The lack of sustainability is the largest risk facing any city
today. That said, few communities and businesses are planning for
sustainability in a strategic way. Municipal governments need to
integrate economic, social and environmental concerns in their policy-making.
Cities that are unable to adapt must contend with myriad economic
challenges that negatively affect them.
What does it take for a city to become sustainable? Public Involvement
— recognition that sustainability cannot be achieved, nor
significant progress made toward it, without the support and involvement
of the whole community. If sustainability planning is catching on,
the first question is, “Why?” The day-to-day debate
about global warming and peak oil is over. Global warming is happening
now. As our environment disintegrates, a result of our own choices,
so does our ability to survive.
The Earth’s climate has been changing since the pre-industrial
era, but it was not until the 1970s that the concentrations of greenhouse
gases (GHGs) began to reach their highest levels. Before that, the
atmosphere was viewed as chemically inert. The air seemed to transport
pollution away from cities, and factories. Beginning in 1970, a
few scientists drew attention to the nitrates like jet plane emissions
in the stratosphere. They speculated that the chemical aerosols
could stimulate the formation of water droplets, altering cloud
cover and affecting the climate. New ideas provoked a few scientists
to take a look at how the upper atmosphere might be affected by
the hundreds of space shuttle flights that NASA hoped to launch.
They found that the chlorine shuttles would discharge as they shot
through the stratosphere might be another menace to the ozone layer.
This concern was discussed at a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in 1973
along with the effect of other chemical emissions. Eventually, controversy
broke out over the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosol
spray cans. Well into the 1980s, while many thousands of tons of
a variety of GHGs were pouring into the atmosphere, the public,
government agencies and even most scientists thought “global
warming” was synonymous with “increasing carbon dioxide.”
Scientists started looking at about 30 trace gases that absorbed
infrared radiation. These additional GHGs were discovered to bring
as much global warming as carbon dioxide (CO2) itself. Scientific
and public concern was turning to the “ozone hole.”
For whatever reason, there was evidently some kind of connection
between temperature and the level of methane in the atmosphere.
Ozone holes in the stratosphere over the poles each winter drove
home the idea that even small concentrations of some industrial
emissions could have a powerful effect.
In 1993, Portland became the first U.S. city to adopt a strategy
to reduce emissions of CO2, the heat-trapping gas primarily responsible
for global warming. A few years later, 160 countries met in Kyoto
in December 1997 to hammer out a protocol calling for developed
countries to reduce their GHG emissions by an average of 5.2 percent
below 1990 levels by the years 2008-2012. This meant that to meet
emissions-reduction targets, governments would need to turn to industry
to develop environmentally friendly and energy-efficient products
and technologies. Suffice to say, until recently, American business
has opposed the Kyoto Accord, but there are positive signs of a
shift in attitude among industry executives—and not a moment
In 2001, Multnomah County, Ore., joined the effort to create the
Local Action Plan on Global Warming, charting an aggressive goal
of reducing CO2 emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.
By 2006, the thawing of large areas of permafrost was visibly underway
in many Arctic regions. Global warming and oil supply problems are
now topics of daily concern all around the world. Business leaders
are asking for changes and new regulation; governments are seeking
solutions and ideas; citizens want to participate in the changes;
and everyone wants a bright future for their children and grandchildren.
Positive changes have begun.
Good ideas can make a difference; that, and innovations like focusing
on development, not simply growth. This implies that economic activity
is conducive to and supports sustainable urban development. The
world has become more industrialized. There have been increasing
environmental pressures such as harmful emissions and waste. Urban
communities are affected by economic change. Municipalities are
the building blocks of our society and are therefore an obvious
place to begin to address the challenge of sustainability. There
is a consensus among experts that sustainability must be achieved
at the local level if it is ever to be achieved on a global basis.
Portland’s GHG emissions are now less than 1 percent above
1990 levels—a key benchmark of the international Kyoto Protocol—and
emissions have declined in each of the past four years. Though not
ratified by the United States, the Kyoto Protocol set a national
reduction goal of seven percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.
On a per-capita basis, Portland and Multnomah County emissions have
fallen 12.5 percent since 1993, an achievement likely unequalled
in any other major U.S. city. Per-capita emissions in the United
States have increased slightly over the same period, with total
GHG emissions up 13 percent.
Without a doubt, municipal governments must take the lead role in
orchestrating the delivery of sustainable communities. The overriding
task facing municipal governments is to maximize the positive influence
of industrial activities on economic and social development.
Sustainability needs to be integrated into the process of local
community development, which is about communities, families, and
educated and responsible citizens. Economically sustainable cities
must promote economic activity that contributes to the quality of
life without compromising the natural environment.
The successful reduction of GHG emissions in Portland and Multnomah
County is due in large part to a number of local initiatives. There
has been a 75-percent growth in public transit use since 1990. More
than 750,000 trees and shrubs have been planted since 1996, improving
the quality of local waterways as well as absorbing CO2 from the
atmosphere. Portland enjoys a 53-percent recycling rate, among the
highest in the nation. Nearly 40 high-performance green buildings
have been constructed. The Energy Trust of Oregon has been established
to provide funding for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
Twelve percent of the city’s municipal electricity purchases
comes from renewable sources. Portland is in the process of pursuing
options for 100-percent-renewable electricity for all city facilities
Sustainability improves the quality of life in a city, including
ecological, cultural, political, institutional, social and economic
components, without leaving a burden on future generations. In 2001,
the city finished replacing incandescent traffic signals with LED
bulbs, saving three percent of total city CO2 emissions, and cutting
the city’s electricity bill by $265,000 per year. A year later,
in early 2002, the city took delivery of 30 Toyota Priuses, hybrid
gasoline-electric vehicles that get up to 60 miles per gallon—and
all diesel vehicles and equipment that use the city’s fueling
stations are fueled by a 20-percent biodiesel blend. Overall, Portland
is a great example of what every city should aspire to do in saving