Sustainlane's Warren Karlenzig is now blogging for the organization, and the opening of his site coincides with the release of Sustainlane's 2006 US Cities Ranking. The top cities include Portland (#1, up from #2 last year), San Francisco (#2, down from #1), Seattle (#3), Philadelphia (#4) and Chicago (#5); New York hits #7, Austin #14, and #50 is Columbus, Ohio.
Although the exact rankings vary from the 2005 list, the overall thrust is pretty similar: big coastal/blue state cities generally do well, middling size/red state cities generally do poorly. The relative proportion of density, politics and history as underlying dynamics undoubtedly varies from city to city.
This list is related to but the same as the ranking that Sustainlane released a few months ago, the top ten cities best able to withstand an oil crisis. The same cities show up on both lists, albeit in different orders -- the top ten oil crisis cities have nine of the top ten sustainable cities, with New York #1 for oil crisis.
The rationale behind the creation of lists like these is as much boosterism as it is education. While it's certainly important for the residents of a given urban area to know how well their city will do in a changing environment, Sustainlane quite explicitly wants to see cities competing for sustainability ranking in the same way they do with their sports teams. Imagine if the local news had a sustainability/environment segment as long as the sports segment. (The corresponding mental image of fans gathering for pre-sustainable-list-release tailgate parties is muted by the realization that few hybrids actually have tailgates.)
For me, the biggest question arising from a list like this purely practical: what do you do about it?
That may seem like an odd question coming from me; after all, how many dozen articles did I write for WorldChanging talking about how cities can be more sustainable? But speaking in terms of big picture issues and ideas, while extremely useful, can be pretty frustrating for the people employed to turn ideas into action. I've seen this with pretty much every consulting job I've been on: clients excited by the possibilities and frustrated by the implementation.
It's all well and good, for example, to say that cities need strong public transportation systems. But how does a city that has built itself around the hub-and-wheel suburban road network, with streets sized for cars (not buses) and structured for quiet neighborhoods (not mixed use) make that happen? I'm not saying that they can't, only that it's a hard problem, and those of us who believe passionately in the need for greater sustainability and in the importance of urban centers need to recognize the implementation challenge.
In an ideal world, a listing like this one, showing where ranked cities are succeeding and where they're falling short, would have a corresponding document for each city, outlining the concrete steps that could be taken, given the geographic, financial, and/or political conditions unique to the location. This would be an enormous amount of work, and by no means am I criticizing Sustainlane for not doing this, too. But at the end of the day, while civic leaders may be thrilled or annoyed by where their cities have fallen on the list, these emotions are not enough. They need to have an answer to their inevitable, and entirely appropriate, question: