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How Smaller Cities are Taking the Lead in Sustainability Innovation

Big cities get all the attention - but smaller, more agile towns are turning out to be innovators in their own right.
 
 
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The cat has long been out of the bag: If we’re serious about not driving the planet (with ourselves on it) off the climate cliff, we better do something about our cities. With 70% of the world’s population projected to be living, consuming and emitting in urban areas by 2050, it has dawned on pretty much anyone who is not a resident of Denial Delta that the road to a sustainable future must go through the world’s cities and human settlements. It’s a pretty simple equation — each structural improvement that positively affects the collective ecological footprint of a densely populated area yields a disproportionately large return on investment, from energy savings to air quality to carbon reductions. 

These days you don’t even have to be a city planner or policy wonk to geek out on the redeeming qualities and endless potential of urban design. From political to environmental to fashion magazines, it’s become almost untenable to not have a sustainable city section. Hardly a day goes by without announcements of  groundbreaking urban farming legislation in San Francisco or  record-setting bicycle friendliness in Portland. The big guns, from  New York to Chicago to L.A., have entered the fray, outracing each other with bold plans to become greener and leaner, sooner than later. Even at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio last month, one of the few things that everyone — whether they were from developed or developing countries, representing civic, business or government sectors — seemed able to agree on was that we should pay major attention to making cities more sustainable,  yo
 
Metropolitan areas around the globe, from  Vancouver to Nantes and Curitiba to Copenhagen, are outracing each other in shortening commutes, greening rooftops, switching to renewables, and becoming climate resilient. It's a welcome, hopeful development, to be sure. Big cities don't just have the math and demographics; they also have the trendsetting power that comes with being an internationally revered cultural hub. For better or worse, the human mind seems to attribute disproportionate significance to shiny objects. When  Jessica Alba rolls around Paris on a  Vélib' it’s considered a big, sexy day of news. When the town of Babylon, New York passes  one of the most ambitious green building codes in the U.S. to reduce the carbon footprint of each participating household by 20-40%...well, what happens in Babylon stays in Babylon.
 
While many of the big cities we hear about in the news have the internal budgets and economic force to develop their own sustainability offices and programs, smaller and medium-sized communities often have the same appetite, but not necessarily the same funding and exposure. Since almost 75 percent of all American cities with populations over 100,000 are  still smaller than 250,000, these municipalities are the obvious next frontier in greening our cities. Unfortunately, so far, their efforts and accomplishments have received very little national attention.
 
But beware: Babylon is about to strike back.
 
Smaller Cities Doing the Heavy Lifting
 
With wind in their sails from the  Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up report, sponsored by the  Henry M. Jackson Foundation and released last week by Climate Solutions, Babylon and 21 other cities across the U.S. with populations under 250,000 are establishing themselves as leaders in pioneering clean energy solutions and addressing greenhouse gas emissions. From innovative financing and ambitious requirements for new construction to creative community outreach and partnerships with existing institutions, the report offers the first comprehensive look at the diverse and creative ways America's smaller cities are reducing fossil fuel dependency while also creating jobs.
 
Here are just a few of the many innovative projects and plans profiled in the report:
  • Babylon, NY leveraged its solid waste fund for residential energy efficiency retrofits, by expanding the definition of solid waste to include carbon emissions.
  • Bellingham, WA launched a successful local business energy efficiency program to help businesses complete improvements from lighting retrofits to solar.  
  • Boulder, CO published a trio of ordinances for building safety and energy efficiency and implemented a multi-jurisdictional Energy Smart program to help builders meet the higher bar set by the ordinances.
  • Eugene, OR set a goal of housing 90 percent of its residents in compact communities, in which all amenities would be accessible within a 20-minute auto-free trip.
  • Fort Collins, CO has set out to create the first net-zero district in the country based on a robust partnership of public and private entities, leveraging business community leadership and making the most of a significant federal investment in smart grid technology.
  • Jackson, WY created a formal governance partnership between the town, the county and the local utility to drive and oversee projects related to energy efficiency and clean energy.
  • Knoxville, TN has laid critical groundwork for clean energy economic development through a federal grant to build 2 megawatts of solar electricity capacity, an educational program about solar installations for contractors and permitting officials, and investment in 10 electric vehicle charging stations powered by solar energy.
  • Oberlin, OH set a goal of going beyond carbon neutral by generating 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and offsetting additional greenhouse gas emissions in the surrounding areas. 
Toward an Ecological Economy
 
