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How do international border cities interact with one another about sustainable development? Existing research suggests international networks play a role in linking cities in a global dialogue about sustainability. Within individual cities, local networks including government agencies and nongovernmental organizations also play a role in sustainability discussions. This research suggests both perspectives on networks can inform the study of how international border cities approach interaction about sustainable development. Detroit and Windsor are examined as a case study. Interviews with government officials and nongovernmental organizations in both cities illuminate how Windsor and Detroit approach sustainable development in different ways. Social network analysis is used to identify organizations bridging the border between Canada and the United States. The research offers new propositions about how networks contribute to economic, environmental, and social policy coordination in international border regions.

Sustainability, as a concept guiding public action, has pushed city governments to rethink their relationships with citizens, community-based organizations, and other government agencies. Now discussed in city halls around the world, sustainable development was brought to public attention through the work of the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, and their report titled Our Common Future. They defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 43). Extensions of this definition commonly emphasize the “three E's” of economic growth, environmental protection, and social equity (Elkington, 1994). As cities sort out what sustainable development means for local policy and programs, government officials find themselves enmeshed in dialogue with various actors who have a stake in the future of the city. Cities pursuing sustainability coordinate with myriad other actors, governmental and nongovernmental, whose goals and actions bear on the city's future. Cities also turn to neighboring cities or international networks of cities to learn new strategies and best practices.

If sustainability encourages cities to rethink their roles as participants in a global policy dialogue about economic, environmental, and social prosperity, then the most interesting local action on sustainability may occur in cities on international borders. This investigation explains how the cities of Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan are pursuing sustainability, and how their efforts are linked. These two cities are separated by the Detroit River and an international border. They share common environmental, economic, and social challenges; however, they operate in two distinct systems of federal government, and they have unique definitions of sustainability. Studying international border cities provides leverage to evaluate assertions made in current discussions about the role of networks in local sustainability efforts. International border cities like Detroit and Windsor may be tied together in discussions about sustainable development in at least two ways. First, international organizations focused on sustainability and institutions designed specifically to promote dialogue between the United States and Canada may provide the key bridge in linking the cities’ discussions about sustainable development. Institutions designed for brokering dialogue in past environmental policy discussions may be in especially strong positions to link Detroit and Windsor for this new policy discussion. Second, cities appear to develop robust internal networks of community actors engaged in sustainability efforts. These local networks may reach beyond their city borders to engage similar organizations in neighboring cities—in this case a city across the international border. Existing studies of urban sustainability tend to focus on the development of one type of network or the other. A study of Windsor and Detroit provides the opportunity to review claims from both perspectives at the same time.

Existing research on global and local sustainability networks directs our attention to two questions that can help us better understand the interaction of international border cities. First, which organizations help span borders and connect cities in policy dialogue? Second, in local sustainability policy networks, how central are the organizations that are specifically designed to foster cross-border or international cooperation? After a more detailed explanation of the role of international and local networks in city sustainability efforts, social network analysis is used to investigate local sustainability policy networks in Windsor and Detroit. Careful attention is given to the types of organizations and government agencies that bridge the cities across the international border. The case provides a comparison of two cities’ sustainability efforts, and offers insight into the conduct of border relations between the United States and Canada. More importantly, understanding the links between Windsor and Detroit helps to integrate the literature on coordinated municipal action on sustainability, and illustrates the connection between the local and global politics of sustainability. Overall, the patterns of sustainability interaction between Windsor and Detroit should encourage us to give more attention to locally specialized environmental institutions for cross-border dialogue and local economic development agencies, rather than the few prominent international municipal networks working on urban sustainability.


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While sustainability may lack a concrete definition (e.g., Connelly, 2007; Faber, Jorna, & Van Engelen, 2005), there appears to be no lack of action on the part of local governments to adopt sustainability initiatives. Over the past two decades, sustainability efforts have emerged within cities, often starting as projects monitoring and reporting environmental quality indicators (Portney, 2003). Principles of sustainability have guided action in planning and land use (Conroy, 2006; Saha & Paterson, 2008; Wheeler, 2000); but, the influence of sustainability can be seen in an array of projects including enhanced recycling efforts, energy efficiency programs, environmental justice initiatives, infrastructure investments, carbon emission reduction strategies, and jobs training programs (Fitzgerald, 2010; Portney, 2003, 2009; Slavin, 2011). In economic and community development, sustainability advocates have continued a trend of pushing for equity in the social and geographic distribution of the benefits that come from new development (Bennett & Giloth, 2007; Blakely & Leigh, 2010; Davidson, 2009; Rubin, 2000). Local sustainability initiatives and policy adoption are not uniform, but reflect a community's distinct needs and goals.

Why have city governments become key actors in discussions about sustainable development? Public interest in the environment and a supportive political culture may help local officials justify attention to environmental components of a sustainability agenda (Budd, Lovrich, Pierce, & Chamerlain, 2008; Saha, 2009). Political leadership and a recognition of the local effects of climate change may also be important (Betsill, 2001). However, interest in environmental affairs does not seem to be the only antecedent to sustainability efforts. Some initiatives, like energy efficiency improvements, have co-benefits that allow a city to achieve cost savings while also doing something to address environmental or climate change concerns (Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003; Pitt, 2010). Other cities view sustainability as central to economic growth, as officials attempt to diversify the local economy with technological and green jobs (Fitzgerald, 2010; Slavin, 2011). Engagement in sustainability and climate change mitigation strategies at the local level appears to hinge in part on the presence of active civic life within the community, with members of the public and community organizations contributing to local development efforts (Pierce & Dale, 1999; Pitt, 2010; Pitt & Randolph, 2009; Portney, 2005; Zahran, Grover, Brody, & Vedlitz, 2008). Together, the emerging research suggests city governments may receive support from a diverse constituency when sustainability appears on the city's policy agenda.

Local action on sustainable development may be explained in part by national and international policy debates on climate change and economic growth. In federal systems like Canada and the United States, the lack of a national consensus on climate change and greenhouse gas reduction may encourage more subnational debate and policy experimentation (Rabe, 2004, 2011; Stoett, 2009). Cities may also be attuned to global policy debates about climate change due to their concern about the potential impacts of policy change on local economic growth. Scholars often use the term multi-level governance to describe policy debates about environmental issues that span across levels of government, calling for interaction and coordination (Betsill & Rabe, 2009; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003, 2005; Paquet, 2005; Rabe, 2007). Our ability to understand urban sustainability policies hinges on analysis of how cities engage with other governmental and nongovernmental actors across scales or levels of policy debate.


