On the Bubble and A Little Bit Off

Tonight Al Gore could win an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth.” Later this year he could also win the Nobel Prize for Peace. And if he lost 50 pounds and jumped into the 2008 presidential race, he could win that, too. Ever since he published “Earth in The Balance,” his 1992 best-seller, Gore’s two issues have been global climate change and himself.

The first, global climate change, is drawing the nation inexorably to logical choices about energy, metropolitan development patterns, population, conservation, and transportation. The catch phrase here is doing much more with much less. 

The second, Gore himself, is the problem of already having much more and working really hard to do less. It’s like dragging the best trumpet player in the marching band out to perform the Star Spangled Banner. Reluctance doesn’t begin to describe Al Gore’s nearly 20-year romance with true greatness. He abandoned almost any mention of the environment in 2000. Bush’s pledge to abide by the Kyoto Protocols, which he abandoned immediately upon crossing the White House threshold, attracted more attention. al-gore.jpg

Nevertheless here Gore is again ready to take a bow for superb leadership, while the rest of us who’ve been frustrated and inspired wonder what he intends to do with his favorite issue and global prominence. The momentum to change the rules of the development game, and to frame it around battling global climate change, is so intense that even George Bush stepped out on on the White House lawn for a moment last week to tout electric cars, a kind of presidential Punxsutawney Phil moment, to see if he could cast any shadow of influence over the issue. The president looks smaller these days, more pinched and stressed and embarrassed, almost like Michael Dukakis looked in 1988 when he put on that military helmet and rode in the tank.

No so Al Gore, who commands every stage he strides across. No one knows more about global climate change than he does, and no one inspires more confidence on the issue. A few weeks ago Gore was the guest of honor in New York at the World Resources Institute’s 25th anniversary celebration, helped raise $2 million, and showed yet again the star power that green issues have attained. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the environment gained such stature and invited this much attention in economic, cultural, and political circles.

The question is whether Gore will complete the mission. As those of us who make the case and organize to shape new ideas know, it still takes government to draw the players and capital together to make big public interest ideas a reality. The federal government has the capacity to act. Its record on the environment is superb. What the United States has done to clear the air, scrub the waters, protect endangered species, encourage research and new findings, ensure natural areas, and all the while grow the economy, has few equals in the annals of public interest policy making. 

As Gore noted in 1992, and again over the last few years, the earth is in the balance. Will he take command of the Oval Office and really do something about it?   

Green Cities


 The American Prospect, one of the important forums of progressive thought, published a special section last month on “Emerald Cities.” 

“The environmental movement and the movement for a new urbanism come together in a quest for cities that are both affordable and sustainable,” write the editors. “With more sensible land use and transportation strategies, and better use of scarce subsidy dollars, America could provide more livable cities with lower energy costs, as well as cities that are not just for the urban gentry. The federal government is not leading in this area, but state and local government and private foundations and businesses are.”

The point that none of the pieces makes strong enough is that the cities achieving the American Mode Shift also are the most prosperous. That’s true here in Michigan, where Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids are changing the rules of the development game and also are leaders in business development in a state anchored by the old tires and obsolete hierarchy of its auto industry. 

Ann Arbor established a green belt. Traverse City killed a needless beltway and bridge and replaced it with a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project. Grand Rapids leveraged $2 billion in private and public funding to rebuild its downtown and use its water and sewer lines to lasso development at the edge.

It’s even more true in the metropolitan regions in other states that are pursuing new green strategies, and installing the civic equipment — trains, rapid buses, sidewalks, parks, safe neighborhoods, greenways, energy efficient buildings –that residents need to thrive and survive in this century.

Portland, Oregon halted a $1 billion freeway in the early 1990s and replaced it with two light rail lines and a downtown streetcar (see pix) that prompted $2 billion in housing and retail development. The city supports a multi-million dollar sustainable investment fund for green business start-ups and projects.

Seattle is weighing whether to tear down a shoreline freeway even as it prepares for new downtown businesses and 60,000 more jobs without expanding the number of parking spaces, which take up valuable room.

Denver is building a 172-mile regional rapid transit system financed in large part by the decision residents in seven counties made to increase their sales tax. When it’s finished it will be the largest rapid transit system in the West, and its transit stop and stations will serve as the new nodes of the metropolitan region’s business and housing development.

Salt Lake City reduced emissions of global warming gases by 36,000 tons annually, built a rapid transit that will grow substantially in the next decade, required public buildings and any publicly financed buildings to achieve the highest standards of energy efficiency and environmental design, and attracted thousands of new homes and residents. The city’s population has reached 182,000 and is closing in on the peak of 189,000 achieved in 1960. Salt Lake City and its suburbs, by the way, also registered an unemployment rate last month of less than 3 percent.   

Chicago’s green development strategy is based on improving parks, planting trees, conserving the Lake Michigan shoreline, and making public and private buildings more energy efficient. The city’s population is growing and thousands of new homes are under construction.  

