Ann Arbor’s Climate Plan Centers Community Voices

In November 2019, Ann Arbor became one of just a few cities in the Midwest to commit to carbon neutrality, and the first to set a target year as soon as 2030. 

For Ann Arbor, this ambitious goal is about more than reducing carbon emissions. It’s also about recognizing that low-income people and people of color are on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and that the city’s transition to carbon neutrality must be a “just and equitable” one that creates new opportunities for these populations. It’s about committing Ann Arbor to true transformation, where residents fundamentally alter the way they move, work, and care for each other, so that nobody is left behind.

In this spirit, the City Council directed City staff to “design and execute a community engagement process” in order to determine how the city should meet its carbon neutrality and equity goals. Based on feedback from the community engagement process, as well as their own research and expertise, City staff would create a Carbon Neutrality Plan to chart Ann Arbor’s course toward a carbon-neutral future. Thus launched A2Zero, the City’s carbon neutrality planning and implementation initiative. 

From the beginning of the community engagement process, the A2Zero team recognized that in order to create a Carbon Neutrality Plan that truly benefited all Ann Arborites, they would have to listen to as many community members as possible, from as many walks of life as possible. They followed through with a massive public outreach effort. 

Ann Arbor mayor speaks at first A2Zero town hall

City of Ann Arbor

The outreach included 3 public surveys, 68 public events, 2 large town halls, and regular media communication, all designed to start conversations, solicit feedback on what should go into the Carbon Neutrality Plan, and get community buy-in.

But traditional approaches to community engagement, like posting surveys on social media, were not sufficient. As an initiative focused on equity and justice, the A2Zero team knew they had to do more to hear from frontline and disadvantaged community members.

“We didn’t just have a town hall,” said Missy Stults, the Ann Arbor Sustainability and Innovations Manager and one of the key architects of A2Zero. 

Local students plant flowers as part of A2Zero's community engagement

City of Ann Arbor

“We were really purposeful about reaching members of our public we don’t traditionally engage with,” said Stults. These more innovative efforts included sending 11,000 backpack fliers home with all K-5th students in Ann Arbor Public Schools, visiting with tenants at Housing Commission sites, distributing public surveys to homebound residents through Meals on Wheels, and providing community members with materials to lead their own events about A2Zero.

When the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, several A2Zero events had to be cancelled or postponed. Still, the A2Zero team remained dedicated to connecting with the community, and continued to invent novel engagement tactics. These included virtual question-and-answer sessions, educational workshops, panel discussions, and celebrations and happy hours.

A2Zero was also able to reach a variety of stakeholders thanks to its partners: 66 community, environmental, and advocacy organizations that helped connect their members with the initiative. Meanwhile, groups of technical advisors lent their expertise to propose and evaluate candidate strategies for the Carbon Neutrality Plan. NRDC is proud to be both a technical advisor and a partner to an effort as bold and cutting-edge as A2Zero, which truly puts people first in the fight against climate change.

A2Zero's planning process

City of Ann Arbor

Through its thoughtful and customized approaches, A2Zero managed to engage with thousands of community members. The ideas gathered from the public, partners, technical advisors, and the City’s own staff, as well as economic and greenhouse gas modeling, all resulted in a Carbon Neutrality Plan that is truly transformative.

And it’s not over. The Carbon Neutrality Plan is a living document, with the flexibility to change and respond to ongoing feedback from the community. As Ann Arbor begins implementing the Plan, A2Zero will continue to bring new voices to the table. City staff openly admit that they have not yet engaged every constituency at the level they want, and that they must continue active outreach to community members and especially frontline populations in order to create an equitable future.

About the Authors

Aviva Meyers

Schneider Fellow, Midwest Region, Climate & Clean Energy Program
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Ann Arbor passed its transformative Carbon Neutrality Plan, making it a climate action leader in the Midwest. The Plan describes how the city will achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

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