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Collaborative Problem-Solving

Collaborative problem-solving (CPS) is a tool that allows various stakeholders to work together to address a particular issue or concern. Stakeholders often have to reconcile divergent interests in order to address complex and interrelated environmental, public health, economic, and social problems in local communities. Many of these problems are deeply rooted and difficult to resolve without the concerted effort and active participation of all the stakeholders. When multiple stakeholders work together, they create a collective vision that reflects mutually beneficial goals for all parties. Such collaboration fosters the conditions that enable the parties to mobilize the resources necessary to realize stronger, more enduring solutions.

CPS involves proactive, strategic, and visionary community-based processes that bring together multiple parties from various stakeholder groups (e.g., community groups, all levels of government, industry, and academia) to develop solutions to address local environmental and/or public health issues. Partnerships and negotiations are required to achieve such solutions. Partnerships refer to arrangements through which different stakeholders work together to achieve a common goal. These partnerships can range from informal working relationships to very structured arrangements in which goals, membership, ground rules, and operating principles are clearly defined. Negotiations refer to processes, ranging from informal to formal, through which different stakeholders agree to come together and resolve disagreements.

How can Collaborative Problem-Solving contribute to Sustainability?

CPS can be used to help assess environmental and/or public health problems in a way that is not only collaborative, but also sustainable. The tenets that are integral to CPS—engaging stakeholders, identifying collaboration opportunities, leveraging resources and technical tools, and evaluating outcomes—are also integral to advancing sustainability.

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Collaborative Problem-Solving

What are the main steps in Collaborative Problem-Solving?

Application of CPS can involve the following steps. [26]

  • Step 1—identify the problem (e.g., environmental contamination) and key stakeholders (community residents, organizations, businesses, government representatives, etc.), envision possible solutions, set goals, and develop a strategy that identifies the actions needed to produce desired results. Social network analysis, segmentation analysis focus groups, leadership forums, retreats, and design charrettes can be used to inform this step;
  • Step 2—educate the community about the issue, gather information, conduct studies and assessments, and obtain technical assistance for the community from a qualified individual or organization. Although local institutions and government agencies can help provide resources and training, community-based organizations should proactively develop organizational capacity and infrastructure so that CPS produces sustainable solutions;
  • Step 3—find effective ways of making group decisions and resolving conflicts that arise when there are competing interests. Unassisted negotiation, facilitation, mediation, and use of an ombudsperson may be used in this step;
  • Step 4—bring together a diverse group of individuals, organizations, institutions, and agencies that agree to work together to examine the problem, leverage resources, and achieve a common goal. Each type of stakeholder has a unique and valuable role to play in the CPS process; relevant non-community stakeholder groups can also play an important role in participating and assisting in the collaborative partnership;
  • Step 5—develop and carry out work plans that have clear goals and timeframes to ensure results; and,
  • Step 6—periodically evaluate progress throughout the CPS process and identify what is working and what is not. Not only will evaluation help partnerships make any necessary adjustments to stay on course, but it will also help provide more meaningful lessons learned to inform future activities. To effectively replicate best practices broadly, lessons learned should be shared with the affected community residents, as well as other communities and stakeholders.

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What are the strengths and limits of Collaborative Problem-Solving in a sustainability context?

According to Portland State University’s National Policy Consensus Center, “achieving community sustainability requires striking a balance between costs and benefits across the social, environmental, and economic pillars.” [76] Because no single entity can achieve such solutions on its own, sustainability requires collaboration across sectors, interests, and jurisdictions.

CPS is often suggested as a tool to help address environmental justice concerns in communities facing disproportionately high environmental and health burdens. These communities are often also burdened by numerous other concerns, including high poverty rates, public safety problems, substandard housing, lack of transportation options, and unemployment. Given the amount of time and resources CPS requires from community members, it may be difficult to implement in these communities. With these limitations in mind, EPA developed the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreements Program in 2003. The pprogramrovides communities with information and financial resources to implement CPS with the goal of addressing environmental and/or public health concerns through constructive and sustainable problem-solving. [77]

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How is Collaborative Problem-Solving used to support EPA Decision-making?

