6 inexpensive things cities can do to become more sustainable
Comprehensive plans are great, but small, low-budget changes can make a big difference, too.
This article originally appreared on Ensia.
Bold environmental goals are becoming a hallmark of city governance. Across the U.S., cities are unveiling clean energy plans, climate targets, sustainability road maps and other aspirational programs to guide themselves into a more environmentally friendly future. Making these kinds of plans, it seems, is relatively easy. Paying to achieve the goals they set, especially in resource-strapped communities, can be a major challenge, though.
But environmental goals don’t have to be expensive moon shots. Rather, there are many small steps cities can take to reduce their environmental impacts. Some can even help out a city’s bottom line. “There’s a lot of things that directly pay off,” says Cooper Martin, director of sustainability and solutions at the National League of Cities.
Some efforts may take time and others might require up-front investments. But there are programs and policies cities can implement today that can have a positive environmental impact without breaking the budget. Below are a few.
“Let’s say you’re a city, you’ve done business as usual for the last 30 years, you’re just getting started. The easiest thing for you to do is to look at your own municipally owned buildings and find ways to retrofit them,” Martin says.
Replacing windows, lighting, or heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can result in significant and long-term savings in energy and resource costs. So can insulating or even renovating entire buildings. A building energy efficiency program launched in 2012 in Chicago had retrofitted 75 buildings by 2018, saving an estimated 70,000 metric tons (77,000 tons) of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
“We know that the money saved over the life cycle of that building is going to be dramatic,” Martin says. And the savings start immediately, with the next month’s utility bill.
The next step is to reinvest those savings into sustainability projects that don’t pay back as quickly. “You can create a revolving fund for things like water infrastructure or transportation enhancements,” Martin says.
A slower pay off, but one that comes at just the cost of drafting a new policy, is to change city zoning codes.
“In the U.S., most cities finance themselves based on property taxes. They need that value. And rezoning to allow for more density, to allow for different kinds of mixed-use development that uses infrastructure more efficiently is really important,” says Martin.
Higher density development uses fewer resources, Martin says, and pulling in more property tax revenue creates new opportunities for cities. “You can use that revenue for all kinds of things to improve the local economy or to reinvest into sustainability,” he says.
From London to Stuttgart to Portland, cities around the world are implementing speed limits for health, safety and environmental reasons. Simply lowering speed limits by just a few miles per hour can result in significant emissions reductions.
A study of reduced limits in London found that polluting nitrogen dioxide and disease-causing PM10 emissions were about 8 percent lower, and carbon dioxide emissions were about 1 percent lower, for small cars traveling 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) than for those driving 30 miles per hour (48 kilometers per hour).
Lowered speed limits also boost public safety, particularly for pedestrians. Even slight increases in speed can greatly increase the likelihood of death in pedestrians, according to researchers at the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. They found that a person is 66 percent more likely to be killed if struck by a car driving 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour than one driving 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour.
Environmentally Friendly Purchasing
Local governments are also consumers, and the day-to-day tasks of running a city require supplies and services. Purchasing policies can be written to ensure city purchasing is less harmful for the environment. For example, the city of Boulder, Colorado, has an Environmental Purchasing Policy that guides the city’s procurement towards environmentally friendly products, even requiring certain items like stationery and toilet paper to be made of recycled material.
Though on a larger scale, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts found that its Environmentally Preferable Products Procurement Policy saved more than US$18 million in fiscal year 2017 and more than US$12 million in fiscal year 2018. “Organizations are already having a huge impact through purchasing. If they can leverage that influence to support other goals of the government or organization, that’s a win-win,” says Sarah O’Brien, acting CEO of the Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council.
Saving money and reducing environmental impact can be as simple as eliminating unnecessary printing. Across a city hall, there are plenty of instances where printing a document can be avoided. Single-use meeting agendas can be digitally projected, and many city documents and reports can be posted on websites.
More aggressive moves like going fully paper-free can cut costs of paper, printers, toner and the electricity used to run printers and copiers. A report from the Institute for Local Government found that the paperless policy enacted by the city of Rancho Cucamonga, California, saved an estimated US$11,000 annually. Even small savings like these can add up over time.
Sometimes reducing environmental impacts is the responsibility of the entire community. In addition to the simple strategies listed above, cities should face the fact that reducing environmental impacts will cost money, says Jeff Hughes, director of the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“A lot of the environmental services are essential services,” he says. “They’re hard to pay for, but at the end of the day people find a way to pay for water and wastewater treatment.” So they should be able to pay for services that benefit the environment, too, Hughes says.
In recent years, Hughes has noticed more cities setting up dedicated environmental fees or service charges to pay for these essential services with environmental dividends. The city of Raleigh, North Carolina, for example, charges a stormwater utility fee to homeowners based on the amount of impervious surface on their property — a fee that accounts for the cost of processing stormwater that flows off the site and into the sewer system.
Each city is unique, and the right mix of low-cost environmentally friendly practices will be unique, too. No matter the city, payoffs abound for those that take time to look for — and implement — practices that benefit residents and the environment, too.