Beyond Environmental Benefits, Cities Seek Green Initiatives to Improve Economy and Urban Living

The city of Phoenix, Arizona has doubled its population in the past 20 years without increasing its water consumption—a minor miracle in a region that receives less than 10 inches of rainfall each year.

The city held water usage down with a variety of initiatives, from leveling agricultural fields to avoid runoff to encouraging citizens to do their laundry at night. “Technology was part of that,” said Matt Fraser, a professor of sustainability at Arizona State University, but “the biggest part was actually changing people’s behavior.”

It’s an approach that Phoenix—and cities around the globe—hope to duplicate in energy, transportation, and other urban systems. At a recent symposium held at AAAS, urban leaders and scholars said cities are encouraging cultural shifts toward sustainability that will meet the urgent economic and quality-of-life concerns of their residents.

Practical challenges from water delivery to traffic congestion are pushing the concept of urban sustainability beyond a focus on pollution and natural resource protection. Cities battered by a weak economy, the experts suggested, see sustainability efforts as a way to attract new residents and boost their economic standing.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

“As you rebuild urban centers, that creates jobs,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in his keynote speech at the 6 October event. “As you create better living and building infrastructure and spend less time in a traffic jam, the productivity increases as well as your quality of life.

“All of these things are opportunities not only in job growth,” Chu noted, “but also in having a much more efficient society and much more efficient economy which makes us more economically competitive.”

“More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and the percentage is still growing,” said Al Teich, senior policy adviser at AAAS and a member of the organizing committee for the event. “If the global environment is to be sustainable, cities must play a major role.”

Mayor Roy Buol, Iowa

Mayor Roy Buol, Iowa

 

The sustainable cities forum was the third in a series sponsored annually by Hitachi Ltd., with panels organized by the Brookings Institution and AAAS’s Science and Policy Programs and International Office. Policymakers, researchers, and city managers from cities including Boston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, along with Mayor Dwight Jones from Richmond, Virginia, and Mayor Roy Buol from Dubuque, Iowa, kept the discussions focused on practical initiatives already in place across the United States and globally.

Mayor Dwight Jones, Virginia

Mayor Dwight Jones, Virginia

Sustainability makes sense when cities face tight budgets and need to lower operational costs, said Tom Shircliff, the chairman of the steering committee for Envision Charlotte, a public-private collaboration to develop sustainability programs in Charlotte, North Carolina. With less money to spend, he said, cities need to emphasize “soft changes” like encouraging business districts to conserve energy and altering leases to encourage green retrofitting of older buildings.
Shircliff and others at the event also pointed to the importance of programs that help city residents change the way they use water and energy resources. In Phoenix, for example, the water services department offers free advice on desert landscaping, and the city was the pilot region for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Fix A Leak Week” educational campaign.

In Dubuque, Buol said, the city has partnered with IBM to root out inefficiencies in its water, energy, and transportation systems. Its pilot water program led to a 6.6% reduction in water usage, and an eight-fold improvement in leak detection and repair. The program used “smart” water meters, online games, and real-time water-consumption reports to show residents how to scale back their use. “We have to come up with ways of giving people information so that they’ll make a conscious decision to reduce their usage,” Buol noted.

For Dwight Jones, a sustainable city is more than a place where carbon emissions are low and businesses are green. When the mayor considers sustainability, he thinks of his visit to the home of a school teacher, re-insulated with the help of a city program, “where the heating bill was only $80 a month in the dead of winter.” Richmond’s sustainability initiatives, from tele-work programs and energy-efficient stop lights to cycling paths, he said, improve the lives of its citizens.

Jones also suggested that cities that emphasize sustainability are primed to compete for new businesses. He said corporations considering a move to Richmond “want to know if they’re moving into a progressive city that is sensitized to these kinds of issues rather than a city that’s doing business as usual.”

“We see it as an economic development opportunity,” agreed James Hunt, chief of environment and energy for Boston, who talked about city sustainability efforts that include LED lighting in public places and a pilot program for electric car charging stations.

Although the sustainability challenges differ among American cities, city planners are finding that many issues can resolved with off-the-shelf products that are “eminently deployable” and don’t always require a significant investment in cutting-edge technology, said Robert Puentes, senior metropolitan policy program fellow at Brookings. He and other speakers encouraged Americans to look globally for inspiration in rebuilding their urban areas.

Michinaga Kohno, Senior Chief Engineer for Hitachi's Smart City Business Management division

Michinaga Kohno, Senior Chief Engineer for Hitachi’s Smart City Business Management division

The panelists also urged more cooperation between local, state, and federal governments to fund projects that cross traditional boundaries, such as a project that promotes walking to reduce traffic and improve health. Cities that “connect infrastructure intelligently may also be more resilient during natural disasters,” said Michinaga Kohno, senior chief engineer for Hitachi’s Smart City Business Management division.

“We have 21st century ideas about how to make cities sustainable, and how to make the country sustainable,” Buol said, “but we’re dealing with 20th century funding streams.”

Chu agreed that new funding schemes could help cities minimize “cost, congestion, and carbon emissions.” Among several innovative programs he described, one was a leasing program for residential solar panels in Phoenix, supported by a partnership of local banks, private companies, the city, and Arizona’s largest electric utility.

“The old thinking is that you just need lots of tax dollars to help this go along…,” Chu said. “But there are many examples coming out that demonstrate you may need far less than you thought you needed.”

Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott encouraged cities to pursue a variety of technological, cultural, and financial innovations. Now that a majority of the world population lives in cities, he said, urban sustainability programs will have “real implications for our environment, energy security, and for economic productivity.”

Sustainability is a global problem, Buol acknowledged, but he thinks cities may hold the key to a global solution. “We deal with people at that local level. If we can get them to buy in, we’re going to move the conversation forward.”

Watch an archived video of “Eco-Engineering: Building Sustainable Cities”

Read more about the Hitachi/AAAS Lecture Initiative.