Walking the Walk


Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

Cities are "going green," says a new report, but missing the most important issues and opportunities

I just ran across a very provocative report assessing the response of 40 large US cities to climate change. Published a couple of months ago by the philanthropic collaborative Living Cities, the report Green Cities: How Urban Sustainability Efforts Can and Must Drive America's Climate Change Policies gives the subjects a mixed grade: four out of five of those surveyed reported policies and initiatives directed at sustainability, but key elements are missing from their efforts, particularly with respect to underserved populations.

Here is how Ben Hecht, the CEO of Living Cities, puts it in an opening "letter" that begins the report:

"Our findings are, on the one hand, encouraging: Most cities are starting to seize the challenge and opportunity of addressing climate change. On the other hand, our findings also reveal a deeply concerning trend: Few cities are prioritizing the needs of low-income people and communities as part of their green strategies and programs."

I really like the report's three central recommendations:

  • Green retrofitting of existing buildings
  • Developing a green jobs workforce
  • Promoting a transit-oriented development
  • The report's authors find that all three could simultaneously benefit both the environment and existing city residents, but that the cities surveyed either had not prioritized those areas or had not made much progress. More progress, the authors found, had been made in requiring that new municipal buildings be green, recycling, and water conservation.

    But it's time to get past the low-hanging fruit, according to Living Cities:

    "Our research found that relatively few cities' programs are incorporating working families and poor people into their sustainability plans. For example, new transit programs like new rail lines or bike paths tend to move residents of higher-income neighborhoods to the urban core, rather than offering service to neglected neighborhoods. And few city officials we surveyed on green jobs talked about ensuring that links are made between new green-collar job opportunities and the under- and employed.

    "A lack of attention to inequality is particularly unfortunate, as the 'greening' of cities may represent a rare opportunity to address the troubling poverty and unemployment that continue to plague neighborhoods in nearly all American cities. Also, it is precisely in low-income areas that sustainability plans can have the most dramatic impacts. The housing stock is the least energy efficient, and the job seekers have the skills and motivation to plug into the expected growth in construction and retrofit jobs. Finally, focusing on issues of equity in the coming green wave present an opportunity to use green as a lever to reform the long dysfunctional and uncoordinated workforce, housing and transportation systems that serve not just the poor but all city residents."

    The report notes that most cities' green building codes are limited to new institutional and commercial buildings, when it is the residential sector and existing buildings that present the most need and opportunity. "The biggest and quickest cut that cities can make in carbon is from 'greening' current structures," say the authors. "Mass retrofits also create new jobs" in working-class trades that pay reasonably high wages, such as construction workers, electricians, and utility line workers.

    On transit-oriented development, the report notes that it can simultaneously improve both transportation and housing for struggling families, who currently spend over half their incomes on the two necessities. Moreover, say the authors, "perhaps the most significant step a city can take toward sustainability is to focus on improving access to greener forms of transportation. Vehicle traffic from cars and trucks is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions in cities, accounting for between 20 and 50 percent of the total, depending upon the urban area."

    Some of the survey findings, summarized by the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire, include the following:

  • Four in five big cities report that sustanability is among their top five priorities and more than half are either currently creating a sustainability plan or have already finished creating one.
  • More than three-quarters of big cities have, or will soon have, detailed plans on how they will reduce greenhouse gases.
  • How much big cities are investing in reducing greenhouse gases varies widely. Several cities report that they have a single staff member dedicated to these issues, while others report they have several dozen. More than two-thirds of cities reported that state and federal governments have little or no impact on their work.
  • Rising energy costs have driven increases in public transit ridership in virtually every city in the survey and a significant number of cities reported they are investing in strategies to boost mass transit.
  • Cities are building more efficient buildings and nearly half have programs subsidizing insulation, energy-efficient appliances and weatherization.
  • About one in four cities have green building mandates that go beyond city buildings and apply to private construction, usually to commercial and, in only a few cases, to residential buildings.
  • Nearly all cities want to attract green-collar jobs and industries. In fact, one in three cities have partnered with area colleges and created green-focused training programs. One in six report they have programs that place trainees in green jobs.
  • So that's good news and bad news, I guess. And, unfortunately, the report doesn't even reach the suburbs, where the news would surely be worse. The per capita emissions certainly are far worse, and very few of our suburbs are effectively dealing with sprawl and driving rates. As a result, I find much of the emphasis on what cities are doing to be missing the point: environmental problems do not respect municipal boundaries that are in many cases accidents of history bearing absolutely no relationship to regions' current economic and social patterns.

    But cities and suburbs both have a job to do on sustainability, and at least many cities are trying. This report sheds light on what their next steps ought to be and on how to go about assembling the resources to implement them. It may be downloaded here.

    Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment. For more posts, see his blog's home page.

     
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