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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2007 : Cover Story

Cover Story

Sustainable City Living
As metropolitan-area populations continue to grow, our cities must focus on smart growth and revitalization.

by Dennis Walsh

We live on an urban planet. For the first time in history, the majority of us live in cities. How we grow those cities; how we build neighborhoods; how we provide housing; how we choose to get around; how well we incorporate nature into the places we live—these are the challenges that will largely determine our future. And with millions and millions of people moving every year from the countryside to the city, all of these difficulties seem even more insurmountable.

Cities represent the majority of the world’s population. They create the most wealth, consume the most resources and produce the most waste. The U.S. population—more than 300 million people—is growing at a rate of one percent per year. Of those 3 million net new people, 1 million are immigrants. More than 90 percent of metropolitan-area population growth since 1950 has been in the suburbs.

The real estate industry considers growth good and desirable. Almost everyone and every organization, including the Sierra Club, consider growth inevitable. Growth can create tremendous societal benefits, and it can impose serious social burdens. One of those burdens is urban sprawl. Living in sprawl seems like a bargain at first, but it turns out that the lower sticker price of the home is eroded very quickly by what you’re paying to keep the gas tank filled, and to heat and cool a 3,000-square-foot home.

Building cities has always meant replacing our natural landscape — forests, wetlands, grasslands with streets, parking lots, rooftops and other impervious surfaces. As development moves further and further to the metropolitan fringe, it competes with open-space habitat and prime farmland. Loss of open space has a negative impact on the environment. The farther we have to travel between home and work, and work and play, the more likely it is that we will drive. The end result is that the nation’s air quality has suffered. Research has shown that compact, pedestrian and transit-friendly communities have a positive impact on air quality by improving travel alternatives.

Some consider the modern city as the most artificial and unlovely sight on this planet. The “concrete jungles” found in many cities have saddled many cities with acres of contaminated land; inadequate waste management facilities; inefficient water/wastewater systems; and highly segregated and unequal distribution of opportunities for economic growth. This reality has led some people to consider abandoning the concept of cities altogether; that the only way to solve the “city problem” is by leaving the city.

Rather than embracing this negative reality, the growing trend is toward smart growth—that is, growth that invests time, attention and resources to restoring community and vitality to cities. Smart-growth advocates want big cities to return to a small-town atmosphere through development that is environmentally sensitive, economically viable and community-oriented. Along with the boom in urbanization, we are seeing a boom in urban innovation. Simply put, we are getting better at building better cities. The central challenge now of the smart growth movement is to find a way for a wide range of people to feel comfortable living in affordable, revitalized cities.

Following are several examples of the measures being taken by cities across North America.

Greenprint Denver
The city of Denver, Colo., believes that it is possible to turn the situation around. In the summer of 2005, Mayor John W. Hickenlooper joined 49 other mayors in a U.S. Conference of Mayors. Cities everywhere have made and are making a significant environmental footprint. Covering two percent of the world’s surface, cities accommodate 50 percent of the world’s population and consume 75 percent of its resources. The mayors pledged to improve the environment of their cities and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by trying to meet or exceed targets set forth by the United Nation’s Kyoto Protocol.

This pledge was one of the first actions taken by Hickenlooper after launching Denver’s Sustainable Development Initiative in an effort to integrate environmental impact considerations into the city’s programs and policies. In less than a year, with help from business and community partners and dedicated city staff, an action agenda for sustainability was produced. Because of his work, Hickenlooper was added to a list of the “Top Five Mayors in the Nation” published by TIME Magazine.
Greenprint Denver charts the city’s course over the next five years and will position the city as a national leader in a global effort to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own. Denver's smart growth creates economic opportunity and a better quality of life for all residents while maintaining affordable communities that are accessible to jobs and essential services. Vibrant, livable urban centers that support walking, biking and mass transit, and that reduce reliance on cars are part of Denver’s master plan for the future, called Blueprint Denver. At the core of the zoning and transportation plan are transit-oriented developments, which are neighborhoods that are built around bus and light-rail stops so that housing, offices and shopping are all within walking distance.

