Many cities and towns internationally want to be known as green communities. The benefits of sustainable transportation, renewable energy, recycling, clean water, urban forests, and the like certainly help to make a more livable community and help to hold global climate change at bay.
In the process of going green, communities also grow new industries for the local economy, improve
public health, and create hope for their citizens.
Many municipalities are appointing a green citizens' commission or sustainability committee. Cities internationally join ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, and mayors sign the U.S. Conference of Mayors climate protection agreement.
Large cities will want to read the research and think about the methodology behind the Green City Index, which has completed studies of cities in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
For example, the categories of indicators considered for Europe included carbon emissions, energy, buildings, transport, water, waste and land use, air quality, and environmental governance (governmental arrangements for environmental regulation, monitoring, and problem solving).
What stops most cities and towns from joining in on the trend is that they may perceive that being green or sustainable represents a huge effort, an uphill battle, and a fight not important to the general public. Actually that's a reasonable guess, but it's proving to be incorrect.
Some measures taken by green communities can be simple in concept, relatively inexpensive as municipal projects go, and extremely cost effective. In Philadelphia, where the horticultural society had a strong planting program before green was so stylish, Professor Susan Wachter's research on planting trees on vacant lots led to significant appreciation (more than 30 percent) in the value of adjacent lots. Philadelphia Greening has taken the art of planting trees and installing a uniform fence around vacant lots to a new level of neighborhood stabilization.
Note that LEED, a program of the U.S. Green Building Council and an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, now has developed a certification for neighborhoods or whole developments, rather than the single buildings for which LEED certification of meeting "green" requirements is most noted.
A very helpful source of information for you as a community leader or activist can be found in the downloadable publication A Citizens Guide to LEED for Neighborhood Development.
This publication will stir up ideas for you even if you know in advance that pursuing the LEED-ND certification is too expensive or cumbersome for the project or existing neighborhood you have in mind.
Besides planting trees, municipalities can lead as green communities through cleaning up their own house. This often includes:
1. Retrofitting government buildings for energy efficiency
2. Enforcing a "no idle" policy for city vehicles (and school buses, if under your control)
3. Purchasing only natural gas powered, electric, or hybrid vehicles when buying new ones
4. Enhanced recycling efforts in city buildings but also when solid waste services are purchased
5. Taking the lead in recycling buildings
6. Adding safe off-street bicycle and walking paths through parks, unused street or utility rights-of-way, vacant lots, commercial or industrial developments (especially if empty), and flood or disaster buy-out land
In addition, green communities often enact a flurry of green legislation:
2. Requiring density, thereby reducing the need for, and increasing the efficiency of, roads, utilities, and everything linear (Yes, we know it's controversial; maybe you can use the green communities angle to push through something that would not have been seriously considered before.)
3. Requiring or stiffening requirements for a riparian buffer by streams, rivers, creeks, drainage ditches, or whatever you call them. ("Riparian" simply means pertaining to water. "Buffer" is a term for space allowed for transition in uses.) In this case, a riparian buffer would provide vegetation that would filter out pollutants and slow down the stormwater runoff as rain or snow melt enters water bodies.
4. Requiring tree planting for new development
5. Requiring permeable pavement for new parking lots ("permeable" means water can soak into it).
6. Requiring low-impact development techniques in parking lots; for example, the tree island between parking rows could be V shaped instead of higher than the parking lot, thus allowing the runoff to flow into the space between the rows and be filtered rather than immediately running off the lot.
Pausing here for a moment, we see that these first four legislative measures for green communities fall within the traditional boundaries for municipal land use regulation. The connections among these measures are explained in a recommended book, Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability.
Other community legislative projects could include:
1. Requiring or incentivizing green home construction
2. Requiring or encouraging new development to include green roofs, which actually grow vegetation in shallow soil on the top of the roof, or white roofs, which are white or light colored roofs that reflect heat—helpful if you are in a warmer climate
3. Encouraging or requiring energy-efficient and water-efficient fixtures and appliances in new construction
5. Revisiting policies that promote sprawl, with the resulting extra use of energy for transportation
Often municipal governments are slow to implement these green communities measures simply because staff members don't have time to research the solutions.
Let's face it. In some areas, such as renewable energy, the technology is changing quickly and many unproven techniques are out there. So a busy municipal official may put that brochure about natural gas powered vehicles on the stack to be read someday if there's ever time.
But the municipal sustainability committee, whatever it may be called, can help to research some of these things. They can talk with salespeople, contact other municipalities, and even go on field trips to see what others have done. They can set up peer-to-peer conversations so their government officials don't have to feel as though they are taking the recommendations of citizens without any professional input.
Internet research is key to making the job of the sustainability committee bearable. Making lists of what others have accomplished can be very helpful.
If your city or town decides it wants to be a green community, the investment in an ICLEI membership can be worthwhile. It provides a tool for measuring the community's carbon footprint, and with college intern power it can be implemented over a summer. And then of course a few summers later, you can see your progress and get everyone excited again about participating in the green communities movement.
For communities in the U.S., area-wide projects to help residents and organizations become greener is a pleasant challenge, because on this topic municipalities often have been ahead of state governments and definitely ahead of the federal government in grasping a concept and running with it.
Of course there are many activities that community organizations and non-profits might undertake to help your city become known as a leader among green communities.