The Federal Inter-agency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG) was established in 1994 under Executive Order 12898 in order to guide, support and enhance federal environmental justice and community-based activities. CPS has been a central initiative of EJ IWG, and has been successfully applied to both address environmental justice issues across the country and engage communities in the federal environmental decision-making process. [78]

EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has advocated the use of CPS through its nationwide grant program and through the development of the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Model. [26]

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Where to Find More Information about Collaborative Problem-Solving

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Illustrative Approaches Applying Collaborative Problem-Solving

  • Quantifying Economic and Environmental Benefits of Green Planning in Connecticut

    Source: EPA Office of Sustainable Communities [170]
    Suite of sustainability tools: benefit-cost analysis; environmental footprint analysis; green engineering; collaborative problem-solving

    As more communities pursue sustainable planning and development, determining which approaches offer cost-effective economic, social, and environmental benefits may be part of the process for each community. In weighing options, predicting the value of various plans and approaches informs decision decision-making. However, many communities lack the resources to perform such analyses. The EPA Smart Growth Implementation Assistance (SGIA) Program provides contractor services to communities to facilitate sustainable planning and development. Communities awarded SGIA assistance then partner with teams of multi-disciplinary, national experts to assess the existing community, analyze options, and create plans for sustainable development. Connecticut's Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) received expert technical support from SGIA and also partnered with town municipalities, the Partnership for Strong Communities, University of Hartford, and American Farmland Trust. Together they developed the Smart Growth Guidelines for Sustainable Development and Design (PDF) (55 pp, 29MB) to support community siting, planning, and developing housing strategies that incorporate smart growth approaches and green building techniques.

    The town of Manchester, one community assessed as part of the CRCOG project, developed plans to integrate green infrastructure approaches into the redevelopment of a vacant and blighted 250,000 square foot community shopping center known locally as the Parkade. In partnership with EPA’s Region 1, the town quantified economic and environmental benefits of incorporating green roofs, stormwater retention systems, street trees, constructed wetlands, and parks into a mixed-use, mixed-income housing development slated for the site.

    Quantitative BCA results are provided in the report, “From Grey to Green: Sustainable Practices for Redeveloping a Vacant Shopping Center (PDF)(30 pp, 24MB) . It showed, for example, that if 75% of the roofs at Parkade were vegetated, they would absorb over three million gallons of rainwater, reducing the load on existing stormwater runoff sewer systems. Installing solar panels on 14% of commercial buildings at the site would offset all of those buildings’ energy costs. Property values could be 20% higher when located along parks. [248] The results of these and similar analyses help inform decision-making to determine how best to improve residents' quality of life while sustainably protecting nearby waterways.

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  • Sustainable Energy Diminution Projects in Alaska: Energy Audits 

    Sources: EPA Region 10 and Indian Health Services, Office of Environment Health and Engineering [169]
    Suite of sustainability tools: benefit-cost analysis; environmental footprint analysis; collaborative problem-solving

    In Alaska, geography makes sustainability a necessity. Residents require significant energy for transportation and heating, particularly in regions that experience minus 50°F for weeks at a time. Heating oil is costly to purchase and transport, and additional energy is required for many day-to-day activities, including keeping pipes warm to prevent freezing and maintain drinking water supplies.

    These challenges have sparked significant efforts to reduce energy use. Energy reduction projects in Alaska and the region must be sustainable in that they must improve economic, social, and environmental systems, and also provide a long-term energy supply. Solutions must function in harsh, hard-to-reach places where people often rely upon meager resources. Furthermore, the energy infrastructure must be maintained and repaired using as much local material and manpower as possible.

