WASHINGTON, D.C. — Only one in six of the 40 largest cities in the U.S. say sustainability is not one of their top five problems, according to a new report from Living Cities, a collaboration of 21 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions. The vast majority of city leaders have focused attention and effort on improving the environmental performance of their towns.
In addition to the 80 percent of cities that have listed sustainability as one of their top-five priorities, more than 75 percent of the cities studied say they've either already put detailed sustainability plans in place or are in the midst of developing methods for reducing overall greenhouse gases. These targets usually set a goal of reducing total emissions by 10 to 20 percent in the next five to 10 years.
The report, "Green Cities: How Urban Sustainability Efforts Can and Must Drive America's Climate Change Policies," evaluates how well cities across the country are working on reducing urban emissions, and lays out the three key areas that will make the most impact in the least amount of time.
"[T]he emerging green economy provides us with unprecedented opportunities -- from lowering energy and transportation costs to creating jobs with meaningful career ladders," Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht writes in the introduction to the report. "In order for this to happen, however, we must intentionally build a 'gateway' that connects people and places to these opportunities."
There are three key planks to a successful green cities strategy that will create jobs, stimulate business growth, and make cities more livable and desirable: building retrofits, green jobs (in large part enacting those retrofits), and public transit enhancements.
In many ways, building retrofits are the linchpin to an overall green strategy: "The true holy grail for cities seeking to make a serious dent in building-related emissions is mass retrofits: a systematic effort to upgrade current structures," the report's authors write.
Many of the cities surveyed have begun requiring new city construction meet a certain level of green building standards, and some of those cities are also requiring private construction to meet those standards. But, the report says, if cities really want to make an impact, mass retrofits to make existing buildings more energy efficient are the key to making major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
Enabling mass retrofits will both require and create significant demand for green jobs: workers to install renewable energy systems to power buildings, overhaul lighting, heating and cooling, and develop building management systems to control facilities' energy use.
Although some cities have launched green jobs creation programs, the report finds that although the practices may be innovative, they have so far only created a small number of green jobs.
San Francisco's "Go Solar" program, which offers rebates of up to $6,000 for individuals and $10,000 for businesses that install solar systems, is a groundbreaking project, but so far has only resulted in 16 companies hiring employees to install solar facilities.
Living Cities' survey found that about one in three of the cities have started developing training programs in partnership with local collages; just one in six have already put programs in place to give those trainees jobs.
By investing in public transit, cities can cut significantly their emissions from vehicles, which can account for anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of emissions citywide.
"Before, the public viewed mass transit as something poor people take," Karl Pepple, Houston's director of environmental programming, told the report's authors. "Once gas prices [started rising], we had standing room only. That has done wonders for perception."
Woven throughout the Green Cities report is this need to make the green economy accessible to low-income people. Without connecting low-income residents to the mainstream economy of a city, the environmental and economic improvements will never hit full stride, the authors explain.
"This report shows that cities are leaders in using green strategies to advance economic recovery efforts and create better jobs," Don Chen, a program officer at the Ford Foundation, said in a statement. "But it also signals the urgent need for these efforts reach more people -- including low-income and working families -- to build stronger communities for the long term.
The report offers a thematic approach to making these changes happen for each of the three key sections: buildings, jobs and transit. The themes for achieving success are:
• To achieve the energy savings and green job opportunities possible through green buildings, cities must retrofit through systems that can achieve scale.The full report is available for download from GreenBiz.com. To learn more about the initiative, visit LivingCities.org.
• To create green-collar jobs at scale, cities must re-engineer their local economic and workforce development systems.
• To spur more equitable transit-oriented development, cities need to reorient their local real estate markets.