Through Greenprint Denver, a growing network of businesses, universities, nonprofit and government agencies is forming to assist one another with strategies to pursue a regional interest in sustainable development, to explore increased opportunities within the community, and to identify opportunities in national and international markets where green businesses are emerging as the new standard. Denver has consistently ranked in national surveys as one of the top 10 cities in the country for its sustainability practices. Denver also has graced FORTUNE magazine’s list of “Best Cities for Business” for the past five years, and has been one of Dun and Bradstreet’s “Top 10 Cities for Small Business.”

In 2006, Mayor John Hickenlooper was credited with bringing a creative, energetic, pro-business governance that embraces the best environmental practices that also make good economic sense. Furthering this legacy, in his State of the City address on July 12, Mayor Hickenlooper announced a long-term, citywide initiative called Greenprint Denver to promote the importance of sustainable development and ecologically friendly practices throughout the community. An action agenda for smart government, Greenprint Denver is a roadmap for the city that saves resources, streamlines processes, and avoids future costs and waste. The focus has been on identifying the many areas where both budget savings and environmental benefits can be realized, in some cases by taking a longer-term view.

The initiative is the first comprehensive effort of its kind in Denver and was able to build on previous innovations, including one of the nation’s first municipal “Green Fleets” of hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles. The city also boasts the following: pioneering the use of energy-efficient and long-lasting Light Emitting Diode (LED) traffic signals in 80 percent of the city’s signals; implementing FasTracks, a large-scale regional transit measure; and an international airport that is among the most environmentally progressive in the world.

In Denver, innovative outcomes now build on themselves, and Denver boasts a nonprofit organization, Micro Business Development, that provides interest-rate-reduced loans to qualified sustainable micro-enterprises to continue the cycle.

With 300 days of sunshine in the Mile High City, examples of partnerships with a new focus on renewable-energy technologies are now making integrated approaches to make sustainable development economically viable. Through the Colorado Clean Tech Initiative, a consortium of the University of Colorado, the National Renewable Energy Lab and CORE (Connected Organizations for a Renewable Economy), a leading sustainable business trade association in Denver, participants collaborate to convert the latest clean technology into businesses. Denver recently hired an energy and clean-technology-industry business-development representative to grow green industries that will lead to economic growth while at the same time reducing pressures on the environment, and introducing new employment and training opportunities. Creating new jobs in new markets is a key economic factor to being a competitive city.

Energy efficiency and green industry provide economic development opportunities as well as provide businesses with the opportunity to cut long-term operating costs. The city of Denver is partnering with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation to encourage green or high-performance commercial buildings, allowing business to save on long-term operating costs and use natural resources more wisely.

Green buildings can command the highest market sale and rent prices, although this means that they are often out of reach of low-income residents. Therefore, Denver is developing energy-efficiency standards and incentives for new affordable housing, and, through a partnership with Xcel Energy, including permanent efficiency upgrades as part of its Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LEAP) to assist low-income residents with energy bills.

Greenprint Denver encourages investment in permanent improvements that save money to meet basic needs and build a healthy, culturally vibrant community with economic opportunity for everyone—now and in the future. By establishing sustainability as a core value and operating principle in city practices and policies while facilitating the growth of green industry for the community, Hickenlooper has ensured a healthy city for future generations. Highlights of the action agenda include:

• A commitment to reduce GHGs by 10-percent per capita over 1990 levels by 2012

• A plan to work regionally to plant a million trees over the next 20 years, to maximize community cooling, air quality, stormwater and aesthetic

• Increase residential recycling subscriptions by 50 percent, and reduce total waste to landfill by 30 percent in the next five years.

• Construct solar and methane power plants capable of powering more than 2,500 homes

• Require that all city-financed buildings be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver standard, and introduce incentives for private-sector green building

• Introduce energy-efficiency standards for all city-supported affordable housing projects, to make low-income housing even more affordable over the long term

• Expand the city’s “green fleet” to include 100-percent biodiesel usage, and replace light-duty vehicles with hybrids wherever possible

• Increase by 20 percent the new development located within a half-mile of existing transit stations by 2011

• Improve, protect and conserve water resources

• Promote green economic development and new jobs for the metro area through partnerships with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation

Minneapolis Alliance for Sustainability
Minneapolis, Minn., achieved the pollution reduction necessary to meet the Kyoto Protocol, one of the first cities in the nation to do so—a strategy that has earned the city tremendous environmental and economic benefits. Climate disruption is a global problem, but we feel the effects locally.

