Module III – Sustainable Cities

Green Economies
There has been a lot written in the past five years about green industry and green jobs. The concepts of green economies and sustainable cities have even seeped into popular culture. What planner wasn’t surprised to hear in the Chrysler 200 Superbowl XLV ad that no one would think of Detroit as an “Emerald City?”  So the question is what are green jobs or green industries? And, how do these mesh with economic development?

Now there is a definition of sorts for green industries that can be pulled out of the Green Jobs Act of 2007. The U.S. Congress funded the Green Jobs Act with approximately $500 million in grants and tax incentives through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. According to the act the following industries are “green”: energy-efficient building, construction, and retrofits industries; the renewable electric power industry; the energy efficient and advanced drive train vehicle industry; the biofuels industry; the deconstruction and materials use industries; the energy efficiency assessment industry serving the residential, commercial, or industrial sectors; and manufacturers that produce sustainable products using environmentally sustainable processes and materials. Whew! So now that we know what the U.S. Federal government considers “green,” how can cities develop these sectors, and attract investment and presumably jobs?

Joan Fitzgerald in her book “Emerald Cities, Urban Sustainabilities and Economic Development” starts with the idea of spurring investment and growth by focusing on a few niches. Occasionally historic industries can provide a strong foundation. Fitzgerald highlights how Toledo, OH has worked to harness its historic glass making industry know-how to become a major international hub of solar panel technology. In terms of useful policies, she also demonstrates how the development of renewable energy sectors and technologies in Freiburg, Germany, was the result of a carefully orchestrated series of policies dating from the late 1970’s, to reduce energy consumption and expand renewable energy development. Some of the steps included implementing a Feed-in tariff and aggressively funding R&D incubator programs. Currently, Freiburg is considered a leading international region for a variety of renewable energy technology.

So, what are some key takeaways? First, inventory the sectors your particular region/city has the greatest strength. It is better to focus on a few niche green sectors than many. Second, determine how to leverage existing Federal policies, for example, California spent some of its 2009 stimulus funds on creating a Green Corps focused on training workers for the key sectors listed in the Green Jobs Act. Finally, do not get caught in “smokestack chasing,” it can be just another race to the bottom.

Urban Greening

With growing concern for global climate change, rising energy costs and global warming the notion of a green city has gained increased popularity on the national stage over the past decade.  City leaders have begun to recognize that the benefits of “greening” their cities go beyond improved quality of life for residents and can actually foster job creation and overall economic vitality within the city. In his piece for Growing Greener Cities, Warren Karlenzig describes today’s green city as “not only a city that is physically greening its streets and its public and private spaces and byways, but also one that strategically embraces development of renewable energy, less-polluting fuels, widely available local food, efficient public transit, innovative treatment of wastes, polluted land and water, walkability, sufficient affordable housing, and green buildings.”

Although the federal government has passed numerous influential policies since the environmental movement of the 1970’s, including the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Safe Drinking Water Act (1973) and the Clean Air Act Amendments (1990), the major player in the fight to green America’s cities has been local governments.  More recently, the greening of cities has become somewhat of a public-private partnership between local governments, businesses, property owners and nonprofits.  For example, several cities, including San Francisco, Boston, and Austin have adopted ordinances requiring all newly constructed or substantially renovated municipal buildings must meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.

While there is consensus on the various elements of urban greening (green roofs, investment in alternative fuels, community gardens, improving energy efficiency in buildings, expanding mass transit, etc.) a major issue within the field is how to evaluate a city’s “greenness.”  Some researchers have used the various LEED rating systems (new construction, existing buildings, neighborhoods, etc.) as an indicator of a city’s level of “greenness.”  However, several more comprehensive indices for U.S. cities have emerged in recent years, three of which include:

  • Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously- developed by Kent Portney, Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously is the first known comprehensive ranking system for city sustainability in the U.S.  His system ranked 40 U.S. cities based on a set of 34 indicators, with a possible yes/no answer for each.  A few of the indicators studied include: eco-industrial park development, alternatively fueled city vehicle program, green building program, and energy conservation effort.
  • SustainLane- SustainLane is a San Francisco based internet company that has completed 2 rankings, the first in 2005 included 25 cities and the second in 2006 evaluated 50 cities.  For their rankings, they utilized a weighted average system with the overall transportation category weighing more heavily than the other categories and natural disaster risk, housing affordability and roadway congestion weighing less heavily in the final ranking.  A few of the indicators used in this system include: commute-to-work rates, average air quality, percentage of city land used for parks and open space, and if the city had conducted a climate change inventory in the past 5 years.
  •  The Green Guide “Top 25 Green Cities”-similar to SustainLane, The Green Guide provided rankings in 2005 and 2006.  For the 2006 ranking, data was collected through surveys were sent to mayor’s offices in the nation’s 251 cities with populations greater than 100,000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Green Building Council, and other unspecified sources.  They assessed and weighted the data equally which spanned 11 categories, air quality, electricity usage and production, green design, green spaces, public health, recycling, social economic factors, transportation, and water quality.

An interesting takeaway from a comparison of the 3 comprehensive ranking systems is that all 3 ranked a different city number 1.  For example, Portland, often used as a prime example of a sustainable city, ranked number 1 in SustainLane, number 3 in The Green Guide, and number 10 in Portney.   While ranking systems may not (in their current form) be particularly useful in compiling a unified, concrete list of the nation’s most sustainable cities, they may act as an incentive and competition of sorts for individual cities to further their sustainability practices.

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