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Cities tend to engage in networks with other cities, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations when they take action on sustainable development.1 These networks deserve our attention because they provide opportunities for policy learning and enhance the capacity of cities to implement sustainability programs. Transmitting and brokering information has been described as one of the primary functions of networks (Agranoff, 2006). Giles Paquet (2005) argues the governments and organizations that participate in multilevel governance must have the capacity to communicate information about their implementation actions and the changing conditions of the problem at the focus of their efforts. Networks are the context in which actors share information and learn about other actors’ efforts. Along with information exchange, networks can help direct resources to areas of need and share expertise with participating governments (Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003). Networks may also be directly involved with program implementation or resource management. For example, Koontz et al. (2004) observe networks active in environmental governance with varying degrees of government involvement, which suggests nongovernmental actors can play important roles in policy development and implementation. The study of networks in urban sustainability may focus on formalized programs or broader patterns of interaction that connect actors in dialogue or action around the common concern of sustainability.

Formalized networks draw our attention because they represent clear and coordinated efforts to address salient public problems. Climate change mitigation and greenhouse gas reduction, which may be considered components of urban sustainability, are the focal point for several prominent networks. National and international networks of municipalities are forging forward on climate change initiatives, sometimes despite a lack of action by national governments (Betsill & Rabe, 2009; Gore, 2010; Schreurs, 2008; Selin & VanDeveer, 2007; Stoett, 2009). For example, Gore and Robinson (2009) highlight the role of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) as the sponsors of national networks that have secured the commitments of municipalities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Studies of well-known climate change networks describe the scope of network participation, the purpose and operation of the network, and the accomplishments of network participants (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2004; Bulkeley, 2005; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003; Gore, 2010; Gore & Robinson, 2009; Krause, 2011; Lindseth, 2004; Toly, 2008).

While formal networks appear to play an important role in global and national sustainability debates, this research employs a broader definition of policy networks in order to explore the scope of actors engaged in urban sustainability. Networks have become an important organizing concept to study the regular interaction and coordination of actors addressing complex policy problems like environmental protection and management (e.g., van Bueren, Klijn, & Koppenjan, 2003). Selin and VanDeveer (2007, p. 11) argue the development of cross-sector coalitions including government, the private sector, and civil society, institutionalizes demand for action on climate change policy. Studying the pattern of interaction among actors or organizations within policy networks can help us better understand who may be in an advantaged position to influence policy. For example, Ingold (2011) uses social network analysis to study competing coalitions for the regulation of CO2 emissions in Switzerland. This approach allowed her to identify which actors were positioned to broker policy change. Similarly, organizational theorists have focused attention on coalitions or broader organizational fields working in environmental policy. Charting out who is involved in environmental policy debate can help us better understand how patterns of common understanding emerge, and which approaches to environmental management are favored in society (Hoffman & Bertels, 2010; Hoffman & Ventresca, 1999). For urban sustainability research, these studies prompt careful investigation of the array of actors who hope to influence a city's course of action on sustainability policy, and the patterns of interaction among actors.2

While environmental and climate change policy networks have been the subject of many studies, we lack research on the policy networks that support the many definitions of urban sustainability at work within cities. In order to study urban sustainability policy networks in an international border region, two categories of existing policy network research deserve additional review—international policy networks that link cities around the world in a common policy discussion and local networks within cities that focus their efforts on policy development and implementation. The existing scholarship on international and local networks provides a foundation to study the sustainability policy interactions between border cities like Windsor and Detroit.

International Networks

Some networks are designed for the specific purpose of linking cities across international borders in policy learning and advocacy for sustainability or climate change mitigation (e.g., Bulkeley, 2005; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2003; Davies, 2005). Organizations like ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability or the Urban Sustainability Directors Network provide technical assistance for cities new to sustainability efforts, help cities share best practices, and give cities a united platform to enter national and international policy debates. Some studies find the cities that are most active in these networks are themselves deeply engaged in municipal level action on sustainability or climate protection (Kern & Bulkeley, 2009). Bulkeley and Betstill's (2003) Cities and Climate Change: Urban Sustainability and Global Environmental Governance is among the best-known studies of an international network—the Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) network of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability.3 Through case studies of various cities’ participation in the CCP global climate change network, Bulkeley and Betsill show that climate change is not a policy problem that can be sufficiently addressed by local government action alone, nor by top-down policy solutions endorsed in international forums. Instead, forums like the CCP network contribute to multilevel governance in which international, national, and local policy initiatives are reconciled and coordinated over time. Global and international networks can also be thought of as conglomerations of cities, with interest in sustainability or climate protection, attempting to better insert their voices in global policy debates (Toly, 2008). In sum, by engaging in international networks, cities can develop and advance their internal policies and approaches to sustainability, while also attempting to influence national and global environmental policy debates.

For the purpose of this study, prominent global networks like the CCP should not be considered the only networks that link cities in international policy discussions. Various networks have emerged to bridge the border between Canada and the United States, often focusing their work on specific regions or policy concerns. For example, specialized institutions have evolved to manage common policy concerns in water management. The Great Lakes region, of which Windsor and Detroit are a part, has a history of cross-border cooperation through institutions like the International Joint Commission (IJC), and through the passage of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the United States in 1972 (Caldwell, 1988; Hildebrand, Pebbles, & Fraser, 2002, p. 431). These institutions have facilitated cross-border negotiations and internal policy debates in both countries about how to pursue goals related to Great Lakes water quality (Inscho & Durfee, 1995; Rabe, 1996; Rabe & Zimmerman, 1995). The Great Lakes Basin is not the only border region with specialized institutions for cross-border cooperation. For example, the eastern provinces in Canada and the northeastern states in the U.S. have developed regional agreements to coordinate greenhouse gas reduction efforts (Selin & VanDeveer, 2005, 2009). Because specialized cross-border institutions work with multiple governments and nongovernmental agencies, they can be considered coordinators of international networks. Much existing research has focused on the presence of cross-border networks in environmental governance. In contrast, Emmanuel Brunet-Jailly (2008a), in a survey of leaders in the Cascadia region, suggests efforts are being undertaken to bridge the Canada-U.S. border through parallel and complementary local policies to advance economic integration. The shared economic and environmental concerns of regions like Windsor and Detroit should prompt us to look for specialized networks that bridge the international border to address various policy problems.

Local Networks

Local networks advancing sustainability within cities also call for our attention. The role of local policy networks in urban sustainability can be illuminated by recent research on public participation and the civic sector in urban sustainability, as well as research on regional economic development networks. Enhanced civic health, community participation, and individual level behavior change are often considered important components of local sustainability efforts (Barr, 2008; Pierce & Dale, 2009; Portney, 2005; Portney & Berry, 2010; Prugh, Costanza, & Daly, 2000). Networks that bring together members of public, non-profit, and community-based organizations may be important contributors to a city's sustainability efforts. In a recent study, Portney and Cuttler (2010) found that the cities that were most active in implementing sustainability policies were more likely to report the involvement of non-profit organizations in their work, and that these organizations were most likely to be locally based. Engaging the public and community actors has also become an expectation or condition of government funding in some countries. For example, in Canada, the Gas Tax Agreement of 2005 required the development of Integrated Community Sustainability Plans (ICSPs) as a condition of federal reinvestment in local infrastructure. Programs have been designed to engage the public in various phases of the planning process (Calder & Beckie, 2011). While the emerging literature on urban sustainability hints at the importance of social capital and civic engagement, enhanced civic participation within a city might not directly enhance communication and coordination with an international neighbor.

