Real Change Begins in Cities

Many pressures are directed to the President of the United States and Congress; to create jobs, defend America and establish a clean energy future to name a few. Governors and state legislatures shoulder a great deal of responsibility as well; to draw business inside state borders and address social issues from which the federal government abstains. But real change happens at the local level, in towns and cities of all sizes, where citizens live and work and get stuck in traffic and raise their kids and shop and eat. City officials are tasked with making their towns safe, productive and healthy so people can go about the business of living their lives.  

A relatively clear day over Los Angeles.

In America every town is different, and every town is the same.  Systemic change is best advocated at the local level because the problems are palpable, finite, and occurring in plain sight.  Utilities are distributed and billed at the local level. Effects of the budget, economy and land use can be observed by every citizen.  Neighborhood blight, real estate bubbles and Fourth of July parades all happen within throwing distance of city offices. While states have a vested interest in improving quality of life for all citizens, they do so by engaging municipalities and counties, not individuals. Through all the political posturing that can seem to mire the federal government in bureaucracy, it is at the local level where Americans see the effects of government policy and economic trends on their daily lives and the lives of the people they know. The city level is where goals and initiatives of the state can be channeled into real projects through grants for renewable energy, school improvements and economic development. 

The benefits of good city planning are local too. Steps can be taken to ease demand on utilities, organize a neighborhood watch, engage and appreciate the community, and strike partnerships between private and public organizations. 

Look at the city of Vancouver as an example.  To aid in reduction of the city's carbon emissions, Vancouver built a district energy plant. The purpose of district energy is to generate heating and/or cooling at a local plant, eliminating the need for every building to run their systems at a net loss. District energy is not a new idea, but is making a comeback in North American cities. Vancouver took their district energy plant a step further and built a mechanism that captures and recycles heat from sewage pipes. Think of every hot shower you've taken, or loads of dishes and laundry. The energy used to heat that water the first time is recaptured and put to second use in Vancouver, lowering overall demand for energy and reducing emissions in the process.

Vancouver's district energy plant, with interactive energy monitors. Photo credit SAB Mag.

No city is an island. There are ways for cities hoping to become more sustainable to collaborate, pool resources and learn from each other. For example, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is a nonpartisan organization in the DC area that brings regional leaders together to discuss major issues faced by all.  Topics include transportation planning, climate resiliency, housing, public safety and others.  The organization provides a place to set politics aside and truly work together for the benefit of the region, not leave every city to fend for itself in terms of knowledge and planning.

For cities that want to green their community, examples abound of leadership in action. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network is an organization of municipal leaders created specifically to share knowledge of both successful ventures and mistakes. As shown on the website, the USDN has three core objectives for accomplishing its goals: 

  1. Offering members peer-to-peer Networking Opportunities
  2. Creating solutions that scale through a funded Collaborative Innovation System
  3. Expanding access and addressing specific issues through Regional Networks

Cities join together for collective impact, raising the bar of ideas, knowledge, lessons learned, and funding models. Level of risk aversion can be applied by pointing to other places where investment in green infrastructure has already benefited a city.

Partnerships can be formed by geographically contiguous municipalities, such as the aforementioned Council of Governments, or perhaps by those sharing watersheds such as those along the Mississippi from Saint Cloud to New Orleans. It is in the best interest of municipalities that directly or indirectly impact each other to maintain frequent communication and goodwill, if not official partnerships.

Floodwaters in Davenport, Iowa. Photo credit NPR.

Worsening floods result from increased development upstream on the Rock River.

Engagement within the city government is key. Municipalities need buy-in from the top decision-makers to push priorities and reinforce direction, alignment and commitment.  The designated champion should have the mayor's ear and support when encouraging departments to work together.  Without top tier muscle to back you up, it's all too easy to let time pass and allow inefficient or harmful processes remain unchanged. 

The size of the city dictates the ease in which initiatives can be internalized. A city the size of Chicago will have a much bigger challenge getting department heads in the same room, let alone cooperate for comprehensive operations overhauls, than a small town with a much smaller population. Conversely, a large city will have a bigger budget with which to garner significant impact, whereas a small town with a small budget must be more creative due to budget limitations. The best person to manage each unique intricacy is a designated champion; someone dedicated full time to greening the city, who has access to the decision-makers at the top and the commitment to make change happen from the inside out.

Chicago's "Bean" in Millennium Park.