The Minneapolis-based nonprofit Alliance for Sustainability has been co-sponsoring annual Sustainable Sweden Tours to some of the country’s 70 “eco-municipalities.” From rural villages to the urban capital of Stockholm, 20 years ago Swedish communities began developing innovative green solutions using a holistic, democratic planning process called The Natural Step (TNS). TNS gained popularity after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio because it is compatible with the global action plan outlined in United Nations Agenda 21.

TNS combines a scientifically based definition of sustainability with a systems approach to community planning. Developed by Swedish oncologist Karl-Henrik Robért and a group of European experts, it addresses the need for cities to embrace a vision for a better future, then to figure out how to get there by using assets available to them in their communities.

The mission of the Alliance is to bring about personal, organizational and planetary sustainability through support of projects that are ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane. Today, the tours and concepts are drawing community leaders from places like Dane County and Ashland, Wis.; Duluth, Minn.; and Vandergrift and Pittsburgh, Penn.—all of which are planning to incorporate sustainability principles and practices into their regions.

The 2010 Olympics has adopted TNS principles
The resort community of Whistler in the Canadian Rockies, site of the 2010 Olympics, has adopted TNS principles. It recently embarked on a 15-year “Whistler 2020” plan that allows it to maintain a tourism-based economy while practicing environmental stewardship, complete with transition guidelines and community-wide resource sharing. In the works: transforming an “athlete village” lodging development into a residential neighborhood of affordable housing that showcases sustainable building and land-use practices.

For the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games, sustainability means managing the economic, environmental and social impacts and opportunities created by our Games in ways that will produce lasting benefits, locally and globally. This is our opportunity to demonstrate how sustainability, in all of its aspects, can be incorporated throughout the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Promoting sustainable development has become one of the fundamental objectives of the Olympic Movement. The International Olympic Committee added environmental protection to the Olympic Charter in 1994 and made it the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, equal to Sport and Culture. Organizers plan to ensure the Games leave a positive legacy, not just for sport, but also for Canada’s environment, economy and local communities. Wherever possible, the 2010 Winter Games will conserve resources such as energy and water, prevent pollution, and protect and enhance natural marine and forest ecosystems.

Sustainable Seattle
While continuing to press for national leadership to curb GHGs, the city of Seattle has chosen to take action now. Seattle has demonstrated day in and day out that local climate solutions are about responding to our own most pressing local challenges: challenges like reducing traffic congestion and providing more efficient transportation alternatives; or curbing urban sprawl by increasing affordable housing in the city or stretching the available supply of renewable hydroelectricity through increased energy efficiency. Reducing urban sprawl is one of the most effective climate-protection strategies. Mayor Greg Nickels’ “smart growth” strategies for Seattle’s City Center and urban centers reduce global warming pollution by reducing dependence on cars and increasing energy efficiency.

Nickels has released the Seattle Climate Action Plan, the most comprehensive set of investments and programs in the city’s history for fighting climate change. The $37-million 2007-2008 package will fund a host of initiatives that will help people conserve motor fuel in their vehicles, and natural gas in their homes and work places. The Office of Sustainability and Environment will monitor progress on the plan every two years.

Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance
Chicago, an industrial city marked by freeways and endless concrete, has become an unlikely candidate for the “greenest” city in the United States. Since Mayor Richard Daley took office, Chicago has created or planned more than 2 million square feet of green roofs, more than all other U.S. cities combined. More than 500,000 trees have been planted; numerous new green spaces have been created; and cleanups have begun on acres of contaminated lands. The Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance is a network of enterprises and organizations dedicated to realizing the benefits of incorporating sustainability principles into their products, services and practices. The Alliance provides the necessary resources, connections and support for these companies to thrive.

Open to businesses in the Chicago region dedicated to realizing the advantages of incorporating sustainability principles into their products, services and practices, the Alliance provides necessary resources, connections and support to these enterprises.

As today’s cities continue to grow in population, several metropolitan areas are making sure the environment isn’t a casualty; more local leaders need to follow the example.
In 2003, the Minneapolis City Council adopted Resolution 2003R-133, which initiated the development of the Minneapolis Sustainability Plan to promote the use of sustainability principles to guide city decision-making. The resolution intended to create a process in which Minneapolis could truly become a sustainable city, and provided methods with which to measure development.