Instead, economic development concerns may prompt cross-border policy dialogue about sustainability. Recent research in economic development shows that cities are interconnected in both competition and cooperation in economic development, sometimes forming cooperative networks or partnerships (Hawkins, 2010; Lee, Feiock, & Lee, 2012; Lewis & Neiman, 2009; Lombard & Morris, 2010; Olberding, 2002). Hawkins (2009) finds cities cooperate in economic development in order to secure resources that might not otherwise be available, to obtain greater visibility, and to decrease the delivery costs of economic development initiatives, among other reasons. Studying network linkages and information costs in economic development, Feiock, Stineacker, and Park (2009) find that frequent contact with other cities increases participation in economic development joint ventures. Their study also shows that cities with more neighbors are more likely to participate in economic development joint ventures. While networks and policy partnerships have received empirical scrutiny in economic development, insufficient attention has been given to network and regional partnership development in urban sustainability research. Economic development organizations may be among the most likely organizations to forge connections with neighboring cities about sustainable development.

International and Local Networks at Work in Cities

Existing research on urban sustainability tends to treat international and local networks in isolation. In part, separate lines of inquiry make sense. Those studying international networks and cross-border policy institutions tend to approach their research from relevant theory in international relations or global environmental politics. Scholars interested in urban policy tend to analyze city governments’ interactions with actors internal to the city, basing their inquiry in theories explaining local development politics or public participation. Indeed, urban sustainability has become a popular topic because empirical investigations of city sustainability efforts help scholars test claims from established theoretical perspectives in an emerging field of urban policy. However, in the case of international border communities, both types of networks and lines of inquiry are relevant to our understanding of how cities engage sustainable development policies. Thus, cities on international borders may be engaged in two types of networks, those explicitly tasked with fostering international dialogue and those focused on the development and implementation of local sustainability efforts within their city.

While this research is exploratory, the literature summarized above leads us to two questions about cross-border interaction about urban sustainability. Existing studies also allow us to express tentative propositions about what we expect to find. First, which organizations help span the international border between Windsor and Detroit? This investigation will identify if the organizations that help bridge the border are specifically designed for cross-border dialogue, or if local organizations within the cities also play an international bridging role. The literature suggests formal international networks may link the cities, along with specialized regional institutions. Further, local networks within each city may have cross-border ties, and economic development organizations are expected to be among the most likely to be engage in cross-border communication. Second, how central are cross-border bridging organizations in the joint network between Windsor and Detroit? Existing research says that city governments interact with specialized international networks, but we do not have clear expectations about the extent to which these organizations engage with others about sustainable development policies. If organizations that bridge the international border are not well connected to the other actors working on sustainability in Windsor and Detroit, they may have limited opportunity to bring international perspectives into a city's local sustainability efforts. Answering these questions through the case of Windsor and Detroit provides qualitative insight into how cross-border networks actually operate, and these answers contribute to stronger theories on the role of networks in local and international sustainability efforts.


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To better understand policy discussions about sustainable development in Windsor and Detroit, social network analysis is used to identify connections among organizations within each city, as well as connections across the international border. According to Gerring (2004, 2007), case studies can illuminate social or political phenomena that we hope to understand in greater detail, with the goal of generalizing to other cases that are similarly situated. Our ability to generalize is limited by the fact that each city faces unique sustainability challenges. Still, the case should help policy analysts be attentive to the types of network relationships that can emerge to span an international border. By using social network analysis to map patterns of interaction within and between the two cities, we use multiple data points within the case study to inform the analysis (King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994). The case study provides an opportunity for rich description of how city officials conceptualize sustainability and how that conceptualization influences policy within each city. The data within the case identify the pathways for sustainability policy discussion across the international border. Tracing the form and direction of cross-border dialogue about urban sustainability can help shape additional social network studies and cross-case comparisons in the future. As discussed in more detail below, semi-structured interviews help construct the case. Supplementary documents were collected from organizations involved in each city's sustainability efforts, and newspaper coverage was consulted to help place the sustainability policy debate in the context of other trends in the cities’ policy and politics.

Windsor and Detroit were selected as the case cities for this research because of their close proximity to one another on the border. Both cities are engaged in sustainability discussions, but have not been recognized as exemplars like Portland or Vancouver (e.g., Brunet-Jailly, 2008b; Gore & Robinson, 2009). Neither city is a member of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, one of the most well-known and widely studied transnational municipal networks. Windsor does belong to the Partners for Climate Protection Program of the FCM, suggesting some level of interest in concerns related to urban sustainability. While proximity makes it realistic to expect some level of cross-border interaction on sustainability policies, the lower agenda status of sustainable development creates a stronger test for cross-border interaction. Studying cities on the border between the United States and Canada provides the advantage of analyzing cities with similar national-level politics on international climate change debates, similar federal structures allowing opportunity for local level action, and yet distinct approaches to environmental policy and development (Bakvis & Brown, 2010; Olson & Franks, 1993; Rabe, 1997; Selin & VanDeveer, 2009).

With the automobile industry playing an important role in each city's economic history, both Detroit and Windsor are currently engaged in processes of shaping a new economic future, as detailed in the case below. In the late 20th century, Detroit experienced disinvestment and racial tension as jobs and residents moved to suburban cities across southeast Michigan (Darden, Hill, Thomas, & Thomas, 1987; Farley, Danziger, & Holzer, 2000), while provincial planning policies and social context yielded less fragmented patterns of development in neighboring Ontario (Jacobs, 2009). Statistics Canada reports a 2011 population of 210,891 for Windsor, and the U.S. Census Bureau reports Detroit's 2010 population at 713,777, making it over three times larger than its international neighbor. Both cities have faced recent population decline, with Detroit's 25.0% decline between 2000 and 2010 being much more alarming than its neighbors' 2.6% drop between 2006 and 2011. The selection of Detroit and Windsor should serve as a useful complement to related studies of cross-border policy interaction between Canada and the United States (e.g., Brunet-Jailly, 2008a; Selin & VanDeveer, 2005).

Social network analysis has become an important tool for the analysis of local government cooperation (e.g., Andrew, 2009; Feiock, Lee, Park, & Lee, 2010; LeRoux & Carr, 2010), and has also been used to study coalitions engaged in various dimensions of environmental policy (e.g., Ingold, 2011; Schneider, Scholz, Lubell, Mindruta, & Edwardsen, 2003). Social network analysis provides an approach to evaluate and graphically represent interactions among actors, and can aid in understanding the consequence or importance of these interactions (Knoke & Yang, 2008). To place reasonable boundaries on the investigation, this study focuses on two egocentric networks centering on the cities of Windsor and Detroit. Rather than identifying all potential organizations working on programs related to sustainability, an ego network focuses on a single actor, or node in network terminology. The ego's alters, or those with whom the ego interacts about sustainability, are also identified. Connections among the alters are identified, but any new organizations or nodes identified by the alters are not added to the network. Again, this is a practical boundary for research. If snowball sampling of organizations continued to all those actors involved with the various dimensions of sustainability, hundreds of contacts might be necessary in each city. This research design precludes the use of some analysis techniques, but measures of network centrality can still be calculated (Marsden, 2002).