    Multiple partnerships play a role in implementing effective and cost-efficient changes. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Indian Health Service, Alaska Energy Office, and the EPA are partnering on several sustainability projects that will lead to state-wide energy use reductions. Current projects are focused in three areas:

    • Sanitation (e.g., water supply, sewage treatment, energy related to water operations)
    • Health care facilities (e.g., design and construction planning)
    • Community-level facilities (e.g., energy usage in home

    Alaskan sustainability projects encompass many details in multiple areas of expertise, but the majority of the projects involve energy audits to support benefit-cost and cost-effectiveness analyses. In sanitation, energy audits examine the efficiency of existing pumps and boilers, heat loss from water tanks, and heat recovery from power plants to identify options for upgrades. Energy audits are also integrated into construction planning, particularly for hospitals and health care facilities, with a focus on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for new buildings. For existing buildings engineers are redesigning insulation systems, and homes use live-feed energy usage meters to provide residents with real time information on energy use and savings.

    Sustainable social and environmental systems hinge on adequate supplies of energy to maintain a healthy quality of life. The high costs of energy sources and limited financial resources provide an example of a situation where sustainability efforts are directly motivated by economics, and BCA and cost-effectiveness analysis can provide useful analytic platforms.

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  • Collaborative Problem Solving Supporting Environmental Justice

    Source: EPA, Office of Policy [26]
    Sustainability tools: collaborative problem-solving; environmental justice analysis; social impact analysis; design charrettes

    A low income, African American community in Spartanburg, South Carolina used EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Model (PDF) (44 pp, 1MB) to address a myriad of environmental and health concerns. The community is located near abandoned textile mills and industrial facilities, two Superfund sites, several brownfield sites, and an active chemical facility. In addition, the community faced a 25 percent poverty rate, a lack of adequate health care, public safety problems, substandard housing, transportation problems, and a lack of social services.

    The community took the following actions to confront its health and environmental challenges and stimulate community revitalization:

    • Issue identification, community visioning and strategic goal setting. Design charrettes is a sustainability tool that may assist in identification.
    • Community capacity-building and leadership development;
    • Consensus building and dispute resolution;
    • Multi-stakeholder partnerships and leveraging of resources;
    • Constructive engagement by relevant stakeholders;
    • Sound organization and implementation; and
    • Evaluation, lessons learned, and replication of best practices.

  • The CPS process enabled the community to engage all of its stakeholders to identify problems and set priorities, build the capacity to address its needs, take steps to resolve longstanding disputes, establish a leadership structure and develop strategic partnerships. As a result of the collaborative effort, the community has been able to leverage more than $200 million in government and private sector funds to cost-effectively address its environmental threats. Ongoing stakeholder meetings and annual status reports allow the community to continue to evaluate its progress and assess future needs. [26]

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  • EPA Smart Growth Implementation Assistance Program: Public Involvement Plan

    Source: EPA Office of Sustainable Communities [253]
    Sustainability assessment tools and approaches: collaborative problem-solving; environmental justice analysis; sustainability impact assessment
    Sustainable communities strive to foster economic growth, protect environmental resources, enhance public health, and plan for development. However, many communities lack the tools, resources, and information to achieve these goals. In response to this need, EPA developed the SGIA Program. The SGIA Program is an annual, competitive assistance opportunity for state, local, regional, and tribal governments (and non-profits that have partnered with governmental entities) that want to incorporate smart growth techniques into their future development plans. The program provides assistance in the form of a contractor team of national experts, rather than through a grant. These experts conduct site visits and develop detailed reports that provide information to help the community achieve its goal of encouraging growth that fosters economic progress and environmental protection.

    The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico requested SGIA assistance to develop a Public Involvement Plan and Toolkit to engage residents in the local planning process—especially those from ethnically diverse, low-income populations and others that had limited to no previous involvement in community planning—. The city government collaborated with EPA, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the US Department of Transportation, and other local stakeholders using a CPS approach.

