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Sustainable Cities Seek to Maintain, Improve Environmental, Economic, Social Advantages

From New York to smaller places, coastal cities face an existential threat from climate change

On this page, you can read our interview with Randy Rodgers, Executive Editor and Publisher of Sustainable City Network, about sustainability trends in communities.

Useful Community Development (UCD): Since you edit a magazine about this topic, what’s your definition of sustainable cities?

Randy: People think I’m being flippant sometimes when I say that the definition of sustainability is that which can be sustained.  That’s the literal definition of the word. A lot of people try to make it complicated, more complicated than it needs to be I think.

But it is the essence of what cities across the country are trying to do right now.  I think they’re trying to sustain themselves, and it’s getting harder all the time for a lot of cities. 

We want to make sure cities remain strong and vibrant places for generations to come, and that means three ways we want to be sustainable:  environmentally sustainable, so we want to be able to breathe the air and drink the water and so forth; economically sustainable, so we need good jobs with living wages, a strong tax base for our communities so they can provide the public with all the necessary services; and socially sustainable, which is just people being treated equally and fairly under the law.  We don’t want riots in the streets just because one group has more advantages than another. So this is the three-legged stool you hear about, the triple bottom line of sustainability.

In some ways certain challenges are so great that they are starting to take on a sense of urgency, and I think for most cities, or at least cities in some parts of the country, climate change is literally an existential threat.  Particularly for coastal cities, the question is what is four to seven feet of sea level rise going to do to your community?  What’s a Category 3 hurricane every five or ten years going to do, especially after the insurance money starts to run out and the Red Cross has reached its limits?  I think those are serious concerns that are taking precedence with a lot of communities.

Even in places like the Midwest, if a severe drought hits the Midwest like it hit California, what is that going to do to local economies?  Then we have wildfires we have been hearing so much about in the news, and flood events, landslides, tornadoes, and all of that.  Those things get your attention. 

That’s not to say we haven’t made a lot of progress in some areas.  I always tell a story about the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland that was at one time so polluted that it caught fire several times.  It doesn’t take a genius to know your environment is in trouble when a river catches fire.  That incident, I think it last happened in the late 60’s, convinced people we needed an Environmental Protection Agency. I find it interesting that EPA was championed by Richard Nixon, a Republican President.  I don’t know where or how the attacks on the EPA started to come from the Republican side, but it wasn’t always like that.  At that time we saw that it was a human-caused problem.  Pollution was not part of nature, so through a series of regulations, including the Clean Water Act and other legislation, we managed to clean up at least enough to prevent rivers from catching fire. 

The fight over that isn’t over. We’re seeing today the EPA literally under fire from within.

So we could talk about sustainability in the context of economic prosperity and social equity, which are really important.  But there isn’t going to be prosperity or social harmony if our coastal areas become inhospitable through sea level rise, storm surges, and so forth, and if our agricultural regions get devastated by drought. That doesn’t result in strong and vibrant cities. 

Like it or not, I think mitigating and adapting to climate change is job one for many cities in the United States. Really nothing else is more important. 


Getting a City Moving on Sustainability

UCD: In your experience, what is the motivation behind sustainable cities that are making the effort?

Randy: That depends on where a city is starting from. If they are facing calamity, then that is a big motivator.  If they look at a relief map and see that half of their downtown is going to be under water, then that gets people thinking and talking. 

The Rust Belt cities are trying to reinvent themselves, so they are looking for a framework that can make that happen.  I think a lot of cities are starting to adapt to dominance of the tech industries and trying to attract them. They are starting to focus on livability in a lot of cases. That goes beyond merely surviving as a society and gets to the heart of a person’s quality of life. Can we have satisfying experiences?  Can we eat, drink, and be merry?  Are there artistic and cultural amenities?  Do we have access to nutritious food, bike trails, and things like that so we can lead a fit and healthy lifestyle?  Do we have good schools, green spaces for people to enjoy? 

Those are things that cities use to compete with one another in a world where tech companies can locate basically anywhere.  In the news right now is a question of where Amazon is going to locate.  They don’t have to locate the way they used to, around a railroad or transportation hub.  Tech industries tend to go where they know there will be steady access to a tech-savvy workforce.  Increasingly people are moving to places that provide the lifestyle they want and are finding a job that suits them there, as opposed to the other way around—finding a job first and then taking what you get in terms of lifestyle.