The study began with interviews of two high level city officials in the City of Windsor and two officials in the City of Detroit. The officials in each city were selected because they were knowledgeable about city policy and administration and because they were in a position to provide broad reports about their city's sustainability efforts, not isolated to an individual department or dimension of sustainability. Each official was asked to describe their city's work in sustainable development. They were asked to report which organizations or government agencies the city works with on a regular basis for sustainability programs or policy. Respondents were prompted to identify regular working relationships with other government agencies, community-based and non-profit organizations, international or national organizations and associations, and government agencies or organizations on the other side of the border between Canada and the United States.

Interviews with city officials in Windsor and Detroit identified 20 organizations in Canada, 37 organizations in the United States, and two organizations designed for cross-border work with operations or participants in both countries. Table 1 lists those reported as involved with sustainability efforts in Windsor and Detroit. Interviews were requested with each organization mentioned by the cities, and respondents from these organizations were asked a similar set of questions. In total, 30 interviews were completed for this project and digitally recorded to ensure accuracy.4 The interviews provide data for social network analysis, but also qualitative detail on how sustainability shapes local policy in Windsor and Detroit. The qualitative analysis uses network graphs and content from the interviews to explain sustainability efforts in each city, as well as the nature of interactions across the international border.

Table 1. Reported Sustainability Interactions
  1. Representatives from organizations listed in italics were interviewed for this research.

Organizations in Detroit, MichiganOrganizations in Windsor, Ontario
City of DetroitCity of Windsor
Architectural Salvage Warehouse of DetroitDetroit River Canadian Cleanup
City of ChicagoDowntown Residents Association Windsor
City of DearbornEssex Region Conservation Authority
Detroit Community SchoolsFedDev
Detroit Economic Growth Corp.FCMs
Detroit Food Policy CouncilLittle River Acres Residents Association
Detroit Regional ChamberOntario MCSS
Detroit Windsor TunnelOntario Ministry of the Environment
Detroit/Wayne County Port AuthorityOntario Ministry of Transportation
D-Town FarmsSalvation Army, Windsor Community & Rehabilitation
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice Center
Earth Works Urban FarmSt. Clair College
Green ExplosionTourism Essex Windsor Pelee Island
Greening of DetroitTransport Canada
HUD – Detroit Field OfficeUnited Way Windsor-Essex County
Michigan Dept. of Community Health (MDCH)University of Windsor and the Great Lakes Institute for
Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Environmental Research (GLIER)
Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT)Windsor Port Authority
Michigan Energy OfficeWindsor-Essex Economic Development Corp.
Michigan Suburbs AllianceWindsor-Essex Environmental Committee
Michigan Dept. of Licensing and Regulatory AffairsWindsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce
Michigan Municipal League (MML) 
Michigan State Housing Development AuthorityCross-Border Organizations
 (MSHDA)Great Lakes Commission
Office of the Great LakesInternational Joint Commission
Osborn Evergreen Academy 
Rails to Trails Conservancy 
SE Michigan Regional Energy Office 
Southeast Michigan Council of Governments 
Sierra Club–SE Michigan 
SW Detroit Environmental Vision 
U.S. Customs and Border Protection 
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 
U.S. Green Building Council 
WARM Training Center 
Warren/Connor Development 
Young Detroit Builders 
Zero Waste Detroit 

This research design has limitations that must be noted. Treating the city governments as egos assumes that they are important actors in local sustainability efforts; however, governments might not always be the central actors in network or collaborative relationships (Koontz et al., 2004). This concern is worth note, and is a reason for additional study; but, this research specifically examines the role of cities in local sustainability, making the cities the logical egos for the networks. This means the project does not offer a comprehensive list of organizations involved in local sustainability efforts in either city. The list of organizations does provide insight into how city officials think about who is involved with local sustainability efforts. A second limit of the research comes from the absence of information from some organizations. Thirty three organizations identified by the cities could not be interviewed, which leads to an underreporting of connections in the network. Some of these omissions do not cause much concern. For example, the city of Chicago was mentioned by both Windsor and Detroit as an information resource, so it is included in the network. However, it is unlikely that additional information from Chicago would change our understanding of sustainability efforts in the case under investigation. Nine organizations that were not interviewed were federal, provincial, or state agencies. Neighborhood associations in Windsor, schools in Detroit, and port organizations in both cities might also have underreported connections. Despite these limitations, the study reports numerous network ties within Windsor and Detroit and across the international border. As long as these limitations are kept in mind, they are no more problematic than the limitations confronted in the development of other case studies.


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To begin the analysis of the sustainability networks in Windsor and Detroit, activities in each city are discussed independently. For each city, key organizations working on sustainable development are identified, and work related to each of the three dimensions of sustainability is reported. Then, connections across the international border are analyzed.

Windsor, Ontario

Reflecting on the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability, a Windsor city official explained, “the clear focus has been economic.” Indeed, Windsor officials indicated the term sustainability is not widely used in the city, in favor of terms like quality of life and social responsibility. Sustainability is a component of municipal level policy discussions in Canada. For example, the FCM adopted a policy statement on sustainable development that argues, “Communities need long-term economic and social security to build a more sustainable future. This security depends on environmentally sustainable development, as well as on fairly sharing our human, financial and technical resources” (2011, p. 1). Windsor officials highlighted the city's commitment to programs addressing social and environmental concerns, but noted that the recent economic crisis and declines in the automobile manufacturing industry have caused elected officials to focus on economic development.

Figure 1 shows ties between the city of Windsor and the organizations identified by Detroit or Windsor as active in local sustainability efforts. The network graphs for this research show symmetric connections, so a tie appears whether one or both nodes reported the tie. Organizations identified by the ego but not identified by any other organizations, described as pendants in social network analysis, are not included in the graph.5 Again, the full list of organizations mentioned by Windsor and Detroit can be found in Table 1. Distance between nodes represented on the graph has no significance. Organizations in Canada are represented with squares, organizations in the United States are represented as circles, and cross-border organizations with operations or participation in both countries are represented as triangles. The two network egos, Windsor and Detroit, are represented with large diamonds.


