Sustainability hearts cities

As I look ahead to joining VERGE at Greenbuild in San Francisco November 12-13, and begin to get my head around a brief One Great Idea presentation patterned on the ways my colleagues and I believe cities are vital to the future of sustainability, I have something to admit: Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies. Ever. And its 1982-era vision of Los Angeles 2019 — a dark, rainy, violent, morally rudderless, cultural mash-up — is not well-suited to imagining and nurturing the sustainable city of the future that I truly think possible.

But maybe that’s the challenge we all face. We know a sustainable economy will demand enormous personal and institutional change, perhaps especially related to how and what we consume, but knowing that and shifting the very structures and institutions that shape our world are two different things. We have to overcome the inertia.

If we look carefully, we find cities revealing early glimpses of how they might evolve to be sustainable. If we can understand today’s tentative, experimental steps, we might determine how we can support further transformation, speeding change in leading metropolises and encouraging replication elsewhere. Blade Runner be damned — let’s do this!


In March 2012, at VERGE DC, we launched Citystates in partnership with GreenBiz. And I should mention before going further that all credit for the thinking in Citystates goes to my colleagues Mohammed Al-Shawaf and Chris Guenther, the report’s authors, who also helped with this post.

Citystates posits that in addition to being “where we build our most ambitious and symbolic structures, where we come together to share experiences and exchange capital, goods and ideas, and where we go in search of a better life,” cities are “ground zero for the collision of the economic, environmental and social imperatives that define sustainability.” The paper then exploits its name in order to define and explore the different zeitgeist of various cities on the sustainability edge: Connected, Decisive, Adaptive, Collaborative/Competitive, Visceral, Personal and Experimental. Each of these “states” has strengths to lend to sustainability’s advancement. For example, the relative speed and autonomy of mayors and their administrations, and their direct connection to citizens’ everyday lives, define the Decisive City, which sees metro areas prototype, evolve and implement sustainability solutions faster (and with less interference) than regional and national governments.

In addition to identifying and plumbing the seven states listed above, Citystates claims: “Sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability,” and that “business should view cities as a crucial frame through which to understand and pursue sustainability.”

Next page: A cooler Chicago?