Mayors and College Presidents Unite to Build a Bridge to Climate Solutions

By Diana

When Washington, DC's, Brendan Shane and Mayor Vincent Gray initiated sustainability-planning efforts in July 2011, they began an ambitious process towards making the District of Columbia “the greenest college town in the nation.”

Collaboration in Action

The Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge (CUSP) in Washington, DC, was the first of its kind in the nation to form and advance a partnership between a city mayor and the presidents of every major college and university, aimed at pursuing sustainability policies and programs on the local level. By signing all of the city’s higher education institutions to the pledge, Mayor Gray gained the cooperation of some of DC's biggest employers and landowners in enacting and advancing policies aimed at sourcing renewable energy, advancing sustainable land use and transportation programs, and reducing energy consumption in university buildings.


  • Provide local examples: Highlight climate leadership on the local level to inspire other communities to replicate cooperative models.
  • Set achievable goals: Establish a baseline of specific actions that allow institutions new to climate change planning to rapidly accelerate efforts by creating an approachable starting point.
  • Collaborate and align: Compare progress, share lessons, and forge collaborative efforts towards advancing climate and sustainability policies and programs to create efficiencies.

The Building Blocks of a Broader Vision

When Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray initiated his sustainability planning effort in July 2011, he began an ambitious process towards making the District of Columbia “the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation.”

Leading by example, the heads of the departments of planning, environment, parks and recreation, public works, and others initiated a public engagement process that involved hundreds of citizens from across the city who contributed thousands of comments, providing recommendations for what later became the Sustainable DC project.

Leveraging a City’s Strength

Brendan Shane, Chief of the Office of Policy and Sustainability, strategically decided to collaborate with Gray to target higher education institutions as a leading sector in the District of Columbia. With 100,000 staff and students, millions of square feet of buildings, large vehicle fleets, and acres of campus grounds, universities are among the best sectors within which to make a true impact on climate solutions.

When Shane approached university staff about coordinating with the city on their climate and sustainability plans, great disparities among the schools became apparent. Their progress in measuring carbon footprints, devising energy and climate plans, and developing sustainability plans for their campuses did not parallel one another. Additionally, several campuses lacked a climate assessment, planning efforts, and staff dedicated to addressing climate change.  

This will give us an opportunity, the ability I believe, to create a sustainable, healthy, clean, equitable and prosperous city.

Brendan Shane
Chief of the Office of Policy and Sustainability, Washington, DC

Building a Baseline

In response, Mr. Shane and Mayor Gray launched a year-long effort to achieve deep cooperation within the higher education sector. Using the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment as a model for university collaboration, Mayor Gray challenged the District’s university presidents to form a joint commitment to climate solutions, backed by specific and quantifiable measures across several climate and sustainability topics.

For a year, District agency staff and university sustainability staff developed a draft pledge that contained specific and quantifiable commitments across a range of areas, from building energy use and materials management, to land use policies and fleets. By setting achievable targets based on level of advancement in climate and sustainability planning, barriers to participation for all DC colleges were removed and each university became willing and eager to make the pledge.

A Defining Moment

On February, 29, 2012, nine university presidents representing some of the nation’s most prestigious higher education institutions joined Gray at American University’s LEED-Gold certified School of International Service Building to sign the District of Columbia Mayor’s College and University Sustainability Pledge.

This university-based collaborative approach to sustainability was the first of its kind in the nation. Working together in this public/private partnership, the signatories continue to make the District of Columbia the ‘Greenest College Town in America.’ The final agreement not only focuses on operational impacts, but promotes the pursuit of sustainability on individual campuses and encourages cross-institutional collaboration and friendly competition.

Carrying the Torch

Additionally, the CUSP established a framework for ongoing partnership among the city’s institutions of higher education that allows for regular communication regarding progress made on the pledge, sharing of best practices and challenges, and opportunities to share resources and celebrations of success.

As important as this community engagement strategy was to formulating the Sustainable DC plan, the Mayor and his agency directors knew that the success of the plan would hinge on the city’s ability to engage leading sectors of the community to lead sustainability efforts.



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