Figure 1. City of Windsor Sustainability Ego Network

This graph was created with NetDraw and UCINET 6.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Figure 1 shows that business and economic development organizations make up an important part of Windsor's local sustainability network. Windsor city officials and other organizations involved in economic development stress the importance of economic diversification, and describe coordinated public and private effort in moving toward that goal. While municipalities in Canada do not have the same tax incentives available for economic development as cities in the United States, Windsor has created a Community Improvement Plan that covers the entire city. This approach was described as an important local innovation, in comparison to Community Improvement Plans in other places that only cover selected neighborhoods. Under Ontario law, this approach allows the city to use various financing mechanisms to support economic diversification goals. The Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation, the Windsor-Essex Chamber of Commerce, the Windsor International Airport (YQG), and Tourism Windsor, Essex, Pelee Island were identified as among the organizations involved with economic diversification efforts. A representative of the Economic Development Corporation explained their organization has taken a collaborative approach to engaging community businesses and stakeholders in developing a plan for the region's economic future. For example, skilled labor has been identified as an area of future job growth, and this need has encouraged partnerships between job providers and universities to offer relevant training. The aeronautic industry was identified as one sector targeted for growth. The Windsor International Airport (YQG) has taken a lead role in managing the development of property near its facilities, working to attract industries in aeronautic maintenance and air cargo.

Some of these economic development efforts are complementary with efforts in Detroit. For example, an airport representative explained, “What's really nice is that what we're doing on this side of the border is very much aligned with what's [happening] on the Michigan side…as it relates to transportation logistics.” The representative explained air transportation and cargo is a global industry, and Canada and the United States must align policies and physical assets in order to be competitive in the arena of transportation and logistics. “The world does not see a border, especially as it relates to transportation and logistics. We too also have to think that way.” Windsor and Detroit have distinct economic development challenges, but the air transportation industry illustrates potential for cross-border cooperation.

Environmental questions appear more salient to organizations outside the city government. Various organizations are engaged with water quality monitoring and improvement initiatives for the Detroit River. A representative of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) at the University of Windsor suggested that perceptions of water and environmental quality influence how people think about the economy and health of the region. GLIER has been involved in water quality monitoring and has worked with various community and environmental organizations in the region, in addition to interactions with the City of Windsor. The Detroit River is listed as an area of concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, but much has been done to protect that body of water. Among the city's environmental efforts, infrastructure development for storm water and wastewater management has been given a priority. A city official emphasized that federal economic stimulus funds were carefully used to leverage other dollars for infrastructure projects, resulting in a financing approach that is now being studied by other cities. Watershed quality is also a concern of the Essex Region Conservation Authority, which works with government and community-based organizations on watershed management. In Windsor, fewer environmental nodes appear on the network graph, but those that were mentioned identified additional groups working in environmental policy, including small community-based organizations. In the environmental field, GLIER, the Essex Region Conservation Authority and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment were among the most consistently mentioned organizations.

The link between the economy and environment was apparent in remarks about the development of a new Detroit River crossing. The development of a new bridge between Canada and the United States was described as important for both the economy and the health of city residents. International trade is important for the region's economy, and the new crossing will enhance capacity for cross-border traffic. The existing Ambassador Bridge crossing brings heavy traffic, along with air contaminant concerns, through the city. The newly planned crossing will move the roadway below grade, reduce the number of intersections stopping traffic, and will add acres of green space. These design features provide human and environmental benefits. Tall grass prairie habitat will be restored, pedestrian crossing will be easier, and recreational trails will be added and improved. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation reports working with the City of Windsor and community members on these design features. The Ministry also engaged a local volunteer organization to aid in the deconstruction of about three hundred and eighty buildings along the new road route, salvaging and diverting building materials from the waste stream.

Finally, social concerns are a clear component of Windsor's conception of sustainable development. The presence of social concerns in the local sustainability discussion in important because existing research suggests the social component is the least likely to get attention in city sustainability programs. The emphasis on social sustainability may be explained in part by the devolution of some responsibility for social assistance to the municipal level in Ontario. The United Way Windsor-Essex County, the Salvation Army, and the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services were key organizations mentioned in this field. These organizations report relationships with numerous other service providers, not identified by the city or depicted in the network graph. However, the city was credited with drawing attention to areas of social need and facilitating roundtables and community forums with relevant organizations to develop new strategies and coordinate resources around problems like homelessness and housing assistance. Economic and social concerns are at the center of attention in Windsor's conceptualization of sustainable development.

Detroit, Michigan

Detroit, as the urban center of a larger metropolitan region and as Michigan's largest city, has multiplex relationships centered on community and economic development, and an emergent emphasis on the environmental dimension of sustainability. In 2007, the Detroit city council created a Green Task Force to advise the city on environmental sustainability. The task force released an interim report a year later, and that document highlighted the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development, with an emphasis on the balance between economic, environmental and social wellbeing (Detroit City Council, 2008). The city officials interviewed in Detroit were directly involved in the work of this task force. At the time of this research, additional redevelopment discussions had begun to take place through Mayor Dave Bing's Detroit Works project.6 Many of those interviewed outside of city government gave credit to the Green Task Force for pushing sustainability onto the city's agenda. Detroit city council member and former interim mayor Kenneth Cockrel, Jr. was specifically credited with raising the profile of sustainability and environmental policy in the city. One non-profit director described the Green Task Force as a “funnel” that brought together organizations with similar interests. While community development and environmental organizations had contacts with one another before the work of the Green Task Force, its meetings and committees provided a forum in which the discussion about sustainable development expanded and new participants were linked into the city's dialogue about sustainability.

A city official explained that the Green Task Force had a two-part agenda. First, the city was “trying to internally adopt certain practices so that we can not only be more environmentally friendly, but also save a few bucks.” Second, the official explained, “there is that other agenda of trying to diversify our economy and trying to promote a larger green agenda…that makes good economic sense even beyond what is going on within city government internally.” City officials were quick to highlight areas of progress. An anti-idling ordinance limiting truck engine idling was identified as an important accomplishment for air quality in the city. The policy change was described as an effort to enhance air quality in neighborhoods surrounding industrial areas and the Ambassador Bridge crossing, which experience heavy commercial truck traffic. The adoption of a green purchasing ordinance was a signal to the business community that the city would give attention to the environmental impact of products and the sustainable practices of vendors. In late 2011, the city supported a Youth Green Economy Summit that fostered discussion about the role of young people and environmental quality in the city's future. With each new initiative listed by city officials, the importance of partnerships and local networks for sustainability were made clear.

While the Green Task Force has a clear emphasis on environmental policy, the city's pursuit of sustainable development and the participants in the dialogue evidence connections between environmental concerns and community development. As illustrated in Figure 2, the city regularly interacts with nongovernmental organizations working in both environmental policy and community development. These organizations may be involved in policy discussions about sustainability with the city, but most are focused on delivering specific programs to the public. For example, WARM Training Center was an early supporter of the Green Task Force, but emphasized that their central work is in energy education programs, jobs training and community development. WARM Training Center provides an illustration of how organizations are linked in Detroit. The organization's focus on job training links it with other community development organizations like Young Detroit Builders. The environmental concern brings links to organizations like the Greening of Detroit. A representative of the organization also highlighted their work in energy conservation and efficiency, leading to working relationships with the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office and the Michigan Energy Office. A representative of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, another organization linking environmental policy and community development, explained that concern with environmental health in Detroit necessitates conversations and initiatives to rebuild neighborhoods. Detroit's local sustainability network draws clear ties between the economic and environmental goals of sustainability.


