Boston, Philadelphia, LA on smart cities pitfalls to avoid

Boston, Philadelphia, LA on smart cities pitfalls to avoid

Philadelphia sustainability
Philadelphia, like other cities, has recruited businesses to help implement its sustainability plan, which it calls Greenworks Philadelphia.

No city can meet its sustainability goals without support from the private sector. Businesses create the lion's share of emissions in any given city — while also supplying the bulk of city tax revenues — making their participation crucial for any municipal action plan to be effective. 

That was the consensus among sustainability officers from three major cities who spoke during this week's GreenBiz Group webcast Sustaining America’s Cities: The Role Businesses Can Play.

In cities everywhere, one chronic obstacle is a myopic sense of “short-termism,” noted Clinton Moloney, managing director of sustainable business solutions for webcast sponsor PwC, during the event. With changing city administrations, every few years, progress on environmental plans can grind to a halt or even reverse course.

Beyond that, cities often are left with business tenants that are consistently problematic for environmental justice issues.

“A lot of exposures to toxic chemicals are actually happening indoors,” at places such as nail salons and dry cleaners, where workers may not receive adequate protection, said Brian Swett, Boston's former chief of environment, energy and open space. The city is trying to remediate through a green business certification program in partnership with the Boston Health Commission.

Next, however, comes the challenge of achieving scale with impactful solutions — an especially pronounced issue in smaller cities with more restricted funding.

“Make the match between priorities and resources,” advised Philadephia's Director of Sustainability Katherine Gajewski. “Set yourself up for success.”

To get a sense of how these dynamics play out day to day, take three case studies on sustainability from some of the biggest cities in the U.S.:

Banking on emissions cuts in Boston

When Boston first started setting greenhouse gas reduction goals eight years ago, analysis revealed that only 2.5 percent of the city's total carbon emissions came from municipal sources. That taught officials a lesson, Swett said.

“We realized very quickly that our businesses needed to be engaged in this process,” he explained.

With companies and large institutions such as universities and hospitals producing 40 pecent of Boston's emissions, city officials soon realized that those same organizations — along with local companies — are the ones that could make a difference.

So, in 2010, Boston convened a panel of chief executives from sectors including real estate, health care and education to form a Green Ribbon Commission. Joining were movers and shakers such as Bank of America, McKinsey & Co., the Barr Foundation and the city's many universities, who collectively “help advise, engage and highlight the Climate Action Plan,” Swett said. 

Perhaps more to the point: cities also need outside groups to invest in climate action plans if those plans have any hope of being implemented.

Swett said the annual budget for the Green Ribbon Commission of $300,000 to $400,000 funds six working groups that produce several white papers each year. The Barr Foundation provided initial funding, and six other foundations joined them.

“It has been very easy to raise money after showing the value of this,” he said. “In terms of funding the planning and the study of the opportunities and the best approaches, the GRC has really been great at bringing together university resources, private sector business resources and philanthropic resources.”

In an effort to bridge the gap between political administrations — both the Massachusetts governor and Boston’s mayor have changed since Boston’s climate action plan first was announced — the city's climate body has stepped in to literally write out where the last group left off.

"In both of those transitions, [the Green Ribbon Commission] pulled together very detailed white papers about climate action within their sectors,” Swett said. “The business community was on the record about how important climate action was to Boston and the region.”

Greening infrastructure in Philly

In Philadelphia, businesses and city officials created a Greenworks Philadelphia back in 2009. 

Gajewski emphasized the importance of fast-moving actions to “hit the ground running, get people energized … and build up momentum around our plan.”

The plan also had a tight timeline from idea to implemenation. To ensure that programs would roll out quickly, the city had to experiment on the fly with how to engage businesses.

“In Philadelphia, we didn’t have a ready-made way to engage with business,” she said. So the city has been working on different ways to create partnerships.

Gajewski said one thing the city realized is the importance of stakeholders' seeing the results of their investments.

As Philadephia struggles to confront the effects of extreme weather on aging infrastructure, the city will funnel $2 billion over the next 20-25 years into Green City Clean Waters — an approach to urban storm water management that aims to green one-third of the city’s land mass.

“In these conversations about green storm water infrastructure, we’ve been able to bring together partners from across the water industry” to align government regulations, environmental outcomes and service delivery to meet high-level goals.

The infrastructure improvements are largely ratepayer-funded, which affected the design of the system.

“If we’re going to be requiring ratepayers to pay more to support this work, we want to show as much value to them as we can,” she said. “Bringing that investment above ground was a better way to do that than putting a bunch of concrete pipes underground.”

Philadelphia has made equity a key principal in building a sustainable city. It used New York as its model, Gajewski said, citing New York City's PlaNYC as the blueprint that her city followed.

“It brought in all these quality of life and city livability issues that helped to connect sustainability to people in every nook and cranny of the city,” she said. “There was a little bit of something for everyone.”

Laying out a plan in Los Angeles

The first sustainability agenda for the second largest U.S. city, pLAn Los Angeles , officially rolled out less than two weeks ago.

“The corporate community really came together to help us make this plan possible,” said Matt Petersen, chief sustainability office for the City of Los Angeles.

He said businesses were instrumental in developing the plan. As the city worked to bridge a deep budget deficit, business partners such as ChiatDay and PwC, as well as University of California at Los Angeles and other local partners, provided essential resources.

“One of the challenges with Los Angeles is both the complexity of the landscape and the complexity of the city itself,” noted Moloney of PwC.

Still, because Los Angeles owns its own municipal power utility, the city has been able to invest in solar power, which Petersen said he expects will improve the resiliency of the grid while creating good, local jobs.

“One of our metrics in the long term is reducing greenhouse gas emissions while improving our economy and growing our economy,” he said. “We’re actively working with organizations and companies to create those kinds of … partnerships that we need to have to get success.”

The city has 55,000 employees and more than 35 departments. Mayor Eric Garcetti has designated department-level CSO positions to help departments collaborate on environmental projects.

Petersen noted that the commercial real estate sector “has really stepped up in partnering with us to drive towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy efficiency in our commercial building stock.”

In pLAn Los Angeles, the work is built around three "Es," environment, economy and equity; the plan includes not only goals for climate action, but also an increased minimum wage and job development.

The CleanUpGreenUp project targets local small businesses and helps them reduce their impact on their neighborhoods and the environment. The city is able to leverage revenue from California’s cap and trade program, through a program that targets the most disadvantaged and polluted neighborhoods first.

“To move and improve our scores in those disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Petersen said, “we’re going to have to make sure those investments really move the needle — that they don’t just provide a good story for someone to tell.”