“We're really trying to take a holistic approach and tackle this problem from a lot of different angles,” says Will Schweiger, operations manager at  Long Island Green Homes in Babylon. While each community’s situation is unique, the challenges faced in shifting away from an unsustainable fossil-fueled infrastructure and way of life are ultimately shared by cities of all sizes -- and a range of different solutions is required. While any community can get started right now with cheap and obvious carbon reductions like insulating and weatherizing existing buildings, others are already going for deeper infrastructural changes, like Eugene, Oregon’s  20-minute neighborhoods. “There is a diverse set of cities throughout the country with a wide variety of economic and energy profiles that are engaging in clean energy innovation,” says Eileen Quigley, report co-author and New Energy Cities Program Director.
 
Quigley notes that there’s a whole range of reasons why many of these smaller cities are so aggressively getting in on the action. Some do it because they're concerned about climate change. Others are trying to protect their communities from the potential damage from anticipated increases in storms, fires, floods, or droughts; and to be part of a growing global climate movement. In Babylon, for example, a 2006 study showed that residential buildings were the largest contributors to Babylon’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that provided the catalyst for action. “We decided we had to do something about our residential emissions,” Schwieger says, “to put our town on a trajectory to make a difference and reduce our pollution.” 
 
Two thousand miles to the west, in Fort Collins, CO, the city set very high energy efficiency goals for the electric utility. They're out to reduce carbon emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent by 2050. “We are charged with reducing our total energy consumption by about 1.5 % per year,” says utility manager Steve Catanach. “That’s a very aggressive goal.”
 
Climate change isn't the only motivator. According to Quigley, many city leaders are looking for the economic development that clean energy innovation can bring to their communities. Economic development might not be the most pressing environmental issues of our time; but it’s safe to say that the way we structure our economic activity is at the core of whether or not there is a future for humankind to live in balance with the earth’s ecosystems. If we can create a viable economy that is rooted in the long-term benefit of all planetary stakeholders and doesn’t externalize the true costs of doing business it won’t matter why we participate, as long as we get in on the action.
 
Four Ways Smaller Cities Can Shine
 
So -- how do we move from an economy motivated by short-term profits to one that is rooted in ecological principles? As the  New Energy Cities report shows, small and medium-sized cities are the perfect case studies in understanding the mechanisms that are driving the larger transformation. The process could be viewed through the lens of the following four stages: 
 
1. Early adoption and voluntary action. It’s a bit of a tired cliché but I’ll say it anyway: no meaningful change has ever occurred without some folks going out on a limb, pursuing their vision long before it becomes the hip thing to do. In Bellingham, Washington, for example, the  Opportunity Council, a community action agency, has been weatherizing over 5,000 low-income family homes for 25 years. Another group,  Sustainable Connections, has spent a decade helping 600 businesses in Whatcom County — including retailers, manufacturers, farmers, and fisheries — develop sustainable practices and establish markets in sustainable business.
 
“We've partnered with local governments and the local utilities here to provide what we call a one-stop shop for energy efficiency services,” says Alex Ramel, energy and policy manager of Sustainable Connections. “Our intention is to make it as easy as possible start to finish to do whatever energy efficiency improvements make sense in the building for our participants.” It’s these kinds of projects that alert people to the energy- and thus money-saving possibilities -- and at the same time build public awareness of and support for broader environmental initiatives. 
 
2. Community building and partnerships. You cannot do it alone. The key to scaling up individual efforts and looking holistically at solutions for a healthier city is to get every possible stakeholder on board. The New Energy Cities team found that cities are broadening their impact by creating partnerships between with utilities, businesses, workforce organizations, educational institutions, nonprofit groups, and citizens. In Fort Collins, the city joined with a range of community leaders to chart a course for the country’s first net-zero energy district,  FortZED, that produces as much renewable energy as it uses in a year. 
 
“What was really unique about this project was the community partnership it entailed,” says Catanach. FortZED brought together the city, the municipal energy and water utility, Colorado State University, New Belgium Brewery, and an array of private sector technology companies to develop the district’s components. All in all, the community partnership contributed $5 million of assets ranging from generators, electric vehicles and solar panels to consulting, software and controls. The Department of Energy then chipped with a $6 million grant to complete the $11 million project.
 
Which brings us to the  American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which also plays a big role in many of these projects...
 