Figure 2. City of Detroit Sustainability Ego Network

This graph was created with NetDraw and UCINET 6.

Download figure to PowerPoint

Not to be overlooked in Detroit's local sustainability network are organizations working on urban gardening and agriculture. While only a few of these organizations are depicted in Figure 2, other small organizations or community initiatives were identified in interviews, but not specifically named by city officials. A city official suggested that the community thinks about urban gardening in at least two ways. First, gardening can engage young people in the community, help them develop a skill set, and provide motivation through rewarding work. Second, the official emphasized a need for quality food. “As you know, Detroit has been called a food desert for not having access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a way in which we can start to [address] that by locally growing our own foods. The next step is transitioning that into the market place.” The city identified organizations like the Detroit Food Policy Council as central to this task. That organization provides education on nutrition and advocates for food access within the community. The representative of an urban farm in Detroit shared that some people do not consider farming to be a relevant component of local sustainability. “It's hard to say this community garden actually creates a feeling of safety, therefore increasing overall pedestrian traffic. It is an economic driver, actually. It's one of the reasons folks want to locate a business here. But, that's hard for folks to see, I think.” The perceptions described by this urban farmer may be one reason that urban farms and food organizations do not have more ties in the local sustainability network.

Another distinguishing feature of Detroit's local sustainability network is the connection between the City of Detroit and various regional organizations that work outside the city limits. Many of these organization report connections not only to Detroit, but to other nongovernmental organizations and state agencies that play some role in Detroit's sustainability efforts. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the region and serves as a venue for regional policy discussions. SEMCOG has provided various analyses of the region's infrastructure needs. The maintenance of wastewater and transportation infrastructure is instrumental to achieving various environmental goals in the region. SEMCOG has also received a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which will be used to plan for housing and economic stabilization in the region. The Michigan Municipal League (MML), the statewide association of cities, now provides education resources to cities on the development of sustainability and energy conservation programs. This links the MML to some community development organizations in Detroit, and to partnerships with organizations like the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. Similarly tied into regional sustainability and energy discussions is the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which helped establish the aforementioned energy office. A representative of that organization emphasized the importance of policy learning and collaboration across communities in the region, including the development of shared services. “Those are the shifts in mindset that lead into new innovations, new ideas, and new ways of thinking. I think that is where our sources of sustainability are going to come from. Locally, that has a big impact regionally.” While these regional organizations are focused on specific sustainability programs, their overarching role is to help support networks and ties among organizations with common purposes in the region. Sustainability was not on the local policy agenda when these organizations were established, but their regional focus makes them important conduits for discussions about sustainable development today.

Those working on sustainability in Detroit identified similar lists of barriers to progress. The recent economic recession, the scope of vacant housing, and the need for redevelopment are almost universally mentioned as challenges. Some express concern about the extent to which the city will give attention to sustainability, especially the environmental aspects of sustainability. Detroit experienced a period of discontinuity in executive leadership with the resignation of incumbent mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in September 2008, eight months under interim-mayor Kenneth Cockrel, Jr., and current mayor Dave Bing's assumption of office in May 2009. While environmental concerns received more attention under the Cockrel administration, some of those involved in local sustainability discussions are uncertain about the concept's priority for the current administration. Organizations working on sustainability seem to account for this in practical ways when they plan their interactions with the city. A representative of a community development organization explained, “We work really hard to have a relationship with the mayor's office and his group of executives but we also work really hard to have working relationships with the people who are tasked with mowing the lawns in the parks and everybody in between.”

Some expressed confidence that sustainability will lead to innovation in Detroit. “Detroit is at the place that some other places will be at in the future,” explained the representatives of a community development organization. This means the sustainability solutions developed in the city now may be models for future action. A city official was optimistic about the city's attention to sustainability and suggested, “The key is to have a lot of patience and understand where it is that different people are coming from.” The city official advised that cities working on sustainability should work to develop a common goal and work hard to engage the community. “Your residents are the ones being most affected by unsustainable development. You have to engage them and you have to be strategic about it.” In comparison to Windsor, sustainable development in Detroit has a different substantive focus; however, both cities engage local networks to advance their vision of a sustainable community.

International Ties

“There is always an appeal to have binational solutions to issues,” explained an official from the City of Windsor. Cooperation across the international border received broad conceptual support from governmental and nongovernmental organizations alike. The representative of an organization found to have cross-border ties in this study stated, “This is probably one of the most copasetic binational relationships on the planet.” A review of Figures 1 and 2 shows both cities have connections across the international border, yet few of the organizations involved in local sustainability in either city have cross-border ties. In Windsor's ego network (see Figure 1), organizations focused on economic development and transportation appear well positioned for bridging the border. Chambers of commerce and economic development organizations described cross-border ties, and organizations that could not mention cross-border contacts of their own often hypothesized that the chambers of commerce might play some role in cross-border communication. Aside from the City of Windsor, the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce is the only local organization across the international border mentioned by multiple respondents in Detroit (see Figure 2). Degree centrality provides a measure of the extent to which one node is connected to other nodes within a network (Knoke & Yang, 2008, p. 63). Table 2 presents degree centrality scores for all organizations that were identified as organizations with cross-border connections. When both egos and their alters are analyzed in one network structure, mean normalized degree centrality for the network is 10.34, with Detroit at 64.41 and Windsor at 50.85. The Detroit Regional Chamber, the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corporation have normalized degree centrality scores of 13.56, with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation at 11.86. These measures indicate economic development organizations that bridge the international border are in a strong position to broker international perspectives within local sustainability networks.

Table 2. Normalized Degree Centrality for Organizations with Cross-Border Contact
OrganizationNormalized Degree Centrality
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality25.42
Southeast Michigan Council of Governments22.03
International Joint Commission22.03
Great Lakes Commission20.34
Detroit Regional Chamber13.56
Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber13.56
Detroit Economic Growth Corporation11.86
Michigan Department of Transportation 6.78
City of Chicago 3.39
Mean for Complete Detroit-Windsor Ego Network10.34

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation and the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) are tied to one another and to Windsor, as all three have coordinated in various ways over the development of a new Detroit River crossing. SEMCOG's role in regional transportation planning, and its broader interests in sustainability also connect it to cross-border sustainability discussions. With the exception of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), environmental organizations are conspicuously absent in cross-border ties. MDEQ referenced communication with various border cities including Windsor, Sarnia and Sault Ste. Marie, but MDEQ was not mentioned as a regular point of contact by Windsor. As noted earlier, both cities reference the City of Chicago as a model and information source for local sustainability efforts, but that city has no active role in local efforts. Formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Canada might also play some role in connecting local sustainability efforts in this international border region. While not mentioned by either Windsor or Detroit (and not appearing in the network graph), Canada's Consulate General in Detroit was mentioned as a resource or point of contact by state agencies and several other organizations in Michigan.

