Local governments are hiring more people to focus on sustainability

For the first time, local governments in the Chicago suburbs are putting sustainability on the payroll.

As awareness and political support for environmental issues such as climate change gain momentum, new positions dedicated solely to sustainability have been cropping up in municipalities throughout the region — and their ranks continue to grow.

“It’s really important, because if you don’t have somebody focused on it, everybody’s stretched so thin,” said Edith Makra, the director of environmental initiatives for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus. “Sustainability really needs to be embedded in something that we all do, but you need somebody focusing on moving forward on specific actions, understanding policy changes, recommending them and engaging the community.”

In 2016, Makra knew of three municipalities with full-time sustainability directors out of the 275 towns the caucus works with.

Today, there are about eight, including Naperville, Oak Park, Chicago, Glenview and Park Forest, many of which launched the new positions in the last year.

“Does that sound like low numbers? Not to me, who’s been watching this trend,” she said, adding that municipal revenues aren’t as stable as they were before the pandemic, and creating new positions takes concerted planning and resources.

“That feels like some really good progress when you have communities that are creating these brand new positions. It’s hard to do.”



Ben Mjolsness, sustainability coordinator for Naperville, often meets his counterparts in other towns, including Elgin.

Ben Mjolsness, sustainability coordinator for Naperville, often meets his counterparts in other towns, including Elgin.
– Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

The last few years’ growth in such hiring is likely due to a combination of factors, she said, citing “general awareness, political support, political will, demonstrated success, additional resources and tools to move forward on sustainability.”

A few of the region’s new sustainability hires also originate from the caucus’s own Greenest Region Corps program, a past partnership with AmeriCorps that placed volunteers in municipalities to lead local sustainability projects.

In one instance, the village of Northbrook took on its first sustainability coordinator last year after the person’s time with AmeriCorps was set to end.



In another new position, Ben Mjolsness began as Naperville’s sustainability coordinator last June. He came into the job with a master’s degree in environmental management and sustainability and several years’ experience as sustainability coordinator for companies like Solid Waste Solutions, Pitchfork Music Festival and Waste Management.

As is the case in most municipalities, some sustainability projects — such as offering rebates for solar panels — were already underway in Naperville before Mjolsness’ arrival. His role was to come in and bring them all under one umbrella.

“There was one person trying her best to coordinate all these efforts, but she had another full-time role to work on. I think that’s been happening in a lot of city and village governments just due to lack of resources,” he said. “In the past several years, it’s becoming more and more apparent that not only is it important work, but the community is actually supporting that type of work and investing in it.”

The Native Planting Pollinator Garden, a 21-by-42-foot plot at Naperville City Hall, is part of the local government's increased sustainability efforts.

The Native Planting Pollinator Garden, a 21-by-42-foot plot at Naperville City Hall, is part of the local government’s increased sustainability efforts.
– Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

In September, Naperville created and filled another sustainability position, sustainability specialist, that will allow the team of two to dive deeper into projects like publishing an annual or biannual sustainability report, researching policy and doing outreach with local schools.

While Mjolsness was on his own over the past year, he began regularly meeting with sustainability hires from other municipalities to share experiences, resources and ideas.

One member of the informal group, Mikala Larson, started as Elgin’s first sustainability analyst last July. She came into the position after a year in AmeriCorps, volunteering in waste reduction, recycling and organics management in Minnesota.

Larson is also a certified sustainability excellence associate through the International Society of Sustainability Professionals.

“I feel really excited for the Elgin community that there is a sustainability-dedicated staff person who can focus on the initiatives and provide that support to the community and the commission,” Larson said. “Being able to make those connections and add some extra momentum to some of these programs that are underway is really exciting.”

The group continues to meet virtually about once a month and just recently added new hires from Glenview, Rochelle and Carbondale.

“It couldn’t be more stark or more obvious to me what’s happening. It’s just like the floodgates have opened,” Mjolsness said. “I think that’s just a recognition of the importance of sustainability efforts for ourselves and for our future generations and making sure that we can provide a livable community for generations to come. It’s great to see municipal governments making that investment.”



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