The City Council resolution also called for the creation of Minneapolis Sustainability Indicators. The initial indicators were developed out of two public roundtable meetings facilitated by Crossroads Resource Center (through a grant from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance), which involved about 100 residents and professionals expressing a 50-year vision for the city’s future; more than 30 indicators were developed.
To move indicators into action, a strategic plan is necessary, but not sufficient. Without an action plan, a community risks collecting data that will provide it with an attractive graph of environmental, economic and social decline, without a strategy for changing the slope of the curve. With an action plan, it may get that downward slope anyway, if there is insufficient political support for implementation of the plan. Key to implementation of any sustainability action plan is the support of the local power base. Indicators are useful only insofar as they serve to create and maintain that support.

In some situations, a necessary component in implementing sustainability will be to organize the sustainability constituency to lobby more effectively, and to work to elect people more in tune with sustainability goals.
 Even in Canada, Vancouver has used the concepts of “livability” and sustainability as key planning tenets for several years. Vancouver’s success is exemplified in measures taken to preserve the diversity and increase the density of the downtown core. By creating a place where people can work and live, and where parks, shopping centers, office towers and apartment buildings coexist, Vancouver has reduced the need for transport and made water, power and waste management more efficient.
 If you haven’t seen Pittsburgh lately, you haven’t seen Pittsburgh. Once described by journalist James Parton as “hell with the lid off,” Pittsburgh has reached a milestone in its continued environmental renaissance. Today, Pittsburgh’s skies and its famous three rivers are so clean that the city hosted the 2005 Bassmaster Classic, considered the “Super Bowl of fishing” among fishermen.

As the region prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2008, the world will look back and see how far Pittsburgh has come.

More importantly, Pittsburgh will stand out as a leader in the environmental movement, and as a national pacesetter in the development of green buildings—with more “green” square footage than any other city. Ranking third after Seattle and Portland, Ore., Pittsburgh has the greatest number of certified structures—17 and counting.

Just consider the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, the world’s first certified green convention center. Located on a former brownfield site, the convention center reflects the environmental friendliness that is a hallmark of this region. The building’s green credentials (its annual energy savings is about 35 percent) help attract environmental groups to Pittsburgh, such as the American Wind Energy Association, U.S. Green Building Council, Water Environmental Federation, Ecology Society of America and others.
Pittsburgh’s convention center, in fact, has set the bar for the greening of other public buildings nationwide.

Many of Pittsburgh’s green buildings are tourist-related, including Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Heinz History Center Smithsonian Wing, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh Glass Center and the WYEP FM Studio. And, the city government is currently considering new laws that would allow Earth-friendly project buildings to be built 20 percent higher or larger than current zoning allows.

You don’t have to go far from Pittsburgh’s compact, walkable downtown to find green. Residents and visitors can walk the riverfront trails and wave to kayakers as they paddle by. Or, they can step aboard the public transit system and ride the “T” subway for free in the downtown area.

Pittsburgh is also home to one of the first green passenger boats in the world. The Explorer vessel of the nonprofit RiverQuest is used for river-based science education. The 150-passenger boat serves more than 10,000 students a year while reducing emissions to air and water, and implementing innovative propulsion technology and alternative fuels.

Biking is big in Pittsburgh. BIKE magazine named Pittsburgh one of the top five cities for mountain biking in the country. The city’s public transportation system’s “Ride Rack Roll Program” provides bike racks on 75 public buses on eight popular routes. Citywide, there are more than 130 “Public Art Bike Racks” installed throughout Pittsburgh. Each rack — designed to be cool and functional art—holds two bikes.

Pittsburgh is also joining the fight against global warming. The city’s 27-year-old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, recently signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. And, in an innovative move in December, the city of Pittsburgh—which has purchased hybrid vehicles — is planning to turn Heinz Field’s waste vegetable oil into bio-diesel fuel for those vehicles that run on diesel fuel.

Pittsburgh beats every other city in the nation when it comes to local food systems, too. Consider this: Pittsburgh boasts a whopping 188 community gardens—that’s one for every 3,000 residents, and nearly four times as many as runner-up Seattle.

Dennis Walsh is a communications specialist focusing on renewable energy, social entrepreneurship and green philanthropy. He is the editor of America’s GreenHouse, a renewable energy newsletter, and the increasingly popular Green Philanthropy blog.

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