Do Sustainable Cities Have a Future?

This article is reprinted from the American Prospect.

A "green revolution" is burgeoning in America's cities and towns.

And it's a surprise. Six years ago, as we exited an economically exuberant but perilously polluting 20th century, the idea would have seemed chimerical. True, by the 1990s we'd begun to talk about community and global sustainability; President Clinton even appointed a White House council on the topic. But the conversation proved to be a tad ahead of its time. It exhibited little of the intensity with which the green ideal is today being talked up, and in some places, truly implemented.

A set of mix-and-match developments explain the change. Foremost and scariest among them is the mounting scientific evidence of fast-advancing, potentially cataclysmic global climate change. Then there is the growing realization of oil's short-term future in the dangerous world that September 11 dramatized.

Among the results are heightened interest in hybrid cars and renewed focus on wind farms, solar energy, biofuels, and other renewables; a burgeoning "smart-growth" movement in our states and regions; worry on the health front about sedentary lifestyles, obesity, loss of natural connections; green roofs and strong revival of urban parks; and breakthroughs to pinpoint waste and pollution in our great infrastructure systems, enabled by more sophisticated geographic information system (GIS) technology.

If the new, green, urban alchemy has an epicenter, it's Chicago. Once the embodiment of smoky factories and belching locomotives, the erstwhile City of the Big Shoulders has led the new green wave with beds of flowers and blossoming pots hung from new downtown street lamps.

A big share of the Chicago credit goes to Mayor Richard J. Daley and his allies. There's a green roof on City Hall and greenery along roadway medians stretching out into the neighborhoods. Asphalt schoolyards have been converted to grass, vacant lots turned into community gardens, greenways and wildlife habitat nurtured. Major reinvestment is occurring in the city's 570 parks, 31 beaches, and 16 historic lagoons. And there's a dramatic "big splash" -- 3-year-old Millennium Park, $475 million worth of lush greenery, sculpture, fountains, and more on the lakefront that's drawing 4 million visitors a year, many to its stunning outdoor music theater.

Says Chicago Alderman Mary Ann Smith: "We're creating places people want to be, not places people want to flee." In fact, Chicago has registered America's most dramatic "back-to-the-city" movement, with tens of thousands of new downtown residents.

Cities Taking the Lead

But Chicago is no exception. From Philadelphia to Seattle, Boston to San Diego, city officials agree that green urban settings are a critical draw in an era when highly educated, mobile professional workers -- the economic gold of the times -- gravitate to attractive, welcoming, and healthy places.

What's more, claim the apostles of green, property tax yields from homes and apartments near parks are significantly higher. Tree-lined streets alone increase property values some 15 percent.

Quite quickly in this decade, the familiar definition of "green" has advanced from trees and plants and parks to a much more inclusive vision of city and metropolitan planning. Moreover, it now comprises an array of environmental issues, including energy saving and renewable sources, reduced burning of fossil fuels, cleaner air and water, improved wastewater removal systems, and redevelopment of "brownfields" sites.

Energy standards for buildings -- the familiar LEED standards of the U.S. Green Building Council -- are a case in point. They're quickly advancing from handfuls of pioneering buildings to a preferred benchmark in new construction. Despite the 2 percent to 4 percent price premium for fully energy-efficient buildings, a growing number of businesses are opting for a LEED standard. Part of the justification is long-term energy savings; another rationale, increasingly cited, is the dramatically increased productivity reported among employees in quality green structures.

Increasing numbers of city governments are moving to the standard that Salt Lake City set recently -- requiring LEED approval for any of its own buildings, plus any commercial or residential buildings that receive city funding. "High-performance buildings should be the norm," says Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. "Municipal governments have a huge role to play in bringing about that progress."

On the nonprofit side, pioneers in big-scale green building are Enterprise and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Their five-year goal, announced in 2004, is 8,500 "environmentally sustainable" and affordable new homes, and a move to make sustainability the mainstream in affordable housing. And not just in construction: The new housing they support must be compact and land efficient, close to transit, and in neighborhoods with ample sidewalks and pathways and shops within walking distance.