In addition to local organizations, organizations with an international focus bridge the border. Indeed, the existing literature emphasizes the importance of organizations in this category. Two organizations in this study have cross-border cooperation as a central component of their work, both with a focus on water quality. The IJC, mentioned in the literature review, is a bi-national institution established by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the United States. The IJC aids in implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, engages in research and evaluation of water and air pollution concerns that affect both nations, and conducts regular conferences on water quality. Figures 1 and 2 show ties between the IJC and both cities, as well as regional, state and provincial agencies, and environmental nongovernmental organizations. The Great Lakes Commission is an interstate compact of the eight Great Lakes states within the United States, but includes the Canadian provinces of Québec and Ontario as observers. Figures 1 and 2 show that more ties exist between the Great Lakes Commission and Michigan state agencies than organizations in Canada, but a representative of the Great Lakes Commission reported, “Almost every event and collaborative effort that we do has a Canadian component now.” Notable in the category of cross-border organizations is the absence of any mention of the organizations discussed in the literature on transnational municipal networks working in the field of sustainability. The cross-border organizations that bridge Windsor and Detroit appear to be narrowly tailored to the environmental challenges of the area, specifically the challenges of water quality. Both IJC and the Great Lakes Commission are connected to other nodes in the sustainability networks of Windsor and Detroit. When Windsor and Detroit are analyzed in one network structure, IJC and the Great Lakes Commission have normalized degree centrality scores of 22.03 and 20.34, respectively. While there are a limited number of cross-border organizations serving as a bridge for sustainability efforts between the two cities, the two that do exist appear to play important roles in the network.

The cross-border interactions identified in this research lead to the conclusion that both local and international networks play some role in bridging the international border between Windsor and Detroit. In addition to the cross-border organizations working on water quality, local organizations focused on business, economic development, and transportation appear active in discussions about sustainability in both Windsor and Detroit. Numerous organizations are involved in local sustainability discussions but might not ever identify a need for communication with the community directly across the international border. Small nongovernmental organizations may be the least likely to form international ties. The representative of an active environmental organization in Detroit explained, “We're limited by capacity…We could do a lot more outreach than we do.” The representative explained that her organization received a letter communicating support for their policy advocacy from the Windsor community, but other imperatives kept them from following up on that specific contact. She continued, “Maybe one of us should be going over to Windsor and meeting, and strategizing, and thinking about what we can do, but we haven't done that.” Other small opportunities for international cooperation on local sustainability efforts were mentioned in the interviews. For example, the representative of a job training organization in Detroit indicated students from the University of Windsor had recently contacted her organization to learn more about its work. Identifying similar latent potential for cross-border cooperation may be one challenge both communities consider as they continue to explore what it means to develop sustainable cities.7


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Developing clear theoretical explanations for the role of networks in city sustainability efforts is an important task for scholars studying this emergent field. Whether discussing sustainability within individual cities or across international borders, the network is a popular model or framework for thinking about coordinated action in public policy making and implementation. Scholars of global environmental politics have constructed theoretical statements on the role of transnational municipal networks. They highlight the leverage that networks provide to cities in global policy debate, and they describe the role of networks in diffusing technical skills and best practices among their participants. These theories help us understand the activities of cities that participate in transnational municipal networks, but they do not shed light on coordinated action by cities that are not linked into the small number of prominent global or national networks. Nor do these studies help us understand the circumstances of international border cities, which may be in a position of greater need for international coordination on questions of sustainability. As a case, Windsor and Detroit prompt reconsideration of the relationship between international and local sustainability networks.

As international border cities, Windsor and Detroit are not linked by prominent global environmental or climate policy networks. Instead, the international border is bridged by local actors or specialized international institutions. Some of these institutions, like the IJC, are designed to address policy challenges unique to the region. Many of the organizations that bridge the border are local organizations based in individual cities that are attentive to the interconnected nature of the global and local economies or to the shared local ecosystem. The findings should encourage those interested in global environmental politics and international networks to explore how international networks interface with a more diverse set of local actors than city governments alone. So too, the findings should encourage new extensions of the research on local economic development networks to explore similarities and differences between cooperation on economic development initiatives and other dimensions of urban sustainability.

How do local and international networks contribute to sustainability efforts in international border cities? The proliferation of local plans and strategies for sustainability has led to the generation of diverse practices and approaches to being a sustainable community. Scholars including Elinor Ostrom (2005) and Giles Paquet (2005) suggest that diverse approaches are appropriate to problem solving in complex social and environmental systems because nuanced policy design may be necessary to address the unique challenges of individual communities. While Windsor and Detroit are geographically close to one another, they face different sustainability challenges. We should expect to find a definition of sustainability and local policy innovations matched to their individual circumstances. Networks can help the communities develop points of dialogue around the areas in which they share common concerns, and in which complementary policy approaches or coordinated local actions might be desirable. Paquet (2005, 174) argues, “It is only through the multiplication of local forums, involving cross-sections of the citizenry and debating, in situ, issues of relevance to their communities, that any behavioural change may be expected.” For international border cities, networks can promote focused dialogues on specific dimensions of urban sustainability. Independent cities in separate nations should not be expected to come to a broad consensus on what sustainability means for a region. Instead, multiple network connections allow the development of smaller dialogues about distinct problems that fall under the sustainability umbrella. Thus, a network theory for sustainability in international border cities could help us identify the multiple points at which two communities have recognized a need for international cooperation.

The connections between Windsor and Detroit should encourage additional research on the role of networks in city sustainability efforts, especially for cities situated on international borders. While the research clarified connections between the two cities and identified organizations regularly involved in discussions about sustainable development, this research did not capture systematic measures of the content of interactions. When organizations bridge the international border, we cannot be sure sustainability shapes how they think or communicate about economic, environmental, or social challenges. Additional qualitative or survey research (e.g., Brunet-Jailly, 2008a) would be necessary to explore the content of cross-border exchange in more detail. Combining an extensive survey with social network analysis might be especially productive.

Between Windsor and Detroit, we see sub-networks focused on various dimensions of urban sustainability, like economic development or water quality. If separate sub-networks work on distinct policy problems within a broader urban sustainability policy network, we must also investigate the extent to which the sub-networks interact. Like research by Selin and VanDeveer (2003) on European air quality, or Hoffman and Bertels (2010) on the composition of the environmental movement, this investigation of Windsor and Detroit should encourage us to think about how specialized policy networks come into contact with one another and influence a city or region's overall dialogue about sustainability. While this study found environmentally focused organizations like the MDEQ and the International Joint Commission as central in the sustainability network, we must still investigate the extent to which their positions on environmental policy influence the perceptions and actions of other participants in the urban sustainability policy network. In other words, do the organizations central in urban sustainability networks have the capacity to influence policy? Further, we must investigate the consequences of gaps in the policy network. We see social equity definitions of sustainability may be present in Windsor and Detroit separately, but not in cross-border discussions. What are the consequences of this gap for cross-border dialogue on sustainability? Which organizations, if any, could be in a position to insert social concerns in cross-border dialogue?

