Sustainable Jersey Releases National Study of State-Local Sustainability Initiatives

Report provides a comparative look at state-local sustainability rating systems and programs across U.S.

Sustainable Jersey today released a study on a new breed of bottom-up meets top-down state-local sustainability programs in the United States. Municipal certification or recognition is a signature element of these programs; yet, certification is merely the visible tip of an iceberg of collective action aiming to coordinate priorities, policy, and resources among state and local, public and private actors.

The state-local sustainability programs link rating systems, resources, and rewards, often though novel bottom-up meets top-down governance structures. The result is a new pathway for progress that blends the resources and capacity of state government and other statewide actors with the strengths of local government and communities in flexible and innovative implementation. Collectively these programs have engaged more than a thousand local governments to implement sustainability initiatives across the United States.

Funded by the Surdna Foundation, this study was guided by a working group comprised of representatives of five state-local sustainability programs including: Minnesota GreenStep Cities, Sustainable Maryland, Sustainable Pennsylvania, Wisconsin Green Tier Legacy Communities and Sustainable Jersey. Key personnel from Green Cities California, Clean Energy Communities (CT), the Florida Green Building Coalition, Massachusetts Green Communities, Michigan Green Communities, Climate Smart Communities (NY) and Go Green Virginia also contributed to the report.

“This study sheds light on a growing trend where organizations operating at the statewide level form partnerships to amplify the role of local government to make change,” said Helen Chin, director, Sustainable Environments at The Surdna Foundation. “This is a growing model where statewide organizations, including state government, engage communities to set standards together and cooperate to identify needed resources that enable the communities to make measurable change on the ground. Hundreds of local governments are now placing sustainability on the policy agenda and implementing thousands of discrete sustainability projects within a short span of time.”

Melanie Hughes McDermott, Ph.D., a senior researcher at Sustainable Jersey and one of the report authors said, “This report is part of a multi-year effort to understand and support the growth of state-local sustainability programs and evaluate their potential. In addition to providing insights across the board, the report includes program profiles of each of the twelve state-sustainability programs. We hope to show a path forward toward collaboration across the United States to move these local efforts to the next level.”

A draft of the report was presented and discussed in depth at the first national convening of state sustainability programs, held in New Brunswick, New Jersey in December 2015. “Most of the programs are dealing with similar issues. We see great potential in the programs coming together to learn from each other, share resources, and also to engage national partners,” said Randall Solomon, co-director of Sustainable Jersey and an author of the report. “The state programs agreed that it would be beneficial to form a national network to set common standards and share resources and best practices. We continue to meet and plan to have a second convening this September,” he added.

A few themes emerge from the comparative analysis of the twelve state-local sustainability programs:

  • Most of the programs set standards and rate community performance on dimensions related to sustainability and/or energy, and provide a form of certification or recognition to local governments.
  • Most of the programs go beyond rating communities and work to provide resources in the form of grants or technical assistance to help communities make progress.
  • Some programs are led by NGOs or universities, while others are led by state government. The organizations generally embody some kind of public-private cooperative relationship.
  • State-led programs as a whole tend to have larger budgets and higher rates of entry-level participation.
  • A higher proportion of participants in programs led by NGOs and universities attain certification (or equivalent recognition).
  • Funding available to the programs is a key driver of local participation, but is not the only driver.  Funding for operations and direct grants to local governments is the number one need cited by respondents.
  • All twelve programs strive to demonstrate widespread impact. Thus, the participants in this study expressed a keen interest in networking to engage national partners, attract resources, and learn from each other how best to make (and measure) impact – one community at a time.

To view the Statewide Sustainability Report, visit


Sustainable Jersey is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides tools, training and financial incentives to support communities as they pursue sustainability programs. Currently, 77 percent, or 434 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities are participating in the municipal certification program and 168 school districts and 438 schools are participating in the new Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification program.