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Five Lessons from The Atlantic’s Green Intelligence Forum on Sustainable Cities

Last week The Atlantic hosted its 4th annual Green Intelligence Forum on sustainable cities, assembling a rich buffet of experts and moderators. The Forum made clear the complexity of the sustainable cities movement but also its necessity, what with millions migrating to urban areas amid scarcer resources. Demand is soaring on many fronts for safe, healthy, livable places, and smarter urbanization is looking less like a trend than an inevitability. Five things I took away from the conversations:

1. Disparate Facts Tell One Story

  • The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) moved 2,400 workers out of their headquarters building and later moved 4,500 back into same space;
  • In Oklahoma City, 40,000 people lost 950,000 pounds in a city-wide effort;
  • If all smokers in America quit, there would be less poisonous benzene in the air than all the benzene emitted by tailpipes.

Human habits, behaviors and choices – when thoughtfully aligned - can have cascading effects and contribute to more livable and efficient cities. GSA Administrator Martha Johnson made the point that they are not sardine-canning, but instead recognizing how people function. Once they found that fewer than 50% of their desks were being used each day, GSA decided to optimize usage of their office space. Now it’s more efficient with space-sharing: less footage per person, reduced costs and time for commuting, and hopefully, heightened productivity. Oklahoma City Mayor Mike Cornet was not just urging his citizens to lose weight but making the larger point that their city design should offer more opportunities for walking. His goal is not just health, but is also aimed at reductions in air pollution, congestion, and closer clustering of businesses. And Dr. Cheryl Healton’s point about the positive personal benefits of smoking cessation can also add up to broader public health benefits in reducing air pollution.

2. Suburban Submergence?

Another fact: of 102 U.S. cities pursuing new long-term development plans, 99 moved to create more densely populated city areas. The age of non-dense suburbia may be passing, with demand for more efficient mobility as the main driver for people opting out of a life of lawns and leaf-blowers. The housing market implosion was not an accident but rather one waiting to happen. One speaker referred to it as the “collapse of the fringe” – simply stated, that the suburban model does not work anymore. People are tired of being isolated, far from work and services, sitting in traffic while burning ever-more expensive fuel. Richard Florida does not believe that a housing “recovery” is underway, but instead a complete “re-set” that will include an evaporation of suburbs and an increasing emphasis on what people prefer – walkable urban places with amenities and services.

3. Equity, Anyone?

Another persistent theme was equity. Are we building sustainable cities to cater to the economically well-off and NIMBYs or will a new generation of urban places actually manage to lift well-being for all its citizens? There were few good answers. A presentation by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group showed a sustainable city project underway in Stockholm. While commendable, it was also dismaying – can a model in a centuries-old, stable city of 2 million people really be applicable to a Lagos, a Sao Paolo or a Chongqing, with surging populations and locked-in physical systems?

4. Perisistent Barriers

Several chronic themes always seem to course through conversations as complex and large-scale as the future of cities. How can decision-makers strike the balance between top-down government policy and bottom-up, market-driven innovation? The market-as-king proponents and the government-has-all-the-answers prophets seem to be getting it at last – that there are real attributes in each. For example, how will the long-awaited Smart Grid emerge? Most look to smart policy with equal doses of entrepreneurial vigor.

Another barrier was voiced by McKie Campbell, a Republican Senate committee staff director. He made an open appeal to the audience to this question: when should a government subsidy end and the market takes over? When does value of subsidy end and undue dependence begin? It’s a good question and I hope he eventually gets his answer.

5. Will Seoul Reveal its Soul?

This was a favorite moment – when Jason Milton of Gallup described their effort to get at the soul of the city. I thought only Edward Hopper or George Bellows had managed to capture something this elusive, but Gallup is actually measuring the “emotional capital” of cities. Begun in the EU, Gallup is now conducting studies in US cities, with questions ranging from the beauty of a city to elements like noise, safety and its attractiveness to young people. They poll 1000 people a day and have a sample of over 1 million to date. There may be a day someone tells me they moved to Washington for its soul.

Finally, the words “environment” and “sustainability” often conjure up images of rainforests, oceans and critters of every variety. Biodiversity is of course essential to Earth's survival. But human behavior and choices will steer us to an environmentally sustainable planet, and more than half of us now live- and increasingly cluster - in cities.

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