You’re seeing a lot of Rust Belt communities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland that are attracting the tech companies.  If you go to Pittsburgh, you’re not going to see smoke billowing out of steel mills any more.  They have pretty much made a complete conversion to cleaner industries. They still have a lot of struggles; they still get most of their electricity from coal. But those are the kinds of things they are working on to make changes in their community.

UCD: What is the role of the elected officials in sustainable cities?

Randy: Elected officials basically are going to do whatever gets them re-elected.  That can be part of the solution, but it also can be part of the problem.  If the general population continues to vote in people who deny climate change or other sustainability issues exist, it’s tough.  I do see polarization, where some cities are progressing at great speed and others are going to be left behind economically and in every other way. 

I think it’s really the citizens who need to start campaigns and get that agenda out there and vote for people who care about the things they care about.  In this day and age, with social media being what it is, citizens have a tremendous ability to network more than they ever have.  They are able to get on Twitter and create a demonstration at City Hall within hours. It doesn’t take the organizational efforts that it previously required to get a thing out on Facebook and get people excited and energized around a particular issue.  I think the more that happens, the more elected officials will start coming around to care about some of these issues. 

If an elected official cares about sustainability, there are a lot of things they can do to get the ball rolling in their communities.  I think just having the discussion, and creating a sustainability plan, getting that done—in a lot of cases you do see sustainability plans get created and then wither on the vine, but that is step one.   Get a committee together to talk about how that community can sustain itself and what the needs are, whether it’s food deserts in their community or economic development.  Perhaps it’s brownfields; there are a lot of empty big box stores and abandoned gas stations out there that need to get cleaned up, re-purposed, and used for economic development.  No matter where they are in the country and what the mood is in their particular area, there are always things that can be done.

If you take it all down to the very essence of it, it’s the environmental stuff.  Everybody wants to breathe clean air and drink good water.  If you have empty storefronts and abandoned gas stations that will just sit there because nobody is going to buy them because they will have to clean them up if they do—a community has to step in. 

We just had a story recently about the Kansas City area where the County is conservative and the City is liberal, but they came together.  They talk about sustainability with different language.

UCD: So talk about some of those language differences that you’re seeing.

Randy: Not calling it climate change is a requirement in some locations.  They just have to call it severe weather patterns or something like that.  It has to be a different approach in each location depending on the political strengths.


Other Trends in Sustainable Cities

UCD: What are other trends for sustainable cities that seem important?

Randy: I think that energy efficiency was probably the first thing that people started working on.  In places where there hasn’t been a sustainability effort, it’s an easy place to start.  It has the highest ROI.  To use LED lights, use better insulation, get city buildings and public facilities more energy efficient delivers a big bang for its buck. 

One of the more advanced things that people are looking at is inclusive housing ordinances where they essentially tell developers that they need to create a more equitable amount of low-income or workforce housing whenever they create X amount of the high dollar housing.   A lot of cities are looking at that.

Complete streets is continuing to grow.  The Smart Growth America group has been tracking that for a number of years now.  We just had a story about them coming up with a report that showed that there were more complete street ordinances created in 2016 than in any other year.  That’s a trend that is sweeping across the country.  Getting Transit Oriented Development and complete streets, where it’s not just all about cars, trying to encourage people to walk and ride their bikes, share cars, use public transportation, and so forth—those are big thing that are going on.

Of course we saw conversation about resiliency start about 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit. That became a big topic, and every year it just becomes more and more.  These communities really need to come up with plans.  It’s just not enough any more to just rebuild houses after they get blown down by a hurricane, and then they’re good for another 75 years before the next hurricane.  That’s obviously not the case now, so it’s important to work on plans to make structures resilient to these storms and to restore the wetland areas for the storm buffers they used to be when there was a natural environment.  Keeping your development a little bit out of the way of hurricanes and building infrastructure that is able to handle the storms is a big trend I think. 

UCD: I appreciate your taking time to talk with us about sustainable cities.  How can people get plugged into the magazine or the great annual conference you run in Dubuque, Iowa?

Randy: The website is sustainablecitynetwork.com.

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