    Using the principles of CPS, the community developed a strategy for achieving local participation in planning and decision-making. The process was implemented in two visioning workshops for the El Paseo corridor, a 1.7-mile corridor in downtown Las Cruces. The Public Involvement Plan and Toolkit have been successful in providing a framework for meaningful public engagement, outreach, and participation strategies necessary to build trust, excitement, and support among Las Cruces residents for city projects and initiatives. [246]

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  • South Lincoln Redevelopment Project

    Source: EPA Office of Solid Wasted and Emergency Response, EPA Office of Sustainable Communities, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Transportation [82]

    Sustainability tools: design charrettes; collaborative problem-solving

    EPA’s Brownfields Area-Wide Planning Pilot Program is providing assistance to 23 communities, many in under-served and economically disadvantaged areas, to develop area-wide plans for the reuse of brownfields properties. In 2010, the South Lincoln Redevelopment Project (SoLi) was selected as a Sustainable Communities Brownfield Pilot (PDF) (16 pp, 3 MB) project. SoLi consists of the redevelopment of 270 Public Housing units on 17.5 acres in the La Alma/Lincoln Park neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. The SoLi Pilot project has used design charrettes to bring together stakeholders to define project goals; brainstorm redevelopment strategies, funding opportunities and partnerships; and, identify barriers and next steps for strategy implementation.

    The participating agencies have varying approaches to programs, funding mechanisms, organizational structure, and staffing. These differences pose challenges to intra-Agency collaboration. Because of these challenges, collaboration and consensus building have been key elements to this Pilot’s success.

    The SoLi project has implemented three sustainability charrettes on the topics of energy, transportation, and stormwater/ green infrastructure design, to enhance the design and build-out of the project. These charrettes have provided the following “lessons learned:”

    • Define project goals early in the planning process;
    • Identify key players as early as possible to enhance engagement and participation;
    • Make sure that residents participate in the charrette process;
    • Balance the technical depth of the charrette with the participants’ skills and project goals;
    • Ensure that charrette leaders and facilitators are familiar with local issues and stakeholder perspectives; and,
    • Anticipate the major questions that participants are likely to have about the technical aspects of the project.

    The willingness and commitment to work with a continuously evolving process has been pivotal in realizing the potential of these charrettes and recognizing the capabilities and roles of the individual agencies. Additionally, in an effort to find joint solutions, it is important for team members to consider strategies that fall outside of the current policies and procedures of any one Agency.

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  • EPA Design for the Environment

    Source: EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention [257]
    Suite of sustainability tools: chemical alternative assessment; green chemistry; collaborative problem-solving; life-cycle assessment; risk assessment
    EPA’s Design for the Environment (DfE) Partnership Program helps consumers, businesses, and institutional buyers identify products that perform well and are cost-effective, but are safer for human health and the environment. [257] This program promotes sustainability by working with small businesses and consumers to identify risks involved with chemicals used in products or manufacturing processes. Chemical Alternatives Assessment is a key analytic tool for the implementation of DfE. It is a tool for evaluating chemicals of potential concern by comparing alternative chemicals within the same functional-use group across a consistent and comprehensive set of hazard endpoints. Other analytic tools that are instrumental for the conduct of this program include risk assessment and life-cycle assessment. Through the DfE, EPA collaborates with industry, environmental groups and universities to decrease health and environmental risk by encouraging green design and reformulation of a wide range of products while maintaining their effectiveness. As more consumers seek sustainable products that are designed to have minimal impact on the environment and their health, an environmental “seal of approval” could help consumers select products that match their values. [258

    DfE offers that “seal of approval” by awarding use of the logo on products that meet environmental design criteria. The logo assures consumers that the DfE scientific review team has screened each ingredient for potential human health and environmental effects and that—based on currently available information, EPA predictive models, and expert judgment—the product contains only those ingredients that pose the least concern among chemicals in their class. Products are also expected to meet effectiveness criteria, i.e., glass cleaners must meet criteria for effective glass cleaning. To obtain the DfE recognition, ingredients in the formulation must be publically disclosed (with the exception of specific allowances for trade secret ingredients). EPA also offers the DfE label to partnering companies that design or reformulate high-performance and cost-effective products using the safest ingredients. [258]

    The screening process (PDF) (43 pp, 726K) for the DfE logo is detailed and comprehensive. DfE scrutinizes ingredients, starting with known toxicity information and performing an inherent property analysis when toxicity information is not available. With inherent property analysis, scientists estimate toxicity for a chemical ingredient without toxicity information using available toxicity information for a chemical with similar structure. Strong structural similarities to a chemical with high environmental or health toxicity would be a flag for concern.

