The New Green City

A new American narrative is coming to the fore, and recognizable in the patterns of neighborhood development in Portland, Oregon that puts homes, businesses, and the other stations of American life in considerably closer proximity.

America’s resurgent metropolitan regions

David Goldberg, the communications director of Smart Growth America, agrees that America won’t be able to drill its way out of the energy crisis. “But we can build our way out of it,” he says. Indeed, it already is, and most apparently in the nation’s cities.

It’s seen in the jack hammering downtown construction sites and heard in the steel on steel shriek of light rail and commuter transit lines that are carrying the highest number of riders in half a century. The coffee shops and bars and lofts and shops and entrepreneurial businesses in Dallas and Denver, New York and Boston, and dozens of cities in between are a clamor of America’s bright, young, and ambitious people.

If the half century after World War Two was the great age of the suburb, the first half of the 21st century is unfolding as the era of the great American green city. The economy, politics, and culture certainly reflect that shift. The nation’s survival will depend on it.

Old Market Trends
Here’s why. The spread out civilization that America invented in the 20th century was largely the result of a handful of major market trends — cheap energy, cheap land, rising incomes, formidable government wealth, competitiveness in core industries, and moderate population growth. Our drive through economy, and the culture of convenience and plenty that it fostered, was possible because families could afford the homes and cars, and government built the highways that tied it all together. The big losers were cities, which hemorrhaged jobs, and marooned millions.

That description, though, now applies to hundreds of American suburbs. Those are the places where people and infrastructure are aging, where crime and aberrant behavior, like school shootings and violence among teenage girls is ever present, where housing values have dropped 40 percent of more in the last 18 months, and joblessness is increasing.

Meanwhile, according to a number of recent studies including one in July by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, cities are growing, and housing values are either holding their own or sinking much less precipitously than in suburbs. San Francisco, for example, is the only city in the Bay Area that saw housing prices actually rise – about 1 percent – in the last year.

Cities have become magnets for new jobs. Seattle is expected to grow to 680,000 residents and add 84,000 new jobs by 2022. So many of those jobs are settling downtown that the city has built a light rail line, improved its bus system, changed zoning to attract new housing, is busy figuring out what to do with an old elevated highway along the waterfront, and is developing new programs to convince people not to drive.

These trends are by no means confined to Seattle. Chicago is building more than 10,000 new units of housing within blocks of its $475 million Millennium Park, near the Lake Michigan shoreline, in neighborhoods that were blighted a decade ago. Knoxville is building a land-conserving, energy efficient new neighborhood of home and businesses along the Tennessee River.

New Market Trends
These steps, of course, represent a sane response to the new market trends of the 21st century – high energy prices, high land costs, static family incomes, scarce resources, government deficits, flagging competitiveness, global climate change, and explosive population growth.

Cities, of course, have plenty far to go. More than $200 billion in private and public capital needs to be invested over the next decade to build rapid transit for metropolitan regions, plus regional high-speed rail lines to connect them. Maximizing energy efficiency in community design, and in buildings and homes, is essential to cope with the energy crisis and address global warming. And American cities need new zoning to locate people and businesses and shopping and schools alongside each other, something that’s now actually illegal in many American communities and critical if we’re to promote biking and walking and combat the country’s alarming obesity epidemic.

Still, the resurgence of cities as energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive, and prosperous places to be indicates that the old American Dream – cars, yards, houses, and cul-de-sacs — is obsolete. A new one is coming to the fore, and recognizable in the patterns of neighborhood development that put homes, businesses, and the other stations of American life in considerably closer proximity.

There are two crucial lessons in this new American narrative. The first is for metropolitan regions, like Detroit, that failed to react to the swift current of change. Detroit and its suburbs continue to pursue a highway-only transportation system, and divide themselves by race, income, and political persuasion. The result is a disintegrating metropolitan region unable to compete in a national or global economy.

The second lesson is for states and the federal government. Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Boise, Grand Rapids, and other cities achieved striking improvements in their fortunes because elected and appointed leaders collaborated with business organizations and neighborhood groups. The elite and the grass roots found a way to talk and anticipate the changes coming their way. They responded with remarkably similar development strategies, starting in the early 1990s, which married economic and environmental principles and transcended partisanship.

Parks and open spaces were enlarged and improved. Natural resources were respected. Vast sums were invested in transit. Industrial property was cleaned up and redeveloped. Street crime was cleaned up. Zoning rules changed to encourage new housing. Economic development programs adjusted to recruit and support entrepreneurs. Office buildings became more energy efficient and environmentally sensitive. The result was cleaner, greener, more energy efficient places bustling with jobs and Millennium generation attitude.

The tools and techniques that cities embraced are now influencing the personal choices Americans are making about where they live and work. In short, we are a nation experiencing our future, driving less, riding in public transit more, and living closer together. Our vehicles and buildings are getting more energy efficient. The major cities, a wreck 30 years ago, are the prime generators of our wealth. They also are coming to be recognized as among the most livable, energy efficient, and prosperous places on the planet.

— Keith Schneider

T. Boone Pickens Plants Big Flag In Clean Energy Policy Arena

When we first heard, last year, about the $10 billion investment that T. Boone Pickens (see pix above) is making in the Texas Panhandle to build the largest wind generating station in the United States our response was elemental. Right message. Right messenger. Right scale of investment to foster the clean energy, good jobs economy.

