The key causes and solutions to climate change are urban. Urban businesses, residents, land uses, and the supply chains that support them emit approximately 70 percent of greenhouse gasses.1-2 Cities are well situated to mitigate their emissions because they have (relatively) functional governments (compared to, for example, nations), because they have wealth (they generate more than 70 percent of the world’s economy), and because they attract talented and motivated workers and residents.1-3 Cities, thus, have the motivation and the capacity to innovate climate solutions, and they are doing so around the world.3-4

Readers of this article will find two valuable lessons. First, the article describes a useful template—known as a Community Energy Plan—that other communities can use to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as make their energy systems more secure, reliable, affordable. And, second, it illustrates a process—known as Collective Impact—that helps organize stakeholders to address complex adaptive problems such as climate mitigation.

Arlington, near Washington DC, is one of the most ethnically diverse, densely populated, highly educated, and wealthy urban municipalities in the United States. Its vision is to “be a diverse and inclusive world-class urban community with secure, attractive residential and commercial neighborhoods where people unite to form a caring, learning, participating, sustainable community in which each person is important.” Its applications of smart growth and transit-oriented development were celebrated and studied for more than 50 years and earned the US Environmental Protection Agency’s highest awards. It built on that momentum to produce an award-winning Community Energy Plan.5 The US Department of Energy uses Arlington as an illustrative case study of successful community energy planning.6

The Community Energy Plan seeks to enhance Arlington’s long-term economic competitiveness, energy security, and environmental quality, and, by 2050, cut per capita carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 75 percent from 2007 levels. Extensive and detailed documentation of the plan and strategies are published on Arlington’s website.7 The plan has six specific goals, each with supporting policies, strategies, tools, and metrics.

  1. Increase energy efficiency of all buildings, not just public buildings. Strategies include incentivizing developers with density bonuses to encourage all new construction meets global standards for green buildings. Arlington also developed programs encouraging energy reduction of existing building stock, including training energy retrofit contractors, promoting energy labels on appliances, and exchanging light bulbs. Targets include reducing per square foot energy use by 60 percent in nonresidential buildings and 55 percent for residential buildings by 2050, as compared to 2007 levels.
  2. Increase local supply and efficiency of energy using combined heat and energy systems that connect building heating and cooling needs to electricity generation (because as much as 70 percent of energy in fuel used in energy production can be lost as heat). These district energy systems also increase energy security because local systems should still operate when regional power supplies are disrupted by events outside Arlington’s boarders.
  3. Increase low-carbon energy options, particularly solar electric and hot water. Strategies include incentivizing developers to integrate solar into building designs and partnering with utilities to increase renewable energy powering the grid. To meet the summer peak demand for power and reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, Arlington aims to have 160 megawatts of solar photovoltaics installed by 2050.
  4. Reduce energy used in transportation by improving infrastructure and operations. Strategies include promoting walkable, mixed-use development, multimodal transportation, and providing easy access to alternative fueling options that encourage use of lower carbon emitting vehicles. Arlington is already a leader in smart growth transportation but seeks to further reduce the amount of carbon produced from transportation to 1.0 metric ton CO2 emissions per capita per year by 2050 from 3.7 mt in 2007.
  5. Government operations will lead by example by setting and achieving targets that are at least as rigorous as those set for the broader community. Arlington seeks to integrate energy goals into all government activities by developing policies and allocating funding. Specifically, Arlington seeks to reduce government CO2 emissions by 76 percent by 2050, compared to 2007.
  6. Reduce personal energy consumption by advocating and supporting behavior changes by, for example, providing residents and businesses with accessible, trusted information about energy and by hosting green games and energy events that inspire people and organizations to compete to reduce energy use.

Collective Impact

Arlington’s process of developing its Community Energy Plan illustrates Collective Impact. The Collective Impact method provides a set of best practices for getting diverse people and organizations to collaborate in solving large-scale, complex, ill defined, wicked problems such as transforming a community’s energy system.8-9 Below we use aspects of Arlington’s process to illustrate key features of Collective Impact with the intent of helping other communities imagine how they might tackle their wicked challenges.

A Common Agenda: Stakeholders must agree on a process, or agenda, for collaborating. The agenda requires commitment to work toward a shared understanding of the problem, agreeing to initial goals and strategies, and developing indicators to which the actors hold themselves accountable. The goals, strategies, and resources typically are not known in advance. They emerge through collective vigilance, learning, and action facilitated by commitment to a carefully structured process. Stakeholders often need time to see that their own interests will be offered fair consideration and that decisions will be based on deliberation, evidence, and agreed upon principles rather than capricious criteria or, worse, political favoritism. Developing trust can be a monumental challenge when stakeholders have previously been adversaries and/or come from different sectors with different expectations.

Arlington’s elected officials had been facilitating discussions about environmental issues for decades by advocating smart growth and other progressive efforts to improve quality of life, and following up those discussions with responsive governance. These efforts created a trusted “holding space” for stakeholders to engage and for the Community Energy Plan to emerge. Officials used their networks and personal relationships to assemble stakeholders motivated to maintain Arlington’s reputation as a place attractive to businesses and residents who value quality of life and environmental quality. They wanted to sustain this distinction and thus differentiate Arlington from neighboring municipalities. A robust, transparent, and trusted process allowed stakeholders to engage with each other and share and shape visions about Arlington’s future. Ambiguous (and somewhat controversial) terms such as sustainability and climate change were used in early discussions, but not in a way that was prescriptive. Stakeholders eventually agreed to more specific goals and strategies about energy security, economic competitiveness, and environmental quality, which generated greater and more widespread commitment. Importantly, both the vision and solution were emergent and depended on a process and safe holding space that allowed stakeholders to rub their values and visions against one another and spark innovation and shared commitment to action.

A critical juncture in the process was the convening of an advisory council in 2010—The Community Energy and Sustainability Task Force. Task Force members represented a broad mix of community interests, including 29 organizations. “There are a large number of other stakeholders and members with a particular expertise to help us stretch and dig into an issue that is not normally on the plate of a local government,” Board Chairman Jay Fisette said when explaining its formation.10 The Task Force was joined and staffed by a team of consultants and Arlington government employees, who met every other month for 18 months, consulted experts, studied what other cities were doing, vetted proposals, and tailored a plan specific to Arlington’s political and environmental situation. Attendance and commitment stayed high; it was rare that someone missed a meeting.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities:

Stakeholders need clearly differentiated tasks that are coordinated to be mutually reinforcing. They need to know what their responsibilities are and how their individual roles meaningfully contribute to the larger outcome. Somewhat counter-intuitively, stakeholders whose roles in the community are most similar to one another may find collaboration challenging because they compete territorially for ownership and recognition for their contributions. Another challenge that might arise is motivating stakeholders to carry out parts of the effort that, although necessary, do not receive ample public recognition and reward.

Throughout Arlington’s planning process, efforts were made to identify and work across internal government silos such as departments and commissions responsible for transportation, housing, urban forestry, and environmental services, all of which had operations, policy mandates, or responsibilities with implications for energy policy. This level of interagency coordination proved difficult. After 18 months of work resulting in a draft Community Energy Plan, Arlington’s Planning Commission declined to adopt the document as official policy, in part, because it questioned how the plan would be integrated with Arlington’s existing activities and programs. The Task Force re-grouped and re-organized its plan with more detailed analysis, engagement from the Planning Commission, additional engagement with community groups, and better coor-dination across Arlington’s diverse government programs so that all stakeholders had clearer roles and greater commitment.

Organizations from civil society and business stepped into new roles. For example, Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment, a local NGO, took on the responsibility for managing a rebate program that incentivizes homeowners to implement residential energy efficiency improvements.11 It contracted with Arlington to administer, staff, market, and process homeowners’ rebate requests. And, starting in 1999, well before the Community Energy Plan efforts began, developers of new buildings utilized Arlington’s green building program, which gives density bonuses above what zoning allowed in exchange for constructing more energy efficient buildings. This program evolved and became a cornerstone of the community energy plan, as commercial buildings account for half the energy Arlington consumes.12-13

Transparent Accounting Using Shared Metrics: Measurement is where the rubber meets the road. It defines how success will be identified. Precise, affordable, regular, and shared metrics help collaborators remain aligned, hold each other accountable, and learn from each other’s successes and failures.

Arlington set an overall carbon emissions target of 3.0 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita per year by 2050, which would be a reduction of nearly 75 percent from 2007 and comparable to global benchmark cities such as Copenhagen. Dozens of specific, measurable indicators were identified to gauge progress. Milestones were set for 2020, 2040, and 2050.13-14 For example, for the strategy of increased energy efficiency in residential building stock, Arlington set milestones of reductions of 5 percent by 2020, 25 percent by 2030, 40 percent by 2040, and 55 percent by 2050 from 2007 levels. Indicators of other strategies have similarly specific measures and benchmarks. Arlington’s challenge has been measuring and reporting these indicators, in part because of the expense of doing so.

Backbone: Collective Impact requires coordination of stakeholders.7 Coordination is not glamorous, plus it takes time and money, which few stakeholders can spare. Lack of a backbone infrastructure to support coordination is one of the most frequent reasons why multi-stakeholder collaborative efforts fail. Functions that must be performed include organizing and facilitating meetings, supporting technology and communications, collecting and reporting data, writing proposals for funding, conducting research and inviting experts, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly. Arlington’s government funded and staffed these critical back-bone functions.

Continuous Communication: Consistent, open communication among stakeholders builds trust, clarifies objectives, creates motivation, and, importantly, promotes adjustments to goals and strategies as stakeholders share lessons they learn from their successes and failures. Arlington’s Energy Task Force developed an internal communication strategy designed to share information, questions, and decisions. For example, questions asked by or of the Task Force were meticulously recorded with attribution so that people could remember what was asked and why it was asked. Subsequent answers or decisions were recorded and shared as a part of the public record. Arlington staff also worked hard to regularly meet with key stakeholders to share updates, solicit feedback, and keep everyone well informed. Over 100 public meetings served as another type of communication. Also, letters and written feedback were solicited from residents, stakeholder groups, and commissions. The Task Force also sought to publicize energy issues and Task Force efforts among residents. For instance, Task Force staff with a bevy of volunteers, marketed and staffed a life-sized game designed to educate people of all ages and backgrounds about energy issues. And, of course, Arlington maintained a website that displayed meeting minutes, resources, and now serves as a portal for anyone interested in specifics.

An Influential Champion: Collective Impact is more likely to succeed when a champion (or small group of champions) commands the respect necessary to bring key stakeholders together and keeps them engaged over time. The champion must also have the courage to let the participants figure out the questions and answers themselves. Earlier efforts by Arlington to address climate-related issues were championed by Paul Ferguson former Chairman of the Arlington County Board and by County Manager Ron Carlee, but the energy planning effort was spearheaded by Jay Fisette during his term as Board Chair. All these champions used their networks and personal relationships to assemble and motivate the Task Force and other actors. Importantly, the tone they set was not hierarchical, with leaders imposing their vision, using position and charisma to persuade others to align. Rather, as is classic of Collective Impact processes, both the vision and solution were emergent and dependent on an open and transparent process.

Adequate Financial Resources: Reliable funding for multiple years from at least one anchor funder is needed to support and mobilize other resources. In 2007, Arlington created a reliable funding source using a utility tax on residential customers of electricity and natural gas. To address regressivity of a tax, Arlington excludes from taxation the first 400 kWh of electricity usage and the first 20 CCF of natural gas usage. Arlington also remains the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia that does not impose a monthly minimum residential utility tax on consumers. These exclusions result in a greater tax on heavy users while not penalizing residents that use less than average amounts of electricity and natural gas. The tax has generated approximately $1.6 million per year. About $1M goes toward staff, $300k goes toward consultants, and the rest goes toward advancing energy efficiency improvements in government-owned facilities and paying for programs such as the Home Energy Rebates program. In the years since the energy tax began, Arlington has been able to leverage these funds with sources such as the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program.


Humanity faces wicked challenges such as climate change whose solutions exceed the capacities of individual organizations, even governments. Many stakeholders must find ways to collaborate, innovate, and change business as usual. The Collective Impact method provides a set of best practices for coordinating such efforts. We review above a few of those practices. Excellent resources exist to learn more. It is encouraging to see innovative local governments like Arlington, Virginia successfully addressing society’s most pressing issues.


    1. 1. Barber, BR. Cool cities: urban sovereignty and the fix for global warming. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017).
    1. 2. Bloomberg, M & Pope, C. Climate of hope: how cities, businesses, and citizens can save the planet. (Macmillian, NY 2017).
    1. 3. Florida, R. The new urban crisis: How our cities are increasing inequality, deepening segregation, and failing the middle class and what we can do about it. (Hachette UK 2017)
    1. 4. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Climate action in megacities 3.0: networking works, there is no global solution without local action. C40 and ARUP [online] (2015).
    1. 5. American Planning Association. National planning achievement awards 2014. [online]
    1. 6. US Department of Energy. Arlington County, Virginia: community energy plan. [online]
    1. 7. Arlington County. Community energy plan [online]
    1. 8. Kania, J & Kramer, M. Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review 9(1): 36-41 (2011).
    1. 9. Center for Community Health and Development, University of Kansas. Community Tool Box: Collective Impact [online]
    1. 10. Arlington County Planning Commission Documents: Task Force minutes.
    1. 11. Arlington County Home Energy Rebate program. [online]
    1. 12. Arlington County Green Building Bonus Density program. [online]
    1. 13. Arlington County community energy plan implementation framework. [online]
    14. Arlington community energy plan metrics baseline report. [online]

R. Bruce Hull

Dr. Bruce Hull is Professor and Senior Fellow at the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability at Virginia Tech. He writes and speaks about constructing sustainable development, innovative leadership,...


Rich Dooley

Rich Dooley is Arlington County’s Community Energy Coordinator on the Rethink Energy (AIRE) team in the Office of Sustainability and Environmental Management. Mr. Dooley ensures that all stakeholders’...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *