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Cities leading the way

by byoungbl Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 06:29:14 AM EST

NOTE: This diary is also posted at Greenstate, a community blog made up of Kossacks who wish to discuss environmental issues and policy goals. Check us out!

Under the Bush Administration, the U.S. has completely abandoned its leadership role on environmental issues, ranging from international treaties like Kyoto to developing renewable energy sources here at home. That's the bad news. But the good news is that we no longer have to look to the federal government for action on environmental problems, as city governments are increasingly leading the way in advancing a sustainable way of life.

Far from being a backup option to federal action, cities are uniquely positioned to influence long-term trends in land use, through mixed-use zoning laws and city planning built around local communities. The use of what has been called the New Urbanism can alleviate traffic problems, prevent continuing suburban sprawl, create livable communities, and revitalize downtown sections of major cities, all of which will lead to more prosperous, safer cities. In addition to the many social benefits, smart growth strategies can also solve many environmental problems, by drastically reducing fuel usage and pollution, and encouraging the use of mass transit. Take a look at some computer simulated photos to see how smart growth development can work in the real world. Very cool!

Not only are many cities leading the way in smart growth development, they are forming new coalitions of progressive mayors and legislators that can pool together resources and ideas, and serve as an alternative to the current domination of conservative ideology at the federal level. Groups like the New Cities coalition are now aggressively moving forward with progressive ideals, and effectively circumventing the federal government. Whereas the Bush Administration has repeatedly opposed the Kyoto Treaty, and refused to take the threat of global warming seriously, mayors across the country have now agreed to voluntarily abide by Kyoto's targets for reducing greenhouse emissions. What's more, progressive cities are now taking legislation stalled at the federal level and applying it at the local level, including everything from minimum wage laws to promoting renewable energy (always a favorite of mine).

Nor is the trend of active, progressive cities limited to America, as was shown with the recent World Environment Day in San Francisco. Mayors from around the world signed the first ever Urban Environmental Accords, an international treaty designed to help usher in a sustainable way of life for the 21st century. The treaty sets a number of admirable goals, to be reached in seven years, in the following areas:

  • Energy

  • Waste Reduction

  • Urban Design

  • Urban Nature

  • Transportation

  • Environmental Health

  • Water
  • While the treaty may be nonbinding, it is not merely a symbolic gesture of defiance at the Bush Administration. After all, the vast majority of the population still resides in cities, with a corresponding share of the economy, and this treaty creates a much-needed blue print to redesigning our cities for a sustainable future. Changes at the local level can and will percolate up to the state and eventually the federal level. As Joel Rogers at the Nation puts it:

    It is time for progressives to reconsider and realign our views on cities--the most productive and most sustainable centers of our economy, the most vital and generous centers of our culture and, potentially, the most democratic and forward-looking of our many units of government. It is time to recognize that properly organized and empowered metropolitan governments--which link cities and suburbs in pursuit of goals that cannot be achieved separately--may hold the key to rebuilding an American economy of broadly shared prosperity. And it is time, above all, to understand that these perspectives are not unduly optimistic; indeed, they are the sentiments being expressed by the mayors and City Council members who have come to refer to themselves as "new urbanists," and who are beginning to coalesce in the burgeoning New Cities and Cities for Progress movements.

    So maybe it's time we stop spending all of our time fighting bad legislation at the federal level, and start turning our energy towards the local level. Nothing gives me more hope for the future than to see progressive cities around the world embrace the principles of the new urbanism, and to take seriously the need to build a sustainable economy. By targeting our efforts at progressive cities, the environmental movement can achieve real, substantial victories, instead of constantly fighting a defensive battle with the federal government. Even if the federal government continues to resist the sea changes occurring in urban planning and resource use, action by progressive cities creates the possibility for a smooth transition from the fossil fuel era to one built on renewable energy and a sustainable economy. Allow me to finish with another quote by Rogers:

    We cannot abandon our struggles at the federal and state levels. But we need to turn more of our attention to the hometown fights that are far more winnable than distant battles in Washington. We always say we're for grassroots politics. Well, the grassroots are growing in our cities.

    Did you catch this NYT op-ed by Nick Kristof? Fits right in with your theme here.

    Turns out that implementing Kyoto may not be as costly as the Bush administration claims, as Portland, OR is showing:

    A Livable Shade of Green

    New York Times
    July 3, 2005

    . . . Newly released data show that Portland, America's environmental laboratory, has achieved stunning reductions in carbon emissions. It has reduced emissions below the levels of 1990, the benchmark for the Kyoto accord, while booming economically.

    What's more, officials in Portland insist that the campaign to cut carbon emissions has entailed no significant economic price, and on the contrary has brought the city huge benefits: less tax money spent on energy, more convenient transportation, a greener city, and expertise in energy efficiency that is helping local businesses win contracts worldwide.