The idea is that with less auto dependency and easier access to public transportation and jobs, low-income families will have to spend much less on transportation than they now do (on average, 40 cents of every dollar of income at the poverty line). Fewer workers will be forced into long commutes and even more encouraged to walk, with ricochet benefits in saving energy, reducing obesity, and improving overall health.

But what about standard market housing, in typical neighborhoods? Developers nationally are now being asked to "act green" as the U.S. Green Building Council, the nrdc, and the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) create and promote a new LEED-ND ("neighborhood development") standard. "Under this vision," says Chicago architect Doug Farr of the CNU, "both urbanists who pick bad regional sites, and green building practitioners who ignore location and context, will be dancing with dinosaurs."

A Local Response to a Global Challenge

All these developments link closely to the big climate-change issues of the time. Indeed, global warming has moved quickly up the agenda list of many cities and counties despite -- or, arguably, in reaction to -- the Bush administration's studied indifference.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors last June voted to call for sharp reductions in fossil fuel use in all buildings -- both for construction as well as heating and cooling. Their stated goal is to make the nation's building stock "carbon-neutral," using no more fuels made from oil, coal or natural gas, by 2030. The stakes are immense: Buildings account for 48 percent of all U.S. energy consumption (well ahead of transportation at 27 percent and industry at 25 percent).

In Seattle, King County Executive Ron Sims is advocating a 2050 mindset. Assume, says Sims, it's already mid-century and one's looking backward to see which of today's major infrastructure and building decisions -- for big highways or public transit systems, for example -- make sense on the basis of their carbon impact.

Meanwhile, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels issued a "Kyoto Challenge" to the nation's mayors, asking them to pledge they'd meet, in their cities, Kyoto Protocol goals of reducing global warming pollution levels to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. At latest count some 320 mayors -- representing 50 million U.S. residents -- had signed on.

Seattle and King County initiatives run all the way from partnering with General Motors on development of the country's first and largest hybrid diesel bus fleet to increased portions of biodiesel in vehicle fleets, from the nation's largest hydrogen fuel-cell project (using methane gas from a sewage plant) to efforts to reduce the big carbon footprint of the diesel-burning ships, trains, and trucks that use the city's busy port.

There's also official support for a new "Cascade Agenda," a 100-year conservation and preservation plan for 2.6 million acres of the Puget Sound region's most prized waters, mountains, and communities. The focus is first on channeling growth into denser, well-planned cities, second to save rural lands by a massive new market-based transfer of development rights initiative, and third, with expanded greenery, to create a significant "carbon sink," forests that absorb carbon dioxide emissions.

Back on the East Coast, green revolutionaries in Philadelphia's Office of Watersheds are lead exponents and practitioners of new ways to "daylight" streams turned into culverts. They're working to catch and filter severe storm waters so they don't carry oil and corroding junkyard metals from paved surfaces, not to mention untreated sewage, into rivers and streams.

The idea is to adapt city parks, roadways, lawns, and yards with swales and other systems that can absorb and slowly filter water. The vision: to make all of Philadelphia into a kind of great, green sponge that handles its runoff more naturally and assures clean and reliable water for fishing, swimming, and drinking.

Philadelphians have also formed the Schuylkill Action Network (SAN), recognizing they're located downstream from 100 miles of riverside and 2,000 square miles of potentially polluting farms, mines, and factories. Federal and state agencies, plus dozens of upstream communities, belong to san -- a prime example of how virtually every environmental challenge is regional, and needs to be addressed that way.

Today's roster of green initiatives knows practically no limits. It includes massive tree replanting efforts; conversion of hundreds of miles of once-industrial urban waterfronts to parks and greenways and millions of acres of protected farmlands and forests; concerted efforts to build green schools in which children learn better; and campaigns to expand locally based agriculture and farmers' markets and decrease the pollution from trucks carrying foods over thousands of miles.

In Seattle, there's a Hope VI public housing/mixed-income project, High Point, that stands out as an entire green community, with its high old trees identified by community youngsters and then protected, creative plantings, a thriving community garden, sidewalks and streets tied into a "natural" water drainage system, and new energy-efficient condos and townhomes.