You can read more on March 7 in a special Green Business section published by the New York Times and on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Web site.

Catching Up On Media


It took me a long time, too long in fact, to get a grip on this blog thing. Time constraints. Fear of not being able to commit. Uncertainty about audience. Distrust of the forum.

Like, dude, what was I waiting for? Turns out this is the deal for writers. More to the point, it’s the deal for any public interest minded soul intent on making a difference, wherever they are. Reason. The Internet is a global information and dissemination banquet, and like hungry guests at a Long Island bar mitvah, Web site visitors want to be first in line for the best stuff. The trick is to provide the digital delicacies that awake the uninformed, provoke the knowledgeable, and keep everybody coming back for more.

So far, the response has been earnest enough to make writing here every day a priority. But I also want to help you gain just a little taste of why I’m so enthused. Look at the range of interests and expertise already available in the Internet space, and being explored most successfully by new adapters, most of them born after 1975. Here is a collection of upcoming Internet media gatherings and conferences. Click on a couple of the conference links and you’ll see how rich and stoked this sector is, and it’s just going to get hotter. Never before have creative people, political people, public interest organizations, writers, creeps and heroes and cranks had access to a mass audience, literally with a click. 

You have the creative folk figuring out how to turn the currency of fame gained on the Internet into real money. Here’s Justin Kownacki’s “Something to be Desired,” an online sitcom that he’s busy marketing to the world. The acting’s a little rough and the scripts aren’t yet Steven Spielberg quality, but you get the point.

Now there’s nothing stopping smart and dedicated journalist types of the old school from adopting the tools of the new school. It’s like transforming an old Carnegie Library into a modern temple of information, like the Salt Lake City Library (see pix). One thing we old school reporters know how to do is structure and frame non-fiction story telling. So we gather some bright younger folk around and collaborate. It’s happening at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Julie Hay has turned out a couple of nice pieces with Sound Slides of late. Doug Rose, our incomparable Web coordinator, is becoming a technical producer, and is preparing to post video interviews that we produced at the Seeds of Prosperity conference earlier this month. We have plans for a regular online TV interview and news show, regular videos, motion graphics, and interactive multi-media. The tools are available. The narrative of how communities are changing the rules of the development game to respond to the new signals of this century is compelling. The audience is clearly eager. 

It’s easy to grasp how telling stories in video, audio, sound slides, motion graphics, interactive multi-media, and social media expands the audience and interest in any idea. So that’s why the Institute is so intent on moving as quickly as it can to gain new expertise. Very few public interest organizations on any side of the political spectrum are as expert in the new media as they are in understanding coalition building or lobbying to extend their influence. Those that can skillfully apply the new media will have enormous space to make their case. 

Organizing Principles

Seven years ago New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, which explored the mix of episodic and serendipitous stages that turn a good idea into a cultural event. Gladwell’s book is as useful for explaining the genetics of a modern sensation as Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave was in the 1980s for understanding the economic and cultural consequences of rapid change.

Both books are essential reading for grasping how global climate change has so recently and quickly evolved into one of the most significant economic and social organizing principles of our time. You might find that an odd statement since it’s been almost 20 years since NASA scientist James Hansen’s famous Congressional testimony in which he linked the fires then burning in Yellowstone National Park and the drought gripping the Great Plains to global climate changes wrought by man. I’d just returned from a trip to Montana and Idaho to cover the drought when my New York Times colleague, Philip Shabecoff, returned from the Hill and excitedly told several of us in the Washington Bureau about Hansen’s testimony. Phil, one of the fine environmental reporters of the 20th century, was certain that Hansen’s convincing testimony opened a new era of scientific and environmental research that would have consequences for every person on earth.

He was right about that. It just took 19 years for the idea to gain social currency. It gradually became clear that we were responsible for the ever more severe meteorological events of our time — a great Midwest flood in 1992, severe Florida hurricanes, the drowning of New Orleans, enduring drought on the Colorado Plateau. The tipping point, plainly, came last year with Al Gore’s courageous film, An Inconvenient Truth , that provided viewers with an engrossing narrative that joined a tale of personal discovery with a harrowing environmental journey of ruin that no longer can be denied. Gore is said to be a top candidate for the Nobel Prize. And if he chooses to run for president, he’d immediately be the front-runner and barring a meltdown of some sort, would win.  

Now that global climate change has elevated to common knowledge and popular concern, it’s just astonishing how communities are responding.  Several cities, among them Portland and Salt Lake City, are clear leaders. Portland built a fabulous light rail rapid transit system that is now attracting development around its transit stations (see pix).todportland.jpg

Since 1999, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat, has managed much of his administration around the goal of reducing global climate change gases. The city was among the first to require muncipal buildings to be constructed to LEED standards. Miles of light rail line have been constructed in and around Salt Lake City, and much more is coming. Anderson directed that every city-owned light be changed to energy-sipping bulbs, saving $33,000 a year. In all, the Anderson administration reduced the level of global climate change emissions by 36,000 tons a year, a pinch of pollution in the global context, but enough to make Salt Lake City operate more cleanly and efficiently. While pollution decreased, the city’s population has grown, reaching 182,000 and nearing the 189,000 peak in 1960.