    DfE sets specific standards for chemicals of known toxicity. For example, DfE will not recognize products that contain any pollutants on the Hazardous Air Pollutants list. Furthermore, DfE will not recognize products that contain chemicals on the EPA Toxics Release Inventory chemical list unless they meet stringent DfE criteria.

    This program fosters sustainability in a cost-effective way that benefits companies, consumers, and environmental and public health. Through such partnerships and education, EPA is helping businesses and consumers select safer chemicals and technologies, thereby reducing the number of potentially hazardous chemicals in use.

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  • Measuring Sustainability

    Source: EPA Office of Research and Development [272]
    Suite of sustainability tools: sustainability impact assessment; collaborative problem-solving; environmental footprint analysis; resilience analysis

    “There is no definition of good health; however, you know if your health is getting better or worse,” says Heriberto Cabezas, PhD, senior science advisor to the Sustainable Technology Division in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Cabezas and colleagues Matthew Hopton, PhD and Matthew Heberling, PhD recently finished co-leading a collaborative pilot study designed to help scientists know whether the environmental health of a region is declining or improving. He and his research partners explored ways to measure and monitor whether a large area of south-central Colorado, San Luis Basin, has been moving toward or away from sustainability.

    The ultimate goal of the research is to provide information that will help decision-makers determine if a given region is in on a sustainable path.

    Sustainability is a simple but powerful principle that recognizes that the natural environment is the foundation for human survival and well-being. Achieving sustainability means creating and maintaining the conditions with which people and nature can coexist in productive harmony—conditions that provide people with social, economic and other benefits—today and in future generations. Developing the science and engineering that people need to move in that direction is the “true north” of EPA’s collective research and development efforts.

    As one can imagine, assessing and measuring something as broad as sustainability across a large area is a major challenge. To start, Cabezas and his co-workers sought research partners from a broad spectrum of disciplines. He assembled a multidisciplinary team with the capabilities and expertise to examine several fundamental components of an environmental system and how these components relate to key aspects of human well being, including social and economic factors.

    In the San Luis Basin, the team found an ideal research site for their pilot study. The area is large enough to require complex data collection and analysis, but somewhat limited in scope with easily defined, natural hydrological boundaries and a limited population (around 50,000). Large amounts of publicly owned land simplified access for data collection and environmental monitoring. In addition, government officials from EPA’s local Region 8 (mountains and plains) and the National Park service expressed support for the study.

    Approximately the size of Massachusetts, the area contains seven counties, the Upper Rio Grande River Basin, the San Luis Valley, and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

    The team set out to develop a straightforward, affordable method to measure and monitor sustainability for the area. To do so, researchers set three primary objectives: (1) determine if existing historical data sets could be used to estimate sustainability at a regional scale; (2) calculate sustainability metrics through time (1980–2005); and, (3) compare and contrast the results they found to determine if the region is moving toward or away from sustainability.

    Cabezas and the team utilized available environmental, economic, and social data to calculate sustainability across four different metrics (standards of measurement). Each metric provides insight into important sustainability measurements. The “ecological footprint” metric, for example, linked the total area of biologically productive land available with measurements of human consumption and waste generation. An aggregate calculation of how much “natural capital” is being used or conserved (the “Green Net Regional Product” metric) was another. The researchers used other metrics to explore aggregate measurements of energy flows and inputs (the “Energy” metric), and the overall stability and order of natural systems (“Fisher Information and Order”).