Finally, an extended social network analysis within Detroit and Windsor, or in another study site, is desirable. Limiting the analysis to organizations mentioned by city government officials in Windsor or Detroit placed practical limits on this exploratory study. Identification of all relevant actors in the network would allow us to evaluate additional questions, such as, how central are the city governments to local sustainability policy discussions? Identification of all actors within the local sustainability network through additional snow-ball sampling might not reveal additional participants in cross-border dialogue, but could help local policymakers identify areas of complementary effort in which future coordination might be desirable.

For cities both near and far from international borders, this research reinforces an important theme in existing research. City governments do not engage in sustainable development efforts alone. Central to the concept of sustainability is coordination across fields of public policy. Cities engage with myriad government and nongovernmental organizations to alter local practices and refocus on the intergenerational impact of current development decisions. Networks and partnerships are the context in which this work takes place. One Michigan state official explained, “If you're an old-fashioned bureaucratic, you'd rather just say, ‘go, do this, and get it done.’ But when you bring all these partnerships together, it's more work, and more challenging.” The official went on to say that through partnerships, more can be done to help local communities reach goals and obtain environmental outcomes that are locally important. Another government official pointed to non-profits and community-based organizations as critical participants in a city's sustainability discussion. The official stated, “It's in their DNA to be collaborative. They see the value of relationships with folks.” The official went on to explain that small community organizations can gather resources, create demonstration projects, and act more nimbly than some government offices. Networks can help cities learn from these organizations and coordinate strategy or resources when appropriate.

For the communities of Windsor and Detroit, the findings from this research also have relevance. Windsor and Detroit will continue to be linked by common economic, social, and environmental concerns. Sustainability might not always be the preferred term or concept under which to organize cross-border interactions or internal community development efforts. Still, various organizations interviewed for this research will continue to pressure their cities to give attention to environmental and social definitions of development, in addition to economic definitions. Social network analysis, and the results reported here, can help city governments think about new ways of engaging diverse actors in local development (e.g., Provan, Veazie, Staten, & Teufel-Shone, 2005). The analysis identified organizations that currently link the cities across the border, and these organizations should be aware of their role in international relations. If the cities explore additional integration of their sustainability efforts, the network graphs also provide a path for relationship development. Organizations with many ties in their own city networks might be in the strongest position to work as bridges across the border. The interviews conducted for this project suggest that both cities have positive views on working with their international neighbor, and many of the smaller organizations have latent interest in developing such ties. Organizations that already bridge the border might help develop capacity within smaller organizations and facilitate international exchange.

In summary, the study of international border cities provides new perspectives on how international and local networks contribute to discussions about sustainable development in city government. Existing studies of prominent international sustainability networks only tell us part of the story on the global politics of local sustainability. Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario emphasize different dimensions of sustainability in their own work, but their policy discussions bridge the international border in the areas of economic development, transportation, and water quality. Social network analysis provides a helpful tool for visualizing relationships in policy networks, and international border cities may find the method useful if they seek to identify points of common interest in local sustainability discussions. While prominent international networks of cities deserve our attention, our theories of international cooperation on urban sustainability must account for specialized institutions that bridge international borders and local organizations, especially economic development organizations, which communicate and coordinate across international borders.


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This research was undertaken with the assistance of the Government of Canada through a Faculty Research Grant. The findings and interpretations are the responsibility of the author alone.

  1. 1

    Because this research discusses both networks and social network analysis, some distinctions should be made. Networks are often organized when governments, nongovernmental organizations, and members of the public work together on public problem solving (Goldsmith & Eggers, 2004; Mandell, 2001; Sørensen & Torfing, 2007). Some scholars specifically study the management of these networks and how they can be used for public problem solving (e.g., Agranoff & McGuire, 2001). The research on city sustainability tends to refer to networks, but has not yet engaged the conceptual distinctions or empirical findings from the study of public management networks. Social network analysis examines the social relationships among actors (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). This paper uses social network analysis as a method to study policy networks in urban sustainability. In the future, but not in this paper, more careful integration of the public management network literature might also help advance the study of cities and sustainability.

  2. 2

    Selin and VanDeveer (2003) also encourage attention to the linkages among existing institutions working on environmental policy. Their empirical focus is European air quality institutions, but their argument can be applied to the debate on urban sustainability. In brief, various institutions may work on urban sustainability problems. Analysts would benefit from understanding linkages among these institutions in order to discern how policy development and implementation in one institution influences action in others. In their article, Selin and VanDeveer describe various types of linkages.

  3. 3

    ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability boasts a wide range of activities in both Canada ( and the United States (

  4. 4

    The recorded interviews ranged from 19 to 76 minutes in length, with an average interview time of 37 minutes. One additional interview was completed but not recorded. In this interview, notes were taken to document ties with other organizations for social network analysis, but other observations about sustainable development are not included in the qualitative analysis.

  5. 5

    Pendants are excluded from the network graph for two reasons. First, as a practical consideration, removing pendants makes the network graph easier to read. Second, all pendants did not participate in a research interview and were only mentioned by either the City of Windsor or the City of Detroit. These organizations were invited to participate in the research, but did not respond or declined the invitation. As such, there is a validity concern in presenting them graphically in a policy network with connections to the city, but not other actors, without external verification that they are engaged in sustainability policy activities. Other non-interviewed organizations are displayed in the network, but have multiple connections to other organizations, validating their engagement in sustainability policy discussions. This highlights an opportunity for future research. Collecting data on the complete sustainability network in either city would provide an opportunity to investigate other questions about urban sustainability. Again, this research focuses on ego networks for each city and cross-border connections among organizations identified by the cities.

  6. 6

    Bing's redevelopment initiative was launched in 2010 with support from various foundations. The project has been described as an effort to engage the public in the redesign of city neighborhoods in order to increase efficiency in city service delivery (Gallagher, 2011). Some interviewed for this project suggest that Detroit Works will be the next important stage in the dialogue on the future of Detroit, while others perceive the initiative to be stalled. Details about the project can be found online:

  7. 7

    As opportunities for cooperation are identified, those involved with sustainable development must also navigate the individual-level challenges associated with crossing the international border. Some respondents described crossing the border as an easy process, while others described the process as difficult and time consuming. Research in the field of tourism suggests experiences at the Canada/USA border are generally positive, but the formalism of border crossing may deter some from crossing the border (Timothy & Tosun, 2003).


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  1. Top of page
  10. Biography
  • Eric S. Zeemering is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). His research on local government management and policy has appeared in Public Administration Review, State and Local Government Review, Urban Affairs Review and other journals and edited volumes. He is currently working on a book about policy definition and governance relationships for urban sustainability in Baltimore.