August 1, 1995
The age of globalization and consolidation we seem to be passing through has taught us to look to ever larger units of both government and commerce to meet our needs (and all too often to tell us what our needs are). So it’s been easy to forget how much can be accomplished locally.
Local government, which has carried much of the initiative on environmental issues like recycling, is now stepping forward on global warming. Representatives from 159 local governments–representing 250 million people from 65 industrial and developing countries–met at a Municipal Leaders’ Summit on Climate Change, in Berlin this spring. The Summit, sponsored by International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), called for local authorities to develop local action plans to reduce CO2 emissions 20 percent by 2005.
It’s easy to see how local and regional action can impact recycling (logical since they typically collect the garbage). But how can they impact larger global issues like greenhouse gases and climate change? By taking focused action right where the gases are generated.
Consider transportation and buildings. According to the Energy Foundation, more than one-third of US energy used to heat cool and light buildings, and that use could be cut 50-80% with existing technologies. Transportation represents another third (and two-thirds of US petroleum use), and 30% of US carbon emissions. Cities can’t directly affect automobile fuel standards or building technologies, but several powerful levers sit within reach of local and regional government and civic action.
For example, convenient and efficient mass transit can get people out of their cars, and keep them out. Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee are just two cities that have reduced downtown pollution and congestion with free mass transit service. Curatiba Brazil has demonstrated that green transportation initiatives make as much sense in the rapidly urbanizing developing world as in the already congested north. Mixed use zoning and other urban planning strategies can reduce the need for automobile travel and enhance quality of life–since access is far more essential to a livable city than mobility.
Local building codes and ordinances can encourage, rather than thwart, resource-efficient design and innovation. Eco-subdivisions like Davis California’s Village Homes, which use a small fraction of the energy and water of traditional tract homes, command a substantial resale premium. Berkeley California’s Commercial Energy Conservation Ordinance requires energy efficiency upgrades when commercial properties are sold–reducing business energy bills, cutting emissions and generating jobs.
Of course environmental impacts don’t respect municipal boundaries, any more than they respect national ones. But the pooled purchasing power, and the persuasive power, of local communities can be considerable. Environmental procurement standards like “Buy recycled” programs, and fleet fuel and efficiency standards build the market demand that enable manufacturers to justify shifts “greener” products and services. The “eco-municipalities” working with Sweden’s Natural Step have encouraged voluntary agreement with residents, retailers and manufacturers to create a chain reaction of mutual benefit: local organizations, schools and agencies educate residents and the business communities; customers demand more environmentally sound products of retailers; retailer use that demand to encourage suppliers to develop better products.
In the words of ICLEI executive committee member Nancy Skinner, “local action and legislation open doors to larger political arenas. They demonstrate that there is citizen and voter support, and this influences industry and corporate policies.” And because local government is often the political breeding ground for state and national leadership, and grass roots action is often the seedbed for local government, effective local programs can have a way of trickling up…
Sustainable city initiatives are not just a feature of traditional innovators like Cambridge Massachusetts and Berkeley; they have also taken root in communities as diverse as Waitakere New Zealand, Curatiba and Chattanooga, to name just a few. The programs vary widely, from Seattle’s Sustainability Indicators to Chattanooga’s $739 million public/private green development partnership to the MegaCities Project’s international innovation exchange program.
Effective local environmental initiatives choose actions that have tangible local impact, to justify investment of limited resources, and that are consistent with scientific principles and international goals, to maximize their larger impact and leverage and transferability. Whatever the focus, the record seems clear on one thing: early and ongoing public participation in design and implementation are key to success.
So next time it all seems too overwhelming, remember these urban innovators. And consider that the golden age of Florence flowered in a city of fewer than 100,000. It may be that the key to the environmental Renaissance is in the world’s towns and cities as well.