Anderson also was one of the nine original signers of the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits those nine cities and 393 others that have signed on to reduce their global climate emssions. Traverse City, the center of our northern Michigan metropolitan region, just signed the agreement too. Every declared Democratic candidate for president in 2008, and Republican John McCain have embraced early campaign platforms linking energy security and global climate change. Governors, whether they are Democratic of Republican, are focusing ideas on energy and the environment through the global climate change frame. The two are likely to be serious issues in 2008, along with the war. All three, of course, are connected and the discussion could break through the usual campaign blather we’ve been subjected to for over a decade. 

The last point is that responding to global climate change involves the very same steps that communities already are taking to reduce congestion, conserve farmland, protect natural resources, lower municipal costs and taxes, and make their places better. The Mode Shift we are seeing all over the country is prompted by the need to  be much more efficient in how resources, land, energy, and money are used. It means applying technology — whether it’s energy efficient building designs and practices, or new modes of transportation and community development patterns — in ways that limit pollution. And those are the very same ideas we’ve been talking about since I was in the eighth grade and dragging tires out of the Bronx River on the first Earth Day in 1970. The new market signals of the 21st century are higher energy prices, higher land costs, record population growth, intense global competition, speeding technological advances, and a menacing environmental breakdown. It takes awhile. But, fortunately, we’re showing we ain’t stupid.

Why Details Matter

“The stuff that matters, especially when it comes to the environment, is not the big flashy stuff,” explained Keith Bartholomew, a lawyer who teaches planning at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It’s the small actions. Environmental damage is an accumulation of 1,000 cuts. So repairing it means applying 1,000 Band-Aids. Each one is important. It’s the many small Band-Aids that matter. Real relevance is the cumulative effect.”

I interviewed Keith last week for an article on how metropolitan regions have become the new incubators of effective environmental policy and programs. We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years, ever since he accepted our invitation to come to northwest Michigan to help the tiny, two-year-old Michigan Land Use Institute think through a particularly troublesome problem. The Grand Traverse County Road Commission, the business community, and several townships were desperate to build a new highway and bridge across the Boardman River south of Traverse City. We were convinced that was a terrible idea. The road and bridge was a waste of money, would make traffic worse, encourage more sprawl, and wreck a spectacular river valley so wild bald eagles nested there.keith-bartholomew.jpg

Keith knew a couple of things that made sense. As a young lawyer at 1000 Friends of Oregon in Portland, the granddaddy of non-profit American land policy organizations, Keith developed the legal and advocacy strategy that killed a $1 billion freeway proposed for Portland’s west side. In doing so, Keith helped to open a political, cultural, and economic space large enough for Portland to consider alternatives, including the regional light rail system that eventually was built. His story is an exceptional example of how clear thinking and a lot of moxie can produce a truly great outcome. Portland’s reputation as one of the outstanding cities in America has a lot to do with how its regional rapid transit system encourages more energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive, neighborhood enhancing patterns of development.

The lesson we learned from Keith in 1997 was simple. In order to beat the Boardman bridge we needed to develop a credible alternative. A decade later, the bridge is dead and the alternative is gradually taking shape in the form of a $1.36 million regional land use and transportation project paid for with federal funds. Keith hadn’t heard the whole story so I spent a few minutes relating all that’s gone on in my home region since his visit, which occurred during an October 1997 week so warm and sunny that we convinced Keith to join us for a quick and chilly dip in Crystal Lake here in Benzie County. Now Keith can claim two places in America where his good ideas made things better.    

Keith isn’t as involved in municipal affairs in Salt Lake City as he was in Portland, though he recently joined the governing board of the Utah Transit Authority, the agency that is building the second largest regional rapid transit system in the West. By the time it’s completed in 2015, Salt Lake City and its suburbs will add 24 miles to the 19 miles of light rail line that are already operating, and roughly 100 miles of commuter rail. Only Denver, which is building a 172-mile system, will have more. And just as in Portland, the economy supported by the UTA trains is booming.

Keith is 46 now, the married father of a handsome young boy, and a scholar in law and planning anxious to prove himself worthy of achieving a tenured faculty position. He’s tall, slim, funny, and still loves trains. “In order to create a quality place it has to have iconic features that attract people,” he told me. “It’s hard to beat a train. Trains promote centrality, vitality, and sustainability. That’s what they represent. They make cities work better. If they’re built in the right place trains will do what they’re good at — providing efficient access to localized geography.”