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Sustainable Cities

sffromspace.jpgSustainlane'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.

Responses are predictable. Places near the top (e.g., Chicago, Oakland) trumpet their ranking, while places near the bottom of the list (e.g., Fort Worth , Columbus) complain.

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:

What now?


This is a cool list, but I sent an e-mail to feedback at sustainlane pointing out that if Las Vegas is number 27, I'm the Lindbergh baby. Living here, I can tell you that it's perhaps the least sustainable city I've ever encountered in America, and maybe on the planet.

I wrote an installment of my Las Vegas CityLife column about it; you can read it at http://www.zenarchery.com/2006/04/25/welcome-to-the-end-03-30-06/ if you're interested.

Vegas is, I think, a model for how not to be sustainable.

Yeah, I found that pretty odd, too.

Thanks for your thoughtful and totally on-target response.

Yes, it was odd that LV came in at #27. But that's what the data and information we collected indicated. I think the takeaway is that the cities in the bottom half of the list, which all rank in the lower fifties out of 100, would fail were this a test.

Even Portland with a mid-80s mark doesn't get an "A", though it had the highest score.

But you have to start somewhere, and all the talk of whether a city is "green" or not without any measureable criteria or datapoints became rather meaningless at some point.

And you are absolutely right--this data and ranking is a device for awareness and attention, but hopefully it is also a preleude to serious more analysis, discussions and actions. One major city appointed an environmental coordinator (Houston) after our study last year came out, and another (Los Angeles) I was told implemented three initiatives in order to boost its ranking in a few areas.

As for boosterism, the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, who I saw and spoke with yesterday, would not likely accuse SustainLane of this anytime soon.

The list is kind of odd. On one hand, it's good to recognize US cities for what they have done. On the other, it is somewhat like a list of the most ethical businessmen at Enron.

Take public transportation as an example. Portland has great public transportation... if you happen to live in Fareless Square, or right on Max, or on Powell, Hawthorne, or Division. Similarly, San Francisco does well, if you happen to live near BART, Caltrain, the N Judah, etc.

But compared with Europe or Japan, the public transportation options in either metropolitan area are cute at best. The large residential sprawl of US cities, not to mention the suburbs, are in general grossly underserved by public transportation.

I'm of the opinion that a decent public transportation infrastructure is where sustainability *starts*. Without it, it is very difficult to achieve real sustainability.

As you mention, the real question about this list is what to do about it.
The public transportation arena in the US is deperately in need of new thinking and better strategies. Contemporary models really need revisiting. As an example, compare and contrast the strategies of Caltrain and BART for dealing with ridership issues. The low ridership on the BART airport extension caused them to do the common sense thing money-wise, and limit weekday non-commute trains and reduce service to lower costs. As a result, the peninsula BART stations are severely underused, and are all but empty during the day. Caltrain, on the other hand, took a chance and decided to try expanding service and adding trains when ridership fell, with great short and long term results.


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