3. Institutional investment and reinforcement. What has the stimulus done for you (or anyone else) lately? Look no further than most of the 22 cities in the report, because that's where a lot of that money is going now. Many of these programs and initiatives did not exist until three years ago, when the federal government made an $80 billion investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs -- including an unprecedented $3.2 billion in the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant ( EECBG) program, allocated by the DoE to cities and counties around the country. The stimulus, coupled with $20 million in competitive  EPA grants for local governments to implement climate change initiatives, was the shot in the arm many of these municipalities needed to follow through on existing local initiatives, as well as dream up bold new and transformational projects.
 
The city of Knoxville, Tennessee used a $200,000 Department of Energy  Solar Cities grant to get contractors and permitting officials up to speed on solar energy installations, taking the community from just under 15 kilowatts of solar energy capacity to two megawatts. “In the southeast, the leadership for renewable energy and even energy efficiency is very weak,” says the city’s sustainability manager, Susanna H. Sutherland, “so Knoxville took the opportunity of receiving federal funds to brand itself as a leader in the field.” Up in Bellingham, Washington, Alex Ramel shows how federal investments are key to building the new green economy. “When we spend a federal dollar providing discounted energy assessments or buying down interest rates on a loan, we see that dollar matched by close to a dollar and 20 cents in private investment by home or business owners spending money on equipment.” 
 
4. Long-term strategies and catalytic projects. The positive impact of the stimulus grants on many smaller cities has shown the urgent need for top-level commitment to the cause of our time. Unfortunately, many of these federal grant programs are drawing to a close, and public budgets are shrinking. As everyone is waiting for the drill-baby-drill dinosaurs in the U.S. Congress to get a clue or be voted out, local communities will have to develop long-term sustainable strategies with replicable models that can outlast temporary grants and catalyze regional change.
 
The importance of nurturing successful green seeds to the point where they can stand on their own cannot be understated. In Babylon’s case, the city’s model of leveraging its solid waste fund for residential energy efficiency retrofits has now spread to seven neighboring municipalities -- which, according to Will Schweiger, have been driving the residential retrofit industry. In Oberlin, Ohio, its  Holistic Community Development program is set up to launch new business ventures in energy efficiency and renewable energy, and to partner with educational institutions to enable graduates to implement sustainable practices as they join the workforce. The FortZED project in Fort Collins has spurred all kinds of new collaborations and pioneered advanced energy districts on its way to generating more power than it uses.
 
Small Is Powerful -- and Agile
 
In the absence of a national climate or energy policy, Eileen Quigley and her team at New Energy Cities have come to the conclusion that these efforts by smaller and medium-sized cities are crucial not only to keep the country moving forward for a clean energy future, but also to demonstrate the economic value of these programs, which is the only way to garner both national and local political support for meaningful legislation. “The partnerships and collaborations that have made these extremely interesting but at times often challenging programs work are crucial and will be even more so as the federal funding sunsets,” says Quigley. 
 
While a handful of major cities will continue to be the trailblazers on the path toward a green economy (and suck up most of the media oxygen), a whole systems shift toward a sustainable future must include the less publicized but equally valiant efforts by hundreds of these smaller towns. 
 
There are, after all, small town characteristics that make them uniquely suited for being laboratories of change. One of the real advantages these communities have over their bigger counterparts is that it can be much faster to navigate around bureaucratic obstacles because officials don’t have to go through as many channels. “We really reflect the values of our community, and as a community-owned electric utility we're in the unique position that we have our community desires — aggressive energy conservation and efficiency programs — communicated through city council,” says Fort Collins’ Steve Catanach. 
 
Another factor is a more direct line of communication between citizens and their representatives. “In such a tight knit community we can bring our ideas and program offerings to residents really easily,” adds Babylon’s Will Schweiger. “You know, not just something in the mail or a billboard by the side of the road, but we actually interact with residents at the beach or the park. If we were much bigger we wouldn't really be able to reach our community as effectively.” 
 
Knoxville’s Susanna Sutherland has found one of the biggest advantages to be the opportunity to learn from the successes and challenges of bigger cities which have often gone first. “You can basically get your best management practices for free without having to make your own mistakes,” she adds. 
 
Report co-author Eileen Quigley sums up the huge potential of smaller cities to adapt to post-carbon realities and be part of the global sustainable cities movement. “We've read climate action plans for New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as climate action plans in larger cities internationally and then adapt their best management practices for the communities we've worked with. There's a lot of leadership that's been phenomenal throughout the country and the world in large cities, and we get to all come in their wake.”

 

 
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