On the eve of SustainLane.com releasing its annual US cities sustainability ranking, I should explain why cities are so important to me. Almost two years ago, SustainLane's CEO James Elsen and I wanted to let people living in their cities know how healthy their city and their city's future was. If people cared about sports standings and results for their city, wouldn't they want to know their sustainability scores and standings?
In terms of sustainability, cities are the places where the most focused action is taking place. From the development of renewable energy and other clean technologies for buildings and vehicles, cities are taking the lead. America's cities are incubators of innovation taking steps to address everything from global climate change down to highly localized food systems. Many cities now have new departments of the environment or sustainability to pilot and track these developments: Milwaukee, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. are joining other cities with more established programs such as New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Portland.
So while progress is everywhere, things are really just getting started. Cities in the United States lag far behind places like Copenhagen, Denmark, where 36 percent of people ride bikes to get to work. Compare that to Portland, OR, which takes top honors for major U.S. cities with 2.8 percent that ride to work.
Reykjavik, Iceland is adding hydrogen fuel cell buses and other hydrogen vehicles to its 70 percent supply of geothermal heating and electric power. Lausanne, Switzerland (which sent Eliane Rey from its city council to our 2005 US City study award ceremonies last year), produces about 40 percent of the city's energy with renewables, mostly solar. The best U.S. city for renewable energy supply, Oakland, is at 17 percent in that category. Go to almost any Latin American city's major bus stations and you will also experience a farmers market featuring locally grown produce. Boutique and expensive? These markets prove it doesn't have to be, and you don't need a car to shop there either.
You get the idea. So should U.S. cities look to these cities to help devise their own future? Yes, but many in the U.S. see such examples as impractical for being too exotic, or part of different cultures and forms of government. US cities, on the other hand, are constantly looking to one another because of their similar struggles: they are dealing with funding cuts and environmental regulations from the same federal government, high imported energy costs, similar economic development and education issues.
At every level, cities are a great model for experimentation. In order to test new approaches, they can innovate everything from zoning to public transit availability, even a school district food policy. You find out pretty quickly in a city what works and what doesn't because it's right in your face.
The best thing about the sustainable cities trend is that it focuses directly on improving the lives of people that live in cities. In the end it's all about making things better for people, their environment and their local economy with these actions.
I grew up in Chicago and have lived in San Francisco and near Denver. My family ties go back in some of the nation's great cities: Baltimore, St. Paul, Kansas City, Los Angeles. Some of my favorite places in the world are cities: New York City, New Orleans, Vancouver, Mexico City, Dublin, Istanbul, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Rome, Barcelona, Marrakech. Mostly I like walkable cities, or to ride trains, trams, boats, ferries and bikes to experience their richness of culture, architecture, food and economic diversity.
Somewhere over the last 10 years I began to connect my love of cities and my passion for sustainability. They used to be separate categories; one inhabiting a visceral, day-to-day existence, the other a professional world of theory, policy and projects. Now they have melded into one.
As SustainLane releases its US City Sustainability Rankings on Thursday, I hope to hear what you think. Since we did the first study in 2005, we have taken many people's suggestions and baked them into this year's rankings.
Come in person, either to our downtown San Francisco office, or as we travel to present on the rankings throughout the nation over the next few months. See events calendar in the right hand column of my blog.