This is a story of a resource poor city that, faced with fast-paced growth and looming implications of rapid climate change, banded together to act. It is a story of community commitment to reconnect and reenergize today, while accomplishing an inclusive and equitable vision for tomorrow. This is the story of the Sustainable Denver Summit.
White-capped rocky peaks stand motionless and calm, as if immune to change. A stark difference to the lively conversation and energy taking hold at the first Sustainable Denver Summit, but yet, the perfect backdrop to a discussion about the importance of ensuring a prosperous and sustainable community for generations to come. It’s a reminder to the non-profit, government, and business leaders who fill the seats of the Summit, of the basic resources Denver residents and visitors depend upon for both their livelihoods and pastimes.
In the early afternoon, during the second networking break of the day, one attendee, a woman with long, dark-hair in her mid-thirties, quietly steps off to an empty hallway that leads to a room with a few west-facing windows and a bench just below. She takes a seat and peers out at those strong, still Colorado Rockies blanketed in champagne snow and takes a deep breath.
She starts to think about how just a couple of months earlier she felt frustrated, depressed, and overwhelmed at work. During this time, she felt like issues of air pollution, social justice, resource scarcity and, of course, climate change were BIG issues and, while her work to address them was good, it was not good enough for the vastness of the problems at hand. The father-daughter trips camping in those very mountains she was gazing at were what led her to college dreams of being a positive force for change in her community and her eventual career path in sustainability. Even so, her “glass half full,” hopeful attitude had dampened over time. She had a 7-year-old son of her own. She took him to those same camping spots she fondly remembered. She wanted to be certain that the trees, streams, and wildflowers would be there for him to take his children to and for generations after that. But that dark feeling had her worried that it might not happen.
As she sits there, she thinks how finally this dark sense she had just a couple of months ago is now gone. Her initial passion, inspiration, and drive that filled her college dreams are restored, and give her optimism for her family’s future. The Summit, the community network it brought together and the action-oriented commitment process during the months leading up to it have reminded her she isn’t alone in pursuing a prosperous and sustainable future in Denver; that hundreds, even thousands, of others are working to the same end. It was a reminder of the leadership support from Denver’s Mayor, who is not just actively pursuing this cause, but leading the community forward on it. Feeling her energy renewed, she exhales and stands up with strength like the mountains, ready for the next breakout session, ready to get back to work, ready to make an impact.
This buzzing energy that could result in year-round action and an outcome focus was a glimmer in the eye of Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock a year prior, inspired by the work of the Clinton Foundation. Hosted in Denver by the presidential family itself, the Foundation’s 7th annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting in 2014 brought together over 165 heads of state and hundreds more private and non-profit industry leaders, philanthropists and more to make commitments of action to address the significant global challenges of their time.1 As Mayor Hancock made his own commitment at the meeting for the City and County of Denver to develop a supportive housing social impact bond during times of major growth and quickly increasing housing prices,2 he also heard the hundreds of leaders like Kazuo Hirai, CEO and president of Sony Corporation, and Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme, make their own commitments to a better world, and as he did so that glimmer in his eye began to grow. On the trip back to his office, with the theme, Reimaging Impact, reverberating in his head, Mayor Hancock’s glimmer bubbled into a full-blown idea of reimagining impact right in his own backyard of Denver, Colorado.
A year later, in December 2015, the first Sustainable Denver Summit launched with a similar mission to focus not just on talk, but on action to overcome local challenges with a Denver twist that comes from the community’s culture.3 Denver is known for a strong connection to the outdoors with its pristine skiing and access to dozens of fourteeners, making it a hot spot for adventure enthusiasts, but residents there also have a strong connection to one another. Whether it is the calming effect of the natural surroundings or the mix of millennial liberalism with the old spirit of the Wild West, Denverites put community before politics and agendas, working across the aisle and collaborating with competitors to do what’s best for its health-conscious inhabitants.
The community’s collaborative nature led to the development of its ambitious 2020 Sustainability Goals. Denver’s Office of Sustainability, formed by Mayor Hancock in 2012, worked with local industry and residents in a variety of workgroups to develop 12 impactful community goals and a vision of a sustainable city for all.4,5 Local conditions that include rapid growth in population, unproductive soils, a dry climate, and high background ozone pollution became the backbone for identifying the twelve resource categories, all of which relate back to the Sustainability Office’s mission to ensure that the basic resources that are the foundation of our economy and quality of life are available and affordable to everyone, both today and in the future.6
These goals, finalized in 2013, would become the centerpiece of the commitment process for the Sustainable Denver Summit. Commitments made at the Summit or at more in-depth pre-Summit roundtables would reflect the following key characteristics to ensure their success: 1) The specific action to be taken had to be done within a particular time period, 2) the commitment would be new, not simply the continuation of an existing initiative, 3) impact of the commitment could be observed, measured, or otherwise documented, and, of course, 4) fulfillment of the commitment would contribute to achieving one or more of the 2020 goals.7 Similar to the Clinton Global Initiative, participants included leaders from government, non-profit, and business, but on a local scale.
