How Citizen Engagement has Boosted Middleton, Wisc. Toward Sustainable Success
Communities both large and small face the common challenge of following through on ambitious sustainability plans. When a community announces a plan, the initial excitement and support appear to make success all but inevitable. But all too often, attention wanes as time passes and lofty goals remain unmet. Middleton, Wisconsin, a city of 17,442 residents, provides a great example of how a community’s efforts to engage its citizens can result in more support for overall goals, new opportunities for community cohesion, and unexpected demand for local business expertise.
Middleton, a finalist for the 2012 Siemens Sustainability Community Awards, unveiled a bold sustainability plan in 2010. The Middleton Sustainability City Plan laid out 53 action steps and targets, as well as processes and metrics to measure progress in both areas. The goals espoused in the action steps ranged from decreasing energy use by 10% over 10 years to increasing the density of city residents.
However, Middleton didn’t want to impose these goals upon its citizens; it saw citizen engagement as imperative to the plan’s long-term success. As Abby Attoun-Tucker, Middleton’s Assistant Director of Community Developmentstressed, “Rather than regulate and enforce our sustainability goals, Middleton sought to educate and provide tools to community members.” This strategy has certainly paid off for the city. Not only has Middleton achieved many of the goals it set in 2010, but popular sustainability events around the city prove that engaging residents is an absolute necessity for successful sustainable communities.
Middleton didn’t impose these goals upon its citizens; it saw citizen engagement as imperative to success.
In 2009, Middleton established the "Clean and Green" biannual event that encouraged community members to recycle a variety of waste, including batteries and bulk items like refrigerators. Since the Sustainability City Plan of 2010, that event has grown to 70+ volunteers serving over 1000 residents. Last year, demand for the event was so high that traffic to the center was backed up over a mile. As a result, the city is planning a new permanent drop-off site so that residents can recycle their used goods throughout the year.
Another Middleton initiative that has grown greatly due to citizen engagement is the "Green Thursday" event series. Green Thursday events aim to bring stakeholders from across the city together to discuss particular sustainability issues. The first Green Thursday event, in 2010, took place in the Middleton’s library basement and drew 10 community members. Taking place only two years later, the February 2012 Green Thursday event drew over 70 people, had to be moved to a bigger venue, and was split into two groups. Since then, the Green Thursday model has been adopted by seven other communities near Middleton.
The "Green Thursday" model has been adopted by seven other communities near Middleton.
Middleton’s emphasis on getting citizen buy-in on sustainability has also paid off for local businesses. After events like Clean and Green and Green Thursday showed the benefits of sustainability, residents clamored for more information about how to manage their environmental impact. Whether it was information about energy efficiency, storm-water management, or other topics, residents wanted to know how to get involved with meeting Middleton’s sustainability goals. This prompted the city to start a database of local sustainability experts, including many local businesses, to answer queries. For example, an expert gardener has been added to the database to help Middleton plan community gardens. By getting residents excited about sustainability, Middleton has opened a new source of demand for local small and medium sized businesses.
We’re excited to showcase Middleton as one of the finalists of this year’s Siemens Sustainable Community Awards. The Awards will be presented at BCLC’s National Conference, which takes place from April 16 – 18 in Atlanta, GA.
Not only does Middleton present a great story of a community that has successfully engage its citizens around sustainability issues but it also provides practical lessons for other communities looking to become more sustainable. Middleton’s path toward sustainability – as evidenced by events such as Clean and Green and Green Thursday -- show how pivotal citizen engagement can be to realizing ambitious goals.