Greening the World’s Capital Cities

Larry BeaselyBy assuming a leadership role within their own countries and striving to be the greenest on the world stage, capital cities are in a unique position to lead the world to a more sustainable future. This assessment came from Larry Beasley, former director of planning for Vancouver, in a rousing appeal to the international delegates of Capitals Alliance 2008: Greening the World’s Capital Cities, a conference organized by NCPC in September 2008 to explore capital cities’ efforts to improve their relationship with the environment.  “If you don’t do it,” Mr. Beasley urged good-naturedly, “you’re going to be embarrassed in front of your nation, and your country is going to be embarrassed before the world.” Beasley’s effort to spark a friendly competition among nations culminated a week of panels, workshops, and presentations featuring renowned experts in sustainability from around the world.  Delegates representing 15 capitals shared experiences from their home cities, outlining the sustainability initiatives they have implemented, evaluating their success, and discussing the challenges that remain.

The Perfect Storm—Policy, Technology, and Profitability
Urgency and optimism infused the week’s sessions, with many participants sensing that the time is ripe for change. Laurel Colless of the Energy Efficiency Partnership of Greater Washington predicted that technological innovations, improved policymaking, and the increasing profitability of going green would converge very soon in a “perfect storm” of rapid progress. Changes are already underway, particularly in improving the energy efficiency of buildings. Buildings—“the silent offenders”—are responsible for 43% of greenhouse gas emissions, and as several participants noted, significant reductions can be made relatively quickly by retrofitting them with energy-saving devices and systems. Improving energy efficiency is a good place to start, but the conference illustrated that alternative energy sources must be part of any sustainable development program. Ms. Colless and the conference keynote speaker, Herbert Girardet of the World Future Council, showed how policies like feed-in tariffs and energy service companies (ESCOs) facilitate the cost-effective adoption of renewable energy. Both incentivize “going green” by changing the cost-benefit calculation of investing in expensive new technology—ESCOs reduce upfront expenditures, while feed-in tariffs increase the long-term revenue stream from the production of surplus energy. “With policies like feed-in tariffs that have been adopted in 46 countries, homeowners can now install photovoltaic panels and enjoy…a payback on [the] solar roof within 12 years,” said Mr. Girardet.

The Need for Planning and Public Involvement
Planning agencies play an important role in developing an inspiring vision, and they can also help build the broad coalitions necessary to sustain a long-term transformation. “The built environment takes a lot of time to change,” Harriet Tregoning, director of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Planning, said. “[The process] is longer than the term of any single elected leader or inexhaustible nonprofit leader.” Robert Stacey, executive director of the smart growth advocacy group 1,000 Friends of Oregon, explained how special interests nearly succeeded in gutting Oregon’s renowned planning policies because the public did not understand how the laws—30 years after their implementation—still contributed to their quality of life. “The only way to sustain a plan over time is by regularly revisiting [it] and reengaging the public,” he concluded. Ultimately, climate change is a business opportunity that can foster widespread public engagement with environmental issues by providing green-collar jobs, like manufacturing solar panels and installing landscaped roofs. . “You know, little green fairies are not going to come out of the sky and do this work for us,” said Majora Carter, executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, the nation’s first and most successful green-collar jobs program. “When you put people to work fixing environmental problems…you are solving two of the world’s greatest problems at the same time—poverty alleviation and environmental remediation.”

Leadership and Courage
When it comes right down to it, however, creating sustainable cities requires not just vision, but leadership and the courage to confront resistance wherever it appears—from the engineering standards that impede sustainable development to a dubious citizenry to politicians who claim that they have no money in the coffers. “Somebody needs to stand up with passion and commitment and say we're going to change this behavior,” said Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh. “Money is always the excuse…[but] it’s always about whether you have the community will to make the change.” Planning agencies and elected officials can play a critical role in generating that community will. Ms. Carter, who is taking her method of community organizing to other urban areas, concluded with a moving appeal to the assembled delegates: “People are aching for leaders just like you to inspire them and to believe that there is another way.”