Boise: Livable? Sure. Sustainable? We'll See 

'Office of Sustainability' among the proposals being fronted by local conservation and environmental groups

Livable? You bet. Sustainable? Let's See.

Kelsey Hawes

Livable? You bet. Sustainable? Let's See.

Anyone who thinks that a special Boise City Council work session was haphazardly scheduled for the morning of Tuesday, April 22, hasn't been paying attention. On that day--the 44th anniversary of the creation of Earth Day, where nearly 200 nations demonstrate support for environmental protection--the city of Boise is expected to unveil a cluster of initiatives, including a push to increase local food production and new conservation efforts. The latter is one the city's most ambitious sustainable efforts to date. But whether those initiatives are enough to link Boise's brand of "livability" to "sustainability" remains to be seen.

In 2006, Boise became the first Idaho city to sign on to the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement; that was followed by the 2008 opening of the Boise WaterShed, the 2009 launch of the city's Curb It program and a 2010 plan to reduce dangerous phosphorus levels in the Boise River through the use of the Dixie Drain.

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter told Boise Weekly, "This year marks another important step ... that will push the city's efforts even further," adding that, if approved, the efforts might require "a new staff lead to oversee these projects and ensure they include interaction and communication with stakeholders and the public."

Back in 2007, as Boise was dialing up its environmental campaigns, Bieter met with Sara Arkle shortly after the Idaho Conservation League had hired her to take the reins as its community conservation associate.

"And I remember the mayor telling me, 'You're going to need to push us on some of these conservation issues. We care about this stuff, but we have a lot going on," Arkle recalled.

But one person's "pushing" is another person's advocacy. In fact, BW has learned that a recent letter to Bieter and the Boise City Council is pushing hard for the creation of an Office of Sustainability at City Hall.

"And we envision that the office would report directly to the mayor or the Council," said Arkle. "You have to have an entity that's on equal footing, so that it's able to bring as many departments together as needed."

In addition to the ICL, the March 28 letter to Bieter and Council was co-authored by officials from the Conservation Voters for Idaho, Idaho Chapters of the Sierra Club and U.S. Green Building Council, Idaho Clean Energy Alliance, Idaho Green Fest, Idaho Green Works, Idaho Pedestrian & Bicycle Alliance, Idaho Rivers United, Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, Boise Urban Garden School and the Snake River Alliance. It is the first such coalition to formally call for the creation of a new City Hall office.

"A project-by-project approach to sustainability is not enough," wrote the coalition. "We urge you to take the next step in our city's evolution to meet the goal of the 'Most Livable City in the Country' ... by creating an Office of Sustainability."

And advocating for such an office isn't just limited to NGOs, nonprofits or environmental activists. It also happens to include some of Idaho's largest corporations.

"Simplot, Hewlett-Packard, Idaho Power--they all have formal sustainability programs in their corporate infrastructure," said Arkle. "There are specific studies proving that a dedicated executive, on par with other department heads, can accomplish efficiencies, save money, protect natural resources and be accountable to the desires of owners and shareholders."

When, or even if, officials from Simplot or HP get a chance to brief city officials on their own corporate successes, Boise Councilwoman Lauren McLean said it all pencils out because "sustainability fuels prosperity."

"Great cities make important investments in sustainability," she told BW. "Our environment, our community and our economy are central to our long-term livability and success."

McLean, who remains one of City Hall's champions for environmental stewardship, told BW in 2013 that she would "like to see an Office of Sustainability ... that works with all the existing departments."

Eleven months later, McLean said, "My concern isn't specifically how this comes about. I want to make sure that we are thinking conscientiously about sustainability in everything we do, and every action we take as a city; and that this effort has the attention and support it needs to thrive, and that it grows over time."

Bieter added that he expected a City Hall staff position could, in all likelihood, provide oversight for a number of city initiatives, but he was "less concerned about the symbolism of a position than I am with the substance of our activities."

Arkle insisted that whatever is placed before the City Council on April 22, whether it's the creation of a new City Hall office or a string of new projects, "We stand to lose our identity without a focused sustainability effort."

"Small incremental movements can turn a large ship," she said. "But you need a consistent wind in your sails."

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