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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Finding your passion on sustainability

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (JESSE TINSLEY)

People rarely volunteer without passion, especially for anything with the word “committee” in the title. Others discover their passion after a committee writes a report.

In 2019, Spokane’s City Council put out a call for volunteers for a new Sustainability Action Subcommittee to revive and update the 2009 plan. There were about twenty-three applicants, recalled Kara Odegard, City Council manager of sustainability initiatives, and all were invited to participate. The 2021 Sustainability Action Plan is now available for public comment. It’s a good time to find your passion.

The 2021 plan builds on an earlier plan. Former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner created a Sustainability Task Force, which formally presented a plan to the City Council at a meeting in April 2009. The Spokesman-Review reported “Task force members say they were surprised by the strong opposition,” usually a sign of a disconnect between the makeup of a task force and the general population. Verner lost her bid for reelection, momentum slowed, and nothing much happened. The plan never made it to the implementation phase, according to Odegard.

Former City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin remembered being bothered by comments aimed at opponents in 2009 trying to make it sound like “if you weren’t on board with this plan then you were against environmental stewardship.” Taking care of the environment that takes care of us is common ground even if aspirational goals for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and realistically reaching net neutrality by a date certain are not.

Links to all documents, an executive summary of the plan, three workshop announcements and a feedback survey form are all available on the Spokane city website ( This is the opportunity for the hard work of the subcommittee to be tested by questions from the general population. This is the time for those questions to unearth unintended consequences before this plan becomes an item on the City Council agenda this fall.

Here are a few suggestions for questions.

The 2009 plan emphasized the importance of monitoring progress and being ready to adapt along the way. Barriers to monitoring progress on many of the measurable objectives included in the 2009 plan included technical changes to best practices for measuring greenhouse gases and simple physical changes of city boundaries and population growth. What metrics and processes are proposed for monitoring and adapting over the next decade?

How will competing city priorities be balanced? For example, Buildings & Energy Sector Goal BE 1.4 to “eliminate gas hookups from all new commercial and multifamily residential buildings by 2023 and from all new construction by 2028” is at cross purposes with goals for varied and affordable housing options by increasing the cost of new construction. Does this also conflict with strategies for environmental justice by imposing cost burdens on underserved and under-resourced communities? For addressing the goals for the houseless and homeless? Under Transportation & Land Use, how will goals for increased transit ridership be affected by changes in work patterns post-pandemic? How does Strategy TL 4 to “increase adoption of walking, cycling, and micro mobility” for transportation align with the percentage of the population unable or unlikely to ride a bicycle? Are they potential transit riders?

We lived through major makeovers of economic sectors in the Pacific Northwest in the past driven by environmental concerns, with devastating impact on workers and communities. This plan includes an implementation strategy section acknowledging the need to transition “regional workers and industries most vulnerable under a clean energy economy,” but what does that mean in this decade? In the 1990s, there were suggestions loggers retrain as registered nurses. It wasn’t a good idea. What have we learned?

Because true community sustainability planning has to be holistic, there are a number of strategies and goals outside the “green” boundaries of the original 2009 plan. The volunteers on the Sustainable Action Subcommittee have a passion to remain committed for so long to preparing this report. You have something to contribute. Good questions now are essential to heading off unintended consequences later. Attend one of the three workshops and ask questions. Take the survey, even though it may seem worded to elicit a specific response, and make use of the last three open-ended questions to get specific on policies you are strongly in favor of, policies you believe the city should not pursue, and things left out.

And finally, Odegard welcomes emails. Find your passion now, make your voice heard now. Don’t wait for open mic time at a council meeting this fall.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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