After attending the last breakout session, the dark-haired woman returned to the main ballroom, excited to end the day on a high note. She had attended the Energy pre-summit roundtable and knew that the commitment her company made to install rooftop solar on its headquarters just west of downtown was going to be mentioned in conjunction with all the others her peers had worked to make. This commitment was a turning point for her company…and, if she was being honest, for her. It was something she had advocated to do for some time– with 300 days of sunshine in Denver it just made sense. The corporate peers she needed to go along included a middle-aged woman who was a triathlon competitor, a cowboy boot-and-suit wearing older gentleman, and a newer guy who just moved to Denver from California, all of whom had varied levels of support for her commitment concept, and questions about the company’s ability to fulfill financial, operational, and environmental promises. Luckily, the prospect of earning valuable recognition at the Summit pushed her CEO to finally agree to approve the commitment. When the approval came it was the first time in a while that she had felt inspired and motivated, a personal turning point and something the Summit reinforced for her as the day went by.
After a few remarks Denver’s Chief Sustainability Officer began to read off the commitments. She waited to hear her company’s announcement. As she sat there patiently it became apparent that it might take some time, as there were over 100 pledges made by all types of entities. The announcement of every single one was a little tedious, but also reminded her of one of the main reasons she had felt reenergized in the first place – the impact of the whole, the communal effort, and its ability to truly move the needle on issues that seemed overwhelming when viewed through the lens of an individual or single company’s ability. Her thoughts quickly shifted back to the present moment when she heard her company’s commitment announced. Applause filled the room and a smile broke out on her face. Then it was on to the next commitment – after all they had to get through over one hundred of them.
The first Summit was over, it was now time for attendees to get to work, as this was a year-round action-oriented effort, not just a day of talk. The Mayor was proud of the kick-off, but also knew there was a challenging task ahead for the Office of Sustainability: To ensure these commitments would be implemented and not just celebrated and then forgotten. The small but mighty three-person team would have to develop a tracking system that had the dual purpose of keeping tabs on commitment progress as well as keeping those entities accountable for the commitments they made.
Challenges always come when charting new courses. It was no different for the Office of Sustainability. The team had never planned an event like this, and could not find a similar event from another city that could serve as a template. With no track record they had no idea whether commitments would be made, and if so, how many. When over a hundred came in at the first Summit8 – many shoved into their hands minutes before they were to be announced – the final announcement seemed like a hectic backend effort that barely came together. But embedded in that rough ending to the first Summit were opportunities to learn and improve for the next.
The optimistic outlook that came out of the first Summit was fading by mid-year as the dark-haired woman began to realize that her company had fallen off track with the commitment they had made. After getting approval from the CEO and making a public commitment, she thought the challenges had been overcome, but actual implementation and complete buy-in from other leadership proved more difficult than expected. With all the other work piling up on her desk this commitment continued to fall low on the priority list.
In the midst of all this, the phone rang, it was a call from the Office of Sustainability, checking up on her commitment progress. She let them know the challenges and concerns. Over a few calls the Sustainability Office team brainstormed some potential solutions, opportunities, and contact leads with the woman. After connecting with the leads given to her, she was reminded of the collaborative spirit in Denver. Each one she reached out to had more leads and helpful information to win over leadership. After a few months of starting to incorporate the action items from these conversations, she began to get back on track. Plans for the solar operation were in final design just in time for the next set of roundtables as Denver geared up for the second annual Summit in November 2016.
Starting in 2015 Mayor Hancock and Office of Sustainability have worked with the community to develop four sold-out Sustainable Denver Summits.9 Although there have been stumbles like the commitment announcement and challenges in keeping some commitments on track, overall success has prevailed. Each year the attendance has grown, nearly doubling from 370 the first year to over 850 in the fourth.10,11 Over 225 commitments by community partners from business, non-profit, and government have been made to help accomplish the 2020 Sustainability Goals.8 While some have fallen off course, over 70% are on track or already completed.8
Charting a new course as the first Summit of its kind in Colorado and perhaps in the entire country, the small and mighty team of three in the Denver Office of Sustainability tapped in to that deep connection Denverites have with the mountains to the west and one another. They have created an annual collaborative process across industries, competitors, and political divisions, to meet a common vision of a sustainable, prosperous, and inclusive community tied back to its cultural roots, while looking forward as it wisely uses its limited resources in the face of substantial growth.
The story doesn’t end here, 2020 is still a year away and there is plenty more to do after that marker in time has passed, but the cross-sector, cross-industry collaboration and connections made will be what ensures Denver’s sustainability success.
- The Clinton Foundation, CGI America 2015 [online]. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/clinton-global-initiative/meetings/cgi-america/2015
- The Clinton Foundation, Denver’s Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond [online]. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/clinton-global-initiative/commitments/denvers-supportive-housing-social-impact-bond
- Tinianow, J. 2015 Sustainable Denver Summit Program Book (November 2015).
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, 2020 Sustainability Goals [online]. https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/office-of-sustainability/2020-sustainability-goals.html
- Tinianow, J. Personal communication, spring 2018.
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, About [online]. https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/office-of-sustainability/about-us.html
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, Make a Commitment to Action [online]. https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/office-of-sustainability/summit/commitments/commit-to-action.html
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, Commitments [online]. https://www.denvergov.org/content/denvergov/en/office-of-sustainability/summit/commitments.html
- Tinianow, J. Personal communication, spring 2018.
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, Attendee List – Final, December 2015
- Eventbrite, Attendee Summary Report, December 2018
- City & County of Denver Office of Sustainability, Sustainable Denver Summit Fact Sheet, July 2018