“Big cities get all the attention – but smaller, more agile towns are turning out to be innovators in their own right.
The cat has long been out of the bag: If we’re serious about not driving the planet (with ourselves on it) off the climate cliff, we better do something about our cities. With 70% of the world’s population projected to be living, consuming and emitting in urban areas by 2050, it has dawned on pretty much anyone who is not a resident of Denial Delta that the road to a sustainable future must go through the world’s cities and human settlements. It’s a pretty simple equation — each structural improvement that positively affects the collective ecological footprint of a densely populated area yields a disproportionately large return on investment, from energy savings to air quality to carbon reductions.
These days you don’t even have to be a city planner or policy wonk to geek out on the redeeming qualities and endless potential of urban design. From political to environmental to fashion magazines, it’s become almost untenable to not have a sustainable city section. Hardly a day goes by without announcements of groundbreaking urban farming legislation in San Francisco or record-setting bicycle friendliness in Portland. The big guns, from New York to Chicago to L.A., have entered the fray, outracing each other with bold plans to become greener and leaner, sooner than later. Even at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio last month, one of the few things that everyone — whether they were from developed or developing countries, representing civic, business or government sectors — seemed able to agree on was that we should pay major attention to making cities more sustainable, yo.
Metropolitan areas around the globe, from Vancouver to Nantes and Curitiba to Copenhagen, are outracing each other in shortening commutes, greening rooftops, switching to renewables, and becoming climate resilient. It’s a welcome, hopeful development, to be sure. Big cities don’t just have the math and demographics; they also have the trendsetting power that comes with being an internationally revered cultural hub. For better or worse, the human mind seems to attribute disproportionate significance to shiny objects. When Jessica Alba rolls around Paris on a VÃ©lib’ it’s considered a big, sexy day of news. When the town of Babylon, New York passes one of the most ambitious green building codes in the U.S. to reduce the carbon footprint of each participating household by 20-40%…well, what happens in Babylon stays in Babylon.
While many of the big cities we hear about in the news have the internal budgets and economic force to develop their own sustainability offices and programs, smaller and medium-sized communities often have the same appetite, but not necessarily the same funding and exposure. Since almost 75 percent of all American cities with populations over 100,000 are still smaller than 250,000 , these municipalities are the obvious next frontier in greening our cities. Unfortunately, so far, their efforts and accomplishments have received very little national attention.
But beware: Babylon is about to strike back.
Smaller Cities Doing the Heavy Lifting
With wind in their sails from the Powering the New Energy Future from the Ground Up report, sponsored by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation and released last week by Climate Solutions , Babylon and 21 other cities across the U.S. with populations under 250,000 are establishing themselves as leaders in pioneering clean energy solutions and addressing greenhouse gas emissions. From innovative financing and ambitious requirements for new construction to creative community outreach and partnerships with existing institutions, the report offers the first comprehensive look at the diverse and creative ways America’s smaller cities are reducing fossil fuel dependency while also creating jobs.
Here are just a few of the many innovative projects and plans profiled in the report:
- Babylon, NY leveraged its solid waste fund for residential energy efficiency retrofits, by expanding the definition of solid waste to include carbon emissions.
- Bellingham, WA launched a successful local business energy efficiency program to help businesses complete improvements from lighting retrofits to solar.
- Boulder, CO published a trio of ordinances for building safety and energy efficiency and implemented a multi-jurisdictional Energy Smart program to help builders meet the higher bar set by the ordinances.
- Eugene, OR set a goal of housing 90 percent of its residents in compact communities, in which all amenities would be accessible within a 20-minute auto-free trip.
- Fort Collins, CO has set out to create the first net-zero district in the country based on a robust partnership of public and private entities, leveraging business community leadership and making the most of a significant federal investment in smart grid technology.
- Jackson, WY created a formal governance partnership between the town, the county and the local utility to drive and oversee projects related to energy efficiency and clean energy.
- Knoxville, TN has laid critical groundwork for clean energy economic development through a federal grant to build 2 megawatts of solar electricity capacity, an educational program about solar installations for contractors and permitting officials, and investment in 10 electric vehicle charging stations powered by solar energy.
- Oberlin, OH set a goal of going beyond carbon neutral by generating 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and offsetting additional greenhouse gas emissions in the surrounding areas.
Toward an Ecological Economy
“We’re really trying to take a holistic approach and tackle this problem from a lot of different angles,” says Will Schweiger, operations manager at Long Island Green Homes in Babylon. While each community’s situation is unique, the challenges faced in shifting away from an unsustainable fossil-fueled infrastructure and way of life are ultimately shared by cities of all sizes — and a range of different solutions is required. While any community can get started right now with cheap and obvious carbon reductions like insulating and weatherizing existing buildings, others are already going for deeper infrastructural changes, like Eugene, Oregon’s 20-minute neighborhoods .
Quigley notes that there’s a whole range of reasons why many of these smaller cities are so aggressively getting in on the action. Some do it because they’re concerned about climate change. Others are trying to protect their communities from the potential damage from anticipated increases in storms, fires, floods, or droughts; and to be part of a growing global climate movement. In Babylon, for example, a 2006 study showed that residential buildings were the largest contributors to Babylon’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that provided the catalyst for action. “We decided we had to do something about our residential emissions,” Schwieger says, “to put our town on a trajectory to make a difference and reduce our pollution.”
Two thousand miles to the west, in Fort Collins, CO, the city set very high energy efficiency goals for the electric utility. They’re out to reduce carbon emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and to 80 percent by 2050. “We are charged with reducing our total energy consumption by about 1.5 % per year,” says utility manager Steve Catanach. “That’s a very aggressive goal.”