    Together, the four metrics provide information to answer basic questions central to determining sustainability: How well can a region cope with change? How healthy is it economically? Is its energy use self-sufficient? Is its human population causing ecological damage?

    An example of how using sustainability metrics can illuminate what threatens a region’s long-term sustainability is the snowpack found on the high mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley. “The existence of stored water at high elevations allows all of the geopotential energy of this water to be released in a short period of time, and in the process, it recharges the groundwater and maintains unique geological an ecological features of the valley like the Great Sand Dunes and wetlands. One consequence of this fact is that the natural and agricultural systems of the region are vulnerable to climate changes that affect the snowpack,” Cabezas and fellow co-authors point out. [259]

    When all their calculations where completed, the team found evidence that over time the area was slightly trending away from a sustainability. “The trend away from sustainability is slight, so our advice to the local community in the San Luis Valley and to EPA Region 8 was that while no immediate corrective action is warranted, plans do have to be developed to move the trend back to sustainability” explains Cabezas. “Action is being taken to do that exactly. The first step is the awarding of an EPA contract for a third party to work with Region 8 and the local community in the San Luis Basin to implement the metrics and methods developed as part of the project in local decision-making.”

    Now that the major part of the pilot has concluded, Cabezas hopes that an organization will step up to continue monitoring the San Luis Basin. The team has developed user interfaces and spreadsheets to calculate the metrics and is ready to provide any technical support that the community needs. “The next part of the project is to work with the public in developing a means of implementing these ideas into public decision-making,” he says.

    Cabezas and the team were recognized with the 2011 Science Award from the EPA Region 8 Administrator. “This was the first place anywhere that this work has been tried, so the project was the proof of concept,” says Cabezas. Following its success, a second project using Puerto Rico as a test site is planned under the leadership of Drs. Hopton and Heberling.

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  • Sustainable Rain Water Runoff Management at Shepherd Creek

    Sources: EPA Office of Research and Development [271]
    Suite of sustainability tools: sustainability impact assessment; collaborative problem-solving

    Stormwater runoff is a major concern for water management, particularly for residential and urban areas with combined sewage overflows. In these systems, stormwater runoff and raw sewage is released into waterways without water treatment during heavy rainfall conditions as storm sewer capacity is exceeded. In Cincinnati, Ohio, such releases raise concerns for Shepherd Creek, which ultimately drains into the Ohio River. Rather than increasing water treatment capacity, EPA ORD partnered with other stakeholders to create a program in Cincinnati that reduces stormwater runoff by developing green infrastructure. This program increases the permeable surface area, which results in more ground absorption of rain water.

    The goal has been to engage citizens and other stakeholders to make stormwater management a part of everyday life for sustained effectiveness. EPA conducted a field experiment to reduce runoff into Shepherd Creek as a practical test of sustainability through the exchange of social and technological resources. The test was to develop market-based incentives to persuade residents to decrease their stormwater runoff. EPA offered rain barrels and rain gardens for installation on private property in a reverse auction on eBay. In the auction, EPA asked residents the amount they wanted EPA to pay them to install rain barrels or rain gardens. Remarkably, about 66% of respondents said “0.” They were willing to accept rain barrels and gardens if they received assistance in setting them up. Approximately 25% of households participated in the auction.

    The EPA measured several parameters of water quality over the course of the project as well as an “environmental benefits index.” In 2007 and 2008, a total of 270 rain barrels and 130 rain gardens were installed. ORD is exploring further economic incentives by creating a new “credit calculator,” based on a model in Germany, to put economic value on the cost savings to the municipality in order to credit homeowners’ water bill as an added incentive to participate.
    This project used a market-based approach to reduce regulatory compliance costs by being flexible about how compliance is reached. The Shepherd Creek project illustrates how sustainability projects can simultaneously promote social equity, economic stabilization and improved environmental quality along with Clean Water Act compliance.

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