Sustainability: Urban Leaders Are Listening

03/09/16

With over 54% of the world’s population and more than 8 in 10 Americans living in urban centers, achieving sustainability in our cities is paramount to our future health and wellbeing.

Sustainability of cities now has urgency – and specificity. It is no longer a buzzword circulated at Chamber of Commerce roundtables or subtly placed in a mayor’s stump speech to score political points. Sustainability is defining the ways we build cities, and how they serve people and provide attractive services and amenities. Sustainability is imperative in politics – it only truly works when community leaders and citizens participate - and it is good business.

According to a New Climate Economy report released in September 2015, municipal investment in low-carbon initiatives such as mass transportation, transit-oriented development, energy efficiency and renewable energy and waste management could generate globally between $17-22 trillion in savings by 2050. This is good news for budget-strapped cities, with leaders constantly seeking reasonable ways to reduce operating expenses while offering citizens attractive quality-of-life amenities such as recreational open space, access to cost-effective and reliable transit, affordable housing and walkable neighborhoods.

During the past 10 years, I’ve lived in 3 different cities – New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. Each is showing how sustainability in cities can be done well, with vastly different resources and priorities. Here’s a look at the efforts each of these cities – with citizen support and involvement – is undertaking to achieve economic and environmental sustainability over the course of the next several decades:

  • In New York City, America’s most populous city, Mayor Bill de Blasio commemorated Earth Day by releasing “#OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City,” which outlines 4 foundational “Visions” for charting Gotham’s growth in the coming decades. Sustainability is among those Visions: “New York City will be the most sustainable big city in the world and a global leader in the fight against climate change.” The stated goals under this vision are ambitious, yet achievable: reduce emissions by 80% by the year 2050 based on a 2005 baseline, zero landfill waste by 2030, high quality water services, useful and beneficial open space, best air quality of all major U.S. cities by 2030 and conversion of brownfields to safe, beneficial uses. In addition to business leaders and city agencies, #OneNYC engaged New Yorkers themselves to get their insights to ensure all voices were represented in developing the plan.

  • On the other side of country, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti unveiled the “Sustainable City pLAn” in April 2015 to serve “as a roadmap for a Los Angeles that is environmentally healthy, economically prosperous, and equitable in opportunity for all.” pLAn focuses on both short-term results and long-term planning, primarily around the 3 E’s: Equity, Economy and Environment.  By 2025, pLAn aims to achieve the following key sustainability goals: reduce carbon emissions by 45% based on a 1990 baseline, reduce energy per square foot for all building types by 14% and achieve a 90% landfill diversion rate. To reach these and other goals under pLAn, Mayor Garcetti is calling upon all community stakeholders – universities, neighborhood councils, community groups, businesses and individual citizens – “to commit to ‘Adopt the pLAn’ into action.”

  • And in the middle there’s Nashville, which is home to Milepost’s southeast office. Music City is in the middle of an economic boom thanks to a resurgence in the health care, technology, tourism and entertainment industries. Not surprisingly, Nashville’s population is expected to top 1 million people by 2040. To plan for this growth, the city spent 3 years engaging the community to determine priorities and resource needs. The result is NashvilleNext, a long-range smart growth plan founded on shared community goals around “ensuring opportunity for all, expanding accessibility, creating economic prosperity, fostering strong neighborhoods, improving education, championing the environment, and being Nashville.” NashvilleNext is not as comprehensive as New York or LA’s plans in terms of addressing broader sustainability issues like energy, waste and water, but it does focus on the city’s and region’s most pressing environmental sustainability issue: transit. Plus, Nashville just elected its first female mayor, who has shown support for developing a broader plan to sustain Nashville’s economy and environmental. Stay tuned.

While many city governments are making great strides, they can’t go it alone. The most successful municipalities are forging public-private partnerships to affect the largest possible impacts. Cities are learning to speak the language of institutional capital and private-sector investment, and businesses are helping cities leverage limited resources to drive innovation. The cities figuring out how to collaborate are booming.

At the root of these partnerships are people – those who shape and are shaped by cities. Yes, this means you. Sustainability is only possible if people are empowered and accountable. Take it from someone who has worked at the top and helped a mayor lead from behind. If you’re a leader, listen to your most trusted advisors - the people who elected you to represent them – when developing policies or programs that will have an impact on your community. Give your constituents and stakeholders an opportunity to provide meaningful input. If you’re a citizen, dig in. In order to have an impact on how your community grows, get involved in a movement, cause or organization. Write your city leaders and elected officials when you have a good idea or see something that doesn’t make sense. Make your voice heard at city council meetings, planning or zoning hearings or neighborhood association gatherings. Sustainability, like democracy, requires great leadership, but it works best when leadership comes from the bottom up.

Luke Gebhard
Luke Gebhard

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