns want a more engaged citizenry, this is one way to manifest a more dynamic democracy.

The public wants it, and they’ll undoubtedly make good use of it. And it’s a shift that’ll move both systems and behavior change simultaneously.

Local governments: it’s time to go hyper-local.

Michael Shank, a resident of Montpelier, is director of engagement at the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and teaches sustainable development at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.