What started as an effort to improve the city for its residents has led to national recognition and a way of life for members of the Coon Rapids, Minn., community.
The city was awarded the American Public Works Association’s Sustainability Practices Award in 2016, which is part of a national awards program established to recognize outstanding individuals, groups and chapters representing the best in the public works profession.
Sustainability measures, such as stormwater management, recycling, water conservation and exploring alternative energy sources, played a role in the city’s award. The people behind the scenes, however, deserve the most recognition, according to Assistant City Engineer Mark Hansen.
“We have a very progressive sustainability commission that has helped make recommendations to our city council that have been incredibly innovative,” Hansen said. “Sure, the award is a lot about our green programs, but it’s also about how we maintain our buildings, how we incorporate energy efficiency and our innovation with irrigation systems in our parks.”
The sustainability commission, which started in 2009, is comprised of nine community members who volunteer their time. Since the commission’s inception, Coon Rapids has joined the ranks of other sustainable cities in Minnesota through the Greenstep Cities program, as well as implemented a number of sustainable practices throughout the community.
“Becoming a Greenstep City forced us to take an inventory of everything we were already doing and to brainstorm ways to improve,” Coon Rapids Recycling Coordinator Colleen Sinclair said. “We broke our city into 28 categories and looked at sustainable efforts in each of them. We did this inventory and came up with a sizable list of things we’d already been doing that we didn’t realize was actually sustainable.”
Through honing the list and making slight tweaks to already sustainable practices, Sinclair said the city gained Greenstep Cities approval. The program provides the framework for city managers to inventory, plan and monitor practices, savings and results.
One of the most impactful projects, Sinclair said, has been the installation of rain gardens throughout the city, and the educational element that has accompanied it.
“We decided to have rain gardens across the city, and with it we worked with the county watershed to create some educational programs to teach citizens why it’s important to capture and reuse rainwater and divert it from going down the roads,” she said. “Getting out into the community, educating residents and making an impact are important to us.”
While projects like the rain gardens and the city’s robust recycling program are critical to remaining sustainable, Hansen said there are some elements to being a sustainable city that people might not realize.
“Sustainability practices, which a lot of people might initially think of as green items like solar energy or wastewater management, actually (aren’t) where it ends,” he said. “It’s a lot about community sustainability and what we can do as a city to reinvest in our public infrastructure and helping our private industry and housing stock remain in good condition. It’s about keeping our city an attractive place to live and thrive and be successful economically.”
As an example, Hansen cited the city’s home regeneration program, which offers low interest loans to residents to remodel and reinvest in their own properties. Homeowners then have the option to work with architectural consultants, as well as to receive advice from other entities on how to better their residences.
“That’s something we don’t always think about,” Hansen said. “But it’s so important to the city to have good, maintained and affordable homes.”
Future projects on the docket for the city include continued improvement of the parks system, a closer look at citywide garbage collection, the potential for residents to practice beekeeping in their backyards, LED streetlights and revisiting the sustainable impact of the city’s purchasing policies.
“As we continue to utilize our inventory, we’re looking at what makes the most sense to accomplish,” Sinclair said. “We’re putting together a guidebook for the city staff to use for the next 40-plus years.”
However, Sinclair knows the potential for their new ideas to be obsolete by the time they’re able to work on them. But that doesn’t stop her.
“Sustainability is not a trend,” she said. “People are afraid if they commit to sustainability that they don’t know what it looks like because so much of it is unknown. That’s true, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what lies ahead, and it can be intimidating, but using the right tools, hiring the right staff and taking it one project at a time will get the job done.”
For now, she’s just happy that Coon Rapids is on the map.
“This is the first year we have a seat at the table,” Sinclair said. “It takes a lot of time to earn that and we’ve definitely spun our wheels getting there. But it just goes to show, start small, work with your state and community, and it’ll all pay off .