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How an integrated approach helped Tallahassee, Fla., achieve a Gold LEED certification

Cities participating in the LEED-certified city program through the US Green Buildings Council are evaluated on nine credit categories that measure performance on sustainability and resilience initiatives.

The USGBC LEED Certification for Cities and Communities was established in 2016 as a way for cities and communities to make their sustainability and resiliency performance more transparent, with a focus on an outcomes-based approach. The USGBC certified Tallahassee, Fla., with a Gold level certification in May 2021 (announced by the city in June 2021). Tallahassee scored the highest of any city so far evaluated under the USGBC’s most recent rating system.  

Here is Tallahassee’s scorecard:

LEED Certification scorecard
Credit: US Green Building Council

Abena Ojetayo, City of Tallahassee (COT) Director of Housing & Community Resilience; Adam Jacobs, COT Sustainability and Resilience Manager; and COT Resilience and Sustainability Analyst Jeannine Fier spoke to SmartBrief about their experiences preparing for the USGBC LEED certification. They also shared advice for other municipalities thinking about pursuing certification.

LEED certification provided motivation and a goal

The City of Tallahassee, as part of a 2019 reorganization, created a department that had a goal to be more deliberate about sustainability efforts.

“One of the best things to do with a new department is to give it an ambition,” says Ojetayo. The LEED for Cities and Communities certification became a way to galvanize and reenergize the staff. The city had previously been certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition as a green city -- the FGBC has a Florida-specific focus. COT wanted to proceed with a more broadly recognized program. The USGBC certification, which is deeply data driven, brought in additional metrics that other certification options did not.

Why it’s important to create an organization around the effort

There are several options for staffing when pursuing USGBC LEED certification: A dedicated staff, a consultant or a group of volunteers. For Tallahassee, it proved best to have a dedicated sustainability and resilience team, assert Ojetayo, Jacobs and Fier. 

COT added a sustainability and resilience analyst position when the division was created. They recognized that because the unit would be coordinating across the entire organization, their biggest service was going to be consistently reporting performance metrics and helping people understand or make the case for why they should implement new initiatives, while fostering collaboration.

The power of a roadmap

The tasks the first year included:

  • Organizing
  • Creating the vision
  • Thinking about the plan going forward
  • Reviewing the certification documents and developing an appreciation for the depth and breadth of the process
  • Assessing what talent was available in house

Before talking to COT employees about the certification effort, the coordination team met with the USGBC staff to get all the documentation regarding prerequisites, the credits and everything they were looking for. LEED credits are points that can be earned for various criteria within the nine categories. For example, a city can earn points toward credits in the “Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions” category for “renewable energy.” Learn more about how credits and points work here in the LEED Credit Library.

They went through each category and asked:

"Can we do this?" "

"Can we not do this?"

"Who's the best department that could possibly respond to it?"

After asking those questions, the certification team created a roadmap. They then created tailored tools for each one of those departments to provide information to them for each of these pieces.

Example: The COT Growth Management Department

The city’s Growth Management Department is one example of how the certification group collaborated with a city department to measure performance. The certification process involved an ecosystem assessment. It required a very detailed report on various areas (topography and wetland, for example). The team created a spreadsheet with what they thought the department could respond to and the elements that they would need. They had a one-on-one discussion with the department representatives, saying, “Is this possible? Is this not possible?”

It was important to use the guidance spreadsheet and to provide the department additional documentation (and give them time to digest it and decide how to lay it out). The department then provided the certification team a rough draft, which was reviewed in coordination with the USGBC staff, which provides preliminary reviews without scoring the entry. 

The process is beneficial even if a city doesn’t formally certify

If a city has decided to pursue certification, but doesn’t have sufficient financial support, they should not give up. (Note: COT received a grant from the USGBC to pursue its certification effort.)

“You don’t have to hit submit," says Ojetayo, "but that process in and of itself is so helpful educationally for your staff and as a self-assessment for your organization. It’s worth just getting started.” 

How to sustain the LEED momentum for the long-term

When asked about the long-term plan for maintaining this LEED certification, Ojetayo said, “We try to do projects that have early wins to put some fire under us, but the big question is whether we can sustain the effort for the long haul. My team often starts or catalyzes a project, but I’m always thinking, ‘What’s going to be our exit strategy? Who’s going to take this on after us because we can’t sustain it all?’

“Many initiatives that were highlighted in our certification may have originated with us as symbols of sustainability or resilience, but the success of it is demonstrated when we can hand them off to another department. Then that initiative becomes their 'baby' and they’re as excited about it if not more excited about it than we are," she said.

There are things COT began to look into as innovation efforts that didn’t work for some reason, but those ideas are paused, not discarded, in case an opportunity arises where they are a fit.  

Speaking from experience ...

The COT certification team has a few pieces of advice that aren’t the type of thing you check off on a spreadsheet, but may be the most useful guidance of all:

  1. Integration is the key factor. The certification effort should draw upon a wide range of efforts already underway.
  2. Collaboration is key.
  3. Be thoughtful about your approach.
  4. You don’t have to start from a blank page; explore the things other places have done.
  5. Don’t put timing ahead of relationships. (These departments are busy doing their other jobs, so if it’s necessary to move a due date by a week to help them balance their load, move the due date.)

To learn more about the COT effort and LEED Certification for Cities and Communities:

City of Tallahassee LEED Gold City website

City of Tallahassee Strategic Plan Performance Dashboard

USGBC Guide to LEED Certification: Cities and Communities

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Paula Kiger edits the ICMA SmartBrief and other nonprofit sector newsletters. She also co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and as @biggreenpen on Twitter.