The Long Road to Sustainable Cities

Sustainability in America’s Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis, edited by Matthew Slavin, founder and Principal of Sustaingrϋp, is a collection of case studies that chart the progress of sustainable urban development in eight cities across the United States. The case studies explain how these cities have applied innovative strategies and invested in climate change mitigation and adaptation, clean energy, green buildings, sustainable transportation and infrastructure, and urban forestry among others. Chosen for their size, regional diversity, and capacity to implement their wide-ranging sustainability plans, the cities include Portland, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Honolulu, Philadelphia, and New York City. These eight offer “ample evidence of the role innovative and forward-thinking policy and planning, leadership, stakeholder engagement, and mobilization by coalitions of the willing play in sustainable development in America’s cities.”

The evidence these case studies offer is valuable because it leans more toward “clear empirical arguments concerning what works and what doesn’t in cities’ actual experiences” than “outright advocacy” for what should be done. Proven efficacy is critical to launching new initiatives in the U.S., particularly given the lack of a comprehensive national strategy for climate change has left cities with the daunting task of addressing the issue themselves. Many cities also lack the appropriate resources so can’t make mistakes financing ineffective programs.

As the many contributors to his volume argue, the profiled cities have been successful because they have demonstrated a unique ability to forge innovative strategies based in non-traditional approaches. Much of their success is attributed to embracing new technologies, achieving partnerships between business and environmental interests, and creating coalitions among government agencies, the private sector, and non-profit and educational institutions. The book explores the significance of these strategies and provides a useful resource guide that demonstrates “the mechanics and efficacy of the implementation of contemporary urban sustainability initiatives in U.S. cities.”

The case studies cover a broad range of situations. Two of them come from cities with long traditions of environmental activism and sustainable planning. In Portland, a commitment since the 1970s to sustainable planning has led to the development of an extensive light rail and streetcar system as well as an ambitious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building program. In San Francisco, the effective mobilization of Grassroots movements and social entrepreneurs helped launch and scale up the city’s bicycle transportation program and a citywide car-sharing service. These cities contrast with Phoenix, whose recent foray into the “green economy” faces uncertain electoral politics and short-term economic cycles.

There’s value in employing both vetted techniques and new strategies. In Milwaukee, the implementation of a “triple bottom line” mechanism helped transform the Menomonee Valley from a 1,400 acre blighted industrial district into a center of sustainable employment. In Washington, D.C., a commitment to implementing the U.S. Green Building Council’s green building rating system has resulted in 1,730 LEED-certified buildings and developments. Initiatives in New York City, however, are employing less established techniques for improving urban forestry and food security campaigns. The MillionTreesNYC program, though not the only urban tree campaign in the U.S., is notable for establishing a research and evaluation subcommittee to determine the actual economic, ecological, and social effects of planting a million new trees in the city. In addition, newer initiatives to improve food security have gone beyond previous efforts and widened food options for about three million people with previously limited access to nutritional food and healthy alternatives.

The case studies also look at how cities are using technology. Honolulu, for example, stands to gain energy independence from a significant investment in new technologies like wind farms, green buildings, electric vehicles, and sea water air conditioning. The city has committed to having 70 percent of energy use come from clean energy sources by 2030. Philadelphia is embracing environmentally-friendly green infrastructure over more intrusive and capital-intensive grey infrastructure. However, the city is focused on implementing integrated watershed management planning using low-tech storm water management strategies to protect drinking water supply and address infrastructural capacity issues.

The book clearly demonstrates that the sustainability movement in the U.S. is gaining support. However, progress is slow. In 2005, under the Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, 141 city mayors committed to a 7 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2012. As of 2009, Portland, Oregon was the only city to have reduced overall CO2 emissions from the 1990 baseline levels. Suffice to say, many sustainability initiatives are still in the early stages of development and face significant obstacles. 

Slavin is nevertheless optimistic in light of what the case studies have shown. He concludes with a brief analysis of what other cities can learn from these models and summarizes a few initiatives already underway in large municipalities like Boston, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, and smaller cities like Akron, Boise, and Flint.

Read the book

This guest post is by Shannon Leahy, ASLA 2011 Summer Intern.

Image credit: Sustainability in America’s Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis / Island Press

2 thoughts on “The Long Road to Sustainable Cities

  1. Tim Joy 07/17/2011 / 11:40 pm

    As a fan of actual dirt, I applaud this blog. And the book sounds like a winner. Nice to see that my home town of Portland is on the cover. But there is so much to do, so far for societies in the US and abroad to go before much substantive can be done. Even in Portland, we’ve see plastic bags return, Styrofoam cups resuscitated, backlash against light rail. Even in the smaller things – recycling – some parts of it remain difficult to do, and retailers are making in more of a nuisance to do this.

    Still, let’s keep going.

  2. Urban Choreography 07/18/2011 / 3:28 am

    It seems that even with fragmented and partial approaches to sustainability it is possible for cities to achieve results that might contribute to long term resilience and it is encouraging to get published news of this. Culture changes slowly and politicians who control the funds need proof that what is proposed will yield results as well as what not to do.. now its remains to be seen if only the converted read this?

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