Today in New York, Pickens made another thrust to prod America to take charge of its energy future. He launched what he said was “a bold and decisive bipartisan public policy campaign on energy designed to address the single biggest crisis facing America today: our growing and dangerous dependence on foreign oil.”

Never shy, the famed 80-year-old oilman named his strategy the Pickens Plan, and said the $700 billion a year now flowing out of the United States to foreign oil suppliers, many of them hostile to American interests, represents an “emergency” that needs to be addressed now.

Pickens said he will finance what he called “an aggressive multi-media advertising and internet  education campaign designed to focus attention on this crisis” and to advance the Pickens Plan, which includes:

– Calling on private industry to fund the installation of thousands of wind turbines in the America’s windy zones, generating enough power to provide 20 percent or more of our electricity supply.

– Prompting the private sector to build a modern electric power transmission lines to connecting wind power generating sites with power plants, providing energy to the population centers in theMidwest, South and Western regions of the country.

– Redirecting the natural gas supplies that were fueling power plants serving the large population centers and use it to replace imported gasoline and diesel as a fuel for vehicles.

“Our dependence on imported oil is killing our economy. It is the single biggest problem facing America today,” Pickens said. “This has to stop and it has to stop now before we get to a place where no actions can make a difference. Crisis means danger and opportunity. We know the danger but now we have the opportunity to do something that we should have done 30 to 40 years ago. Sometimes it takes a crisis to awaken us from our slumber but once aroused the American people can accomplish miracles.”

Pickens said his plan can be executed in five to 10 years and that help from Washington was essential. He challenged the presidential candidates to embrace his plan. Two of the three measures that the Pickens Plan proposes — scaling up wind energy to supply 20 percent of more of the nation’s electricity, and modernizing the transmission grid — have been proposed and advanced by other prominent organizations, including the Apollo Alliance.

The proposal to replace a portion of the nation’s gasoline supply with natural gas is an intriguing interim step. And his call for presidential candidates and Washington to recognize the urgency of America’s energy crisis and to act with steps that make a difference now — like quickly scaling up existing renewable energy sources instead of opening the outer continental to new drilling that won’t produce a new drop of oil for two decades — is a part of every reasoned clean energy strategy.

For more information:
Elliot Sloane

— Keith Schneider

Green-Collar, Where it Started

In 1999 Alan Durning, the author and director of the Sightline Institute in Seattle, published a prescient and well-received book about natural resources and economics entitled “Green-Collar Jobs.”

“A sustainable economy can generate employment just as well as an unsustainable one,” Durning wrote. “For every declining industry, like those that log old-growth forests, make farm chemicals, and build roads, there is an emerging one to take up the slack, like those that advise organic farmers, build windmills, and design walkable neighborhoods. A sustainable economy could be full of opportunity, and not only in these overtly green sectors.”

He added: “But the incremental change from the status quo to an economy that aims for ecological durability, like any major social transition, will be full of painful transformations. The new jobs often require different―and more sophisticated skills than the old ones, and they’re sometimes in different places.”

The phrase Durning coined, “green-collar,” and the basic economic framework that it describes have been embraced over the last year by presidential candidates of both parties, as much a factor in the 2008 campaign as “property rights” in the 1996 contest, and nearly as prominent as “family values” in 1988.

The Apollo Alliance has played a role in elevating the idea that in making the change from a polluting carbon-based economy to a clean energy economy, workers benefit. A 2004 Apollo Alliance study, New Energy For America, found that a 10-year, $300 billion federal investment in clean energy technology, equipment, and practices would yield 3.3 million quality, family-support, career-track jobs. Apollo’s president Jerome Ringo has tirelessly made the same case for green-collar jobs with local groups, major conventions, keynotes in dozens of states, in national media interviews, racking up 200,000-plus air miles a year.

More recently Van Jones, of Green For All, and Majora Carter, of Sustainable South Bronx have embraced the clean energy economy, and green-collar jobs as central to the “pathway out of poverty” for central city residents. The Apollo Alliance and a coalition of partners just published Green-Collar Jobs in America’s Cities, and a companion report, Greener Pathways, that provide guidance to elected leaders for developing effective green-collar training programs.

How much momentum has the green-collar framework gained? A lot. Here’s a sampling of media pieces in just the last week or so.

— Keith Schneider

Reign of Sand


Late last summer Circle of Blue, a global multi-media journalism project based here in Traverse City, sent a reporting team to Inner Mongolia, China to cover the front lines of the freshwater crisis in Asia. The members included a writer based in South Korea, a photographer from Australia, an artist and grasslands specialist from Beijing, and Eric Daigh, a videographer and multi-media producer from Circle of Blue’s main office in northern Michigan.

Circle of Blue’s strategy is to merge great independent reporting with the new online multi-media production and dissemination tools to elevate freshwater scarcity to a global priority. The project is the inspiration of Carl and Eileen Ganter, multi-media journalists who live in Traverse City and covered the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. They returned with the idea of doing what no mainstream media organization wanted to do: invest in producing great reporting and images to galvanize public attention around an emerging global environmental, cultural, and political crisis.

Circle of Blue is finishing its “Reign of Sand” multi-media report from Inner Mongolia, which includes more video, articles, photographs, and an interactive motion graphic map. This video is a taste of the great work to come from this online journalism project.