By Joel Mills

While Congress continues to debate the merits of various policy proposals to address climate change and sustainability, a growing number of communities across the country are applying their own approach to become more sustainable – and collectively they have a story to tell about what it takes to be successful. Dubuque, Iowa provides an interesting example of this phenomenon. As a 2007 All-America City, Dubuque has been setting the standard for what it means to be a successful community for several years now. Dubuque has been widely recognized for its achievements, including being listed as “The Most Livable Small City” (2008), one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People” (2008), and among “America’s Top 100 Places to Live.” Each success has built additional momentum for further public engagement and partnership.

The city is now seen as a leading partner for organizations that are attempting to develop innovative solutions to the challenges of climate change. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Dubuque as one of 3 partner cities for its new Green Lab initiative to develop best practices in sustainability and preservation. This year, the Obama administration included the city on its tour of America to highlight urban success stories. IBM recently announced that Dubuque will serve as its first “Smart City” partnership in the United States, with the hope that it can develop a model for other communities regarding energy efficiency. Recently, I spoke with Laura Carstens, Planning Services Manager for the City of Dubuque, about what makes the city successful. According to her, cross-sector partnerships, broad public participation in the city’s vision and implementation, and innovative thinking about the city’s assets are driving an unprecedented level of achievement. “One of the reasons IBM selected Dubuque was the fact that we have a longstanding approach to the use of partnerships. We realized long ago that the city can’t do it alone,” says Carstens.

Dubuque’s story is one of several cases highlighted in the fall 2010 edition of the National Civic Review. This edition is organized as a survey of community sustainability and contains a diverse compilation of community experiences that demonstrate the important connection between civic capacity and sustainability. In these places, the focus is not only on what gets done, but more importantly, how it is done. Taken collectively, these stories represent an emerging narrative about how America will take on its most pressing challenges during the next half century.  We hope that readers will find inspiration and encouragement in these stories, and that this edition will make a small contribution to the ongoing dialogue about sustainability and national renewal.

Joel Mills is director of the American Institute of Architects Center for Communities by Design.