Out across the nation, there's fast-growing demand for public transit to save energy and transit-oriented development to curb sprawl. The move for major regional rail systems has now reached far beyond New York and Chicago, Boston and San Francisco to traditionally auto-dependent cities like Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Houston, and even Los Angeles.

Terminal Consumption?

Yet however welcome, even startling, the new developments seem, the somber truth is that the great ocean liner U.S.S. Consumption has so far shifted its direction barely a degree. With 4.6 percent of the world's population, the United States continues to burn a quarter of the globe's fossil fuels and to emit 25 percent of its greenhouse gases.

Carbon dioxide emissions continue to climb and power companies claim a need to build 150 new coal-burning plants to slake our electric power thirst. Bigger and bigger houses, SUV road and gas hogs, vehicles for all members of the family, massive freeways and proposals for even greater ones, new gadgets by the dozens, near-lethal sugar and fat content of fast-food fare, the right to bloat our bodies and then count on the medical machine to fix them -- we seem to want, and expect, it all.

And dwarfing campaigns for green values, the public is constantly exposed to the advertising budgets of GM, Ford, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, McDonald's, and the like -- many billions of dollars a year, outweighing, by a factor of hundreds, efforts to educate Americans to a more conserving lifestyle.

Single-occupant auto commuting continues to grow, and carpooling and walking keep declining. Notwithstanding the decade-long push for "smart-growth" policies to protect the natural watersheds, the open fields and forests around our towns and cities, any check of existing zoning around the nation shows immense tracts of land zoned for added development.

"You can't deal with sustainability [and] climate change if we insist on covering our open lands with one-, two-, three-acre house plots," notes Robert Yaro, president of the New York-area Regional Plan Association.

It's possible, if not likely, that carbon caps, monster storms, and global oil emergencies will soon alter the status quo more rapidly than anyone today imagines. Green has to be the future, many of its advocates argue, because in a resource-short and turbulent world, the American consumption lifestyle of the last 60 years will prove itself simply unsustainable.

In the meantime, the very best hope undoubtedly lies in the growing numbers of citizen groups and elected local officials who sense the changing world around them and have led today's remarkably broad search for fresh, new, green approaches.

Along the way, there are steps that could make an immense difference. One is a focus on the other green -- money. We are beginning to see the dramatic, long-term savings that can be realized from green buildings and their reduced operating costs and increased property value.

There's growing market acceptance of new green product lines, combined with the rapid growth of new clean technology funds. Green neighborhood and city planning, green water and power systems are on the rise. As a green economy emerges and proves its staying power, the momentum toward change will surely rise.

Health awareness should help too -- demonstrating to the public the dramatic health benefits of green approaches and lifestyle, overcoming misleading, potentially disease-dealing advertising.

Government codes and regulations are another promising field for reform. Many of today's zoning and land-use regulations, building codes, and rules were written in response to public health and safety issues of a century ago, from tenement buildings without running water to slaughterhouses invading residential neighborhoods.

Today we're stuck with sterile zoning and restrictions on building materials and methods alarmingly out of sync with present-day needs. A concerted effort by state and local governments to untangle obsolete building codes and set straightforward new standards, and to revamp outmoded zoning with modern and more flexible codes, could give a strong boost to the emerging green revolution. For example, zoning of the post-World War II era encourages "pods" of development -- residential, office, and retail. The result is multiple auto trips that mitigate against compact, mixed-use, energy-efficient development.

Then there's the challenge to the professionals -- the architects, planners, designers, engineers, builders, utility representatives, city and county housing officials, and others engaged on the front line of building and reshaping communities. Historically -- and often, still today -- they have worked sequentially, first doing the land planning, then the underground pipes, then roadways and buildings and so on.

In a smart 21st century, that won't do. It costs too much and it misses opportunities for better aesthetics, energy efficiency, and quality of life. The time's at hand to move from silos to systems. It's the right moment to ask the professionals to start thinking more broadly, to work closely with colleagues from the other disciplines from start to end of any project.

Green value sounds and is environmental. But it's so much more. It also stands for connectivity, intelligence, smart systems, and creating a 21st-century world that has a chance of being truly sustainable.

This article is available on The American Prospect website.
© 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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