    Portland's experience . . . confirms the suggestions of some economists that we can take initial steps against global warming without economic disruptions. Then in a decade or two, we can decide whether to proceed with other, costlier steps.

    In 1993, Portland became the first local government in the United States to adopt a strategy to deal with climate change. . . .

    (a full report is at www.sustainableportland.org)

    Kristof describes Portland's sustainability strategy, which includes:

    • Making major investments in public transit, including two light rail lines and a streetcar system.

    • Building 750 miles of bicycle paths, with the number of people commuting by foot or on bicycle increasing by 10%.

    • Offering all city employees either a $25-per-month bus pass or car pool parking, while private businesses are told that if they provide employees with subsidized parking, they should also subsidize bus commutes.

    • Offering financial incentives and technical assistance to anyone constructing a ''green building'' with built-in energy efficiency.

    • Encouraging people to weatherize their homes.

    by TGeraghty on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 01:38:24 PM EST
    Great comment, TGeraghty. Portland has been a great success story for the new urbanist movement, and really the entire Northwest seems to be following Portland's lead. It's great to see a city like Portland get serious about mass transit and green design. It's one thing to talk about the positive effects of smart growth, another to actually implement such principles in a real city. Excellent news.
    by byoungbl (byoungbl at mindspring.com) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 03:07:50 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I have a vague recollection of other times in history when chartered cities guarded the embers of law, civilisation, and civil order while an overstretched and corrupt imperial government flailed and started to fall... :-)  I wonder if the future holds any prospect of a renaissance of the city-state?  the Hanseatic League, chapter II?  the independent fiefdoms of Fiorenze, Venetia, etc?  cities adopting their own regional survival strategies as the imperial ruling class gets further and further out of touch with reality?

    just a wild thought. whatever tomorrow looks like, I feel increasingly convinced it will not look much like today, or any smooth projection of today.

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 05:15:38 PM EST
    Well, hopefully it won't come to that, but at least in America it's true that there is a widening gap between the political views of those living in cities versus the red states. In effect, progressive cities are establishing an alternative view of government and the economy, and it remains to be seen if this can continue without direct confrontation with the federal government.
    by byoungbl (byoungbl at mindspring.com) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 05:49:43 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    well there has already been Fed interference at the state level, right?  with the Oregon right-to-die law?

    and then there is the big effort by the biotech thugs to pass statewide laws prohibiting counties or cities from declaring themselves GMO-free zones.

    I think there may be increasing clashes as local progressive initiatives come up against the lumbering forces of centralised megabusiness allied with corruote state/fed Gummint.

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 05:53:33 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    sorry, "corrupt state/fed Gummint"

    writing in haste, repenting in haste :-)

    The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

    by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 05:54:25 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    I think you're right, sadly. Corporations have largely taken hold over the federal government, and they won't hesitate to exercise that power against upstart cities. But I think (and hope) that despite these challenges, progressive cities can still move forward with smart growth policies.
    by byoungbl (byoungbl at mindspring.com) on Fri Jul 8th, 2005 at 08:02:39 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    What are the most "Green" cities in Europe, and what are they doing here? Anyone know?

    "Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
    by whataboutbob on Sat Jul 9th, 2005 at 10:09:57 AM EST
    Here's a recent op-ed about what the contrasts between British and American urban policy:

    The Brits Can Teach Us Yanks How to Create Livable Cities

    by Neal Peirce
    the Seattle Times
    Published on June 28, 2005

    Britain cares about its cities; the United States does not. . . .

    [An] amazingly broad set of activist initiatives . . . -- in housing, transportation, recycling abandoned industrial lands, revitalizing towns and using government power to force new malls and megastores back into downtowns. . . .  

    The English, and many Asian countries, are building massive new systems and communities, linked carefully to transportation, employment centers and amenities -- new developments, says [the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program's Alan] Berube, "not just plopped 30 miles outside with roads and a Target store."

    Or in the words of New York Regional Plan Association president Robert Yaro: "Our competitors around the world are spending megabillions on rail, brownfield reclamation, urban regeneration in their megaregions. And we're frozen on our derriéres." . . .

    [The Brits' visionary urban-agenda setter, Deputy Prime Minister John] Prescott . . .  talks . . . of "sustainable" communities that don't just incorporate good environmental standards but assure a sense of place, low crime, transportation choices, citizen participation, economic development and "life chances for all." Such places, he argues, "create superb buildings and open spaces -- where people want to be together and feel real pride in their own community." . . .

    © 2005 Seattle Times

    by TGeraghty on Sat Jul 9th, 2005 at 06:37:24 PM EST
    [ Parent ]
    Excellent article, TGeraghty, and it once again shows how clueless the U.S. federal government really is about long-term urban planning. As European cities move forward with sustainable development, they will reap the environmental and economic benefits, which I hope will put pressure on American cities to follow their lead.
    by byoungbl (byoungbl at mindspring.com) on Sun Jul 10th, 2005 at 05:57:45 AM EST
    [ Parent ]

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