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Q&A Series with Wally Bobkiewicz, Evanston, IL City Manager

STAR Communities is starting a new Q&A section that will feature a new sustainability leader each month. This month we talk with Wally Bobkiewicz, the City Manager of Evanston, IL. In 2006, Evanston adopted a strategic vision to become the “Most Livable City in America” and in March of 2014, the City received their 4-STAR Community Certification. Today we will explore how STAR’s framework aligns with Evanston’s commitment to livability.

Wally BobkiewiczWhat do you do and what is your connection with STAR Communities?

As the City Manager in Evanston, I am the Chief Executive of the city government.  work with over 900 talented individuals serving the 75,000 residents of Evanston.  The City’s Sustainability program is part of the City Manager’s Office. I believe the STAR program is an important tool to have our community reach our vision as the most livable city.

What inspires you and motivates you to work in this field?

My community has identified sustainability and livability as an important goal. The STAR program is the single best way to comprehensively meet this goal.  I am a great booster of STAR because it is a measurable way for Evanston to reach its goals.

How does your 4-STAR Community Rating reflect Evanston’s commitment to livability that was adopted in 2006?

The 2006 plan set Evanston’s strategic vision to create “The Most Livable City in America” and included recommendations around improving economic, social and environmental elements of the city. But it did not include measurable targets to track our progress.  Evanston’s 4-STAR Certification gives us independent feedback that we have strong local economy, a healthy environment and is providing for the well-being of our community.

How did the STAR framework align with your livability goals and did it reveal areas of opportunity for Evanston?

The main themes of Evanston’s livability vision are embedded throughout the STAR framework.  But it goes beyond that.  STAR has provided us with a way to explain “what is a livable community” and clarify some of the confusion that is often surrounding the word “sustainability”. Using the STAR goal areas, we have developed the language around livability that was the next important step from the 2006 plan.  Evanston defines livability as “the sum of the factors that add up to a community’s quality of life—including the built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.” Going through the certification process helped us to see where Evanston was excelling and areas for on-going improvement.

From the City Manager’s perspective, how does the STAR framework help you to make better decisions for Evanston? 

STAR has given us a new perspective on our policies, programs and infrastructure by highlighting the interconnectedness of all that we do to support Evanston’s livability.  This has resulted in building upon our cross-departmental approach to problem solving and breaking down silos that often exist in local governments.  We consider how decisions impact Evanston’s overall livability in a comprehensive manner rather than just focusing on one dimension.

What is the biggest challenge facing local government sustainability today? What is one possible solution?

Sustainability can be difficult a concept to communicate and has evolved over the last decade. Sustainability is often communicated as a delicate balance between people, nature, and our need for economic activity. This results in people feeling short-changed by decisions or sustainability not being a topic that is relevant to them.

Evanston’s solution is putting our people first and that is why we are focusing on improving quality of life for residents as the primary driver. We then work to address efforts around the STAR/livability areas in a coordinated way with our community members at the focal point.

How has Evanston integrated the STAR framework into existing plans and policies? 

The STAR framework is being regularly used as a menu of best practices to help achieve Evanston’s livability goals.  Staff in all departments have access to the STAR Technical Guide as a resource and often ask the question “How can I incorporate STAR into this project.” A specific example is recent updates we made to the application for support from the Economic Development fund. Businesses requesting support now have to select a number of items from a livability checklist in the application. They include conducting an energy audit and retrofit, developing a comprehensive recycling program, providing paid time for volunteering and supporting health club memberships or other health programs for employees.

Can you tell us about the Evanston Livability Academy and why, as a city manager, it was important to undertake such an extensive educational process for all of the city’s employees?

The Livability Academy was designed to explore each employee’s role in making Evanston a more livable community and renew their shared enthusiasm towards supporting a high quality of life for all residents. Over a two week period, all 800 full-time staff attended one of 13 half-day sessions which included a team-building activity, video and presentations covering the STAR goal areas and an input session where staff discussed ideas for on-going improvement.

Our livability is perhaps the greatest attraction to Evanston today.  Sustaining and enhancing Evanston’s livability is key to the continued success and financial health of the City of Evanston.

We need the help of all of our staff to support Evanston’s livability so a large-scale training on this topic is critical for Evanston’s on-going success and imprudent.

It has been over 9 months since you first began the Livability Academy, what are some of the benefits you have seen as a result?

Many of our employees who previously had no idea what sustainability and livability means, now understands their role in meeting our goal in becoming the most livable city. Livability is now part of our conversation in everything we do in a meaningful way, not just using the word “livability”.

Do you have any advice for STAR Certified communities on how to best utilize their results?

Communities should not get overwhelmed by the results. Just pick two or three areas where you need improvement and focus on them.

What is your favorite STAR goal/objective?

The STAR framework beautifully breaks away from the traditional three pillars of sustainability (environment, economy and equity) and provides a better way to explain sustainability through the seven goal areas. My favorite is Health & Safety because it resonates as key quality of life issue with many community members. It also helps to bring in departments and partners that have not been historically engaged in the sustainability movement.

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