Baseline for Success



How much water does Hilton Head Island use? How much trash is generated and recycled on the island each year? How is the food supply sourced? How much energy is used? How does the island’s transportation and mobility infrastructure affect the environment? And, in the bigger picture, how does a community know where it’s going if it doesn’t know where it’s been, or where it is right now?

These are just a few of many questions that Hilton Head Island will hope to answer when it releases its first-ever baseline sustainability assessment in August.

“We knew that to be able to track progress moving forward, we needed to first know where we were today. And that’s what this baseline sustainability assessment was created to do,” said Mark Baker, chairman of the board of directors at Experience Green, a local nonprofit group that was designated to manage the assessment. “This is the first time we as a community have attempted to measure where we are in terms of resource consumption and resiliency as it relates to managing our resources going forward into the future.”

Generally speaking, a baseline sustainability assessment identifies the appropriate metrics a community or region can use to measure progress in areas of resource consumption and environmental stewardship. According to Experience Green, the assessment will address the following areas: water, waste, energy, transportation and mobility, labor and food, urban forestry, community education and position in the marketplace.

The Town of Hilton Head defines sustainability “as the practice of meeting the needs of the current generation without degrading or destroying the natural resources (e.g. water, soil, biodiversity, oil, minerals) and natural services (e.g. flood control, air purification, pollination) that future generations will also need.”

In 2010, the mayor’s Vision Task Force for the Island’s Future identified sustainability as one of 11 key initiatives that the group recommended in its Vision 2025 report. From there, the Sustainability Advisory Committee, a sub-committee of the Greater Island Council Vision Committee, took up the task force’s charge and explored steps the island could take to embrace sustainability, and compared Hilton Head Island to seven similar communities (including Nashville, Chatham County and Charleston, among others), and it was determined that a baseline sustainability assessment was critical.

WAP Sustainability, a Tennessee-based independent sustainability consultancy, produced the initial assessment, which took six months to prepare, and has submitted a draft narrative to Experience Green, which expects to release it in August.

The $75,000 project was partially funded by Town Council, Beaufort County, environmental grants and with significant contributions from nearly every large-scale community on Hilton Head Island, as well as numerous local businesses and community organizations.

“What’s really exciting about it is we’re not only measuring the resources that we consume today, we’re benchmarking this community against other communities in the region, like the city of Charleston and Kiawah Island, and even other communities geographically further from us,” said Baker, who is also president of Wood+Partners Inc., a regional land planning and landscape architecture firm with offices on Hilton Head and Tallahassee, Florida.

The assessment will provide the initial glimpse, and an opportunity to compare Hilton Head Island to regional and national sustainability standards.

“That will tell us where we have room for improvement, and then begin to identify practices and policies that we then can recommend to communities,” Baker said.

Once the assessment is released to the public, the Sustainability Advisory Committee and Experience Green will conduct a series of community engagement meetings to increase awareness and buy-in from local stakeholders.

“These meetings will allow us to share this information with policymakers, utility providers, local government and its citizens. From that, we can begin to formulate a set of strategies that our communities can sponsor,” Baker said.

Ultimately, the initial assessment can provide guidance for policy decisions within the community, with subsequent assessments and data providing a measuring stick for implemented changes.

“That’s the whole point of the baseline sustainability assessment is that we can get to policies and practices that we might embrace as a community, and then measure the success of any given policy against where we are. We’ll begin to have real quantifiable data about the policies that we made, and how effective they were.”

Other Area Initiatives

The town of Bluffton is also incorporating sustainability practices in its approach to being responsible to the community.

“The town of Bluffton connects the spokes of the sustainability wheel, which we consider the combination and interaction of our environment, economics, and cultural elements, through our Town Council’s vision, mission, and goals. This philosophy leads us to put sustainability into practice through numerous town initiatives,” said Kim Jones, Bluffton’s director of engineering.

Jones cited the May River Watershed Action Plan, which focuses on protecting and restoring water quality in the May River; the Neighborhood Assistance Program, which provies assistance ranging from home repair to septic system maintenance to heirs property title assistance; and the Capital Improvement Program projects, among others, as examples of the town’s efforts.

“While this is surely not a comprehensive list of all that Bluffton does, we are mindful that sustainability is built into the covenant for Bluffton, and each of us lives this every day in our service to the town and its citizens,” Jones said.