Opinion » Note

The Office of Good Intentions

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Sustainability seems burdened with a phantom set of air quotes. Just what defines "sustainability" is a tricky conversation, made trickier by how much civic leaders and campaigning politicians love to trot it out. There's an unfortunate whiff of sloganeering to the term, and when government starts talking about it, bureaucracy seems to be waiting just offstage.

Now the city of Boise is partnering with the Idaho Conservation League and Conservation Voters for Idaho to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to those twin municipal obsessions: sustainability and "livability."

As Boise Weekly News Editor George Prentice reports on those efforts--in their infancy--will almost certainly include some kind of city department to steer various projects to further "green" in the City of Trees.

It's a noble concept and other cities have taken this route--notably Austin, Texas, which set up its own Office of Sustainability in 2010. Armed with a budget of $1.38 million, the office was launched with, as the Austin Chronicle reported April 5, "a pile of good intentions" and a slate of projects already under way by various other departments.

Nonetheless, after three years, Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens is still in the unenviable position of justifying her job with little to show a skeptical City Council--except, of course, an amorphous feeling that Austin's image of sustainability is "a key attractor for businesses that are coming here," as she was quoted saying by the Chronicle.

The problem--and peril with these kinds of initiatives--is that Austin's sustainability office isn't big enough or powerful enough to wrap its arms around the whole of city government to guide (much less push) its programs to fruition.

What sets Boise's plan apart from Austin's reality, however, is the partnership between the city and conservation groups. In Austin, buy-in from the area's environmental community has not been forthcoming and the city's support has been lukewarm.

That may well be the saving grace for a Boise "office of sustainability," rescuing it from becoming a clearinghouse for eco-platitudes. If it's true what Boise Mayor Dave Bieter says--that sustainability is "part of our city's marrow"--the public would do well to remind its leaders that strong bones are important for the heavy lifting needed to make these efforts worthwhile.