Environmental degradation can affect us in ways we least expect. From advisories not to enter the ocean after a rainstorm in San Diego to higher rates of asthma in households next to freeways across the country, the consequences of pollution to our oceans and air eventually make their way to the human inhabitants of a city.
In every way, addressing environmental degradation and climate change becomes a necessary answer to the economic, social, and health crises left in the wake of these forces. Cities today are presented with both a promise and a challenge: to address these crises, we don’t have to change the environment; we must change our use of and relationship to the ecosystems in which we live.
Fortunately, solutions to many of these issues are on hand. Sustainability initiatives can range from the mind-boggling expensive and complex to the profoundly simple. While implementing them can be large undertakings, the return on diversity of thought and fearless innovation often required in this process holds economic promise for cities that take on the challenge.
Here are 5 cities taking up the torch to approach urbanization in a revolutionary, harmonious, and sustainable way.
Throw Some Shade Over Here
Who knew that in the age of smartphones and unstoppable technological innovation, shade from a tree would be in such demand? A new program called Sacramento Shade aims to decrease the growing demand for energy associated with cooling while improving the city’s air quality. According to its partner group, the Sacramento Tree Foundation, properly placed trees can reduce summer cooling bills by 40%, a huge cost-saving measure for both the city and residents alike. As part of the program, all residents in Sacramento are eligible for up to 10 free trees to shade their property.
The program also provides a tree consultant, a Community Forester, to help plant the trees in the most energy-efficient way. A city utilizing trees as technology may seem laughable at first, but Sacramento is leading the embrace in developing cities more in harmony with the natural landscape.
Recycle More Than You Waste
To many, the city of Portland, Oregon has the core distinguishing qualities of beer, beards, and flannel. Add recycling goals to that list. By 2020, Portland plans to hit a recycling goal of 52%. That is, to recycle more items than send to landfills. It is an admirable goal that the city was on track to achieve until China seismically shifted the recycling market in 2017, announcing new standards that effectively ruled out most of Portland’s contaminated recyclables (think used diapers and old pizza boxes).
In 2016, China bought 60 percent of the world’s recycled materials. If you didn’t realize that most of your recycle-worthy crap was spanning the globe to be produced and sold to you in Target, then sent back around the globe to be re-purposed or sit in a landfill, join the club. Apparently the Chinese are no longer interested in buying our used pizza boxes.
Despite these setbacks, Portland is still seeing record-breaking progress in the fight to reduce waste. Portlanders take great pride in their recycling fervor, and are eager to learn best practices when it comes to recycling, a public service movement to keep a close eye on as international recycling regulations become more strict. If you want to learn how to reduce your waste like Portland, check out my article on 5 Steps to Going Plastic-Free.
Training The Green Workforce
You may have heard about white-collar and blue-collar workers, but how about green collar? The city of Oakland, California is out to create a national model for economic opportunity within the “green” economy – the rising sustainability industry.
The Oakland Green Jobs Corps is a city-based initiative to provide training with college credit in green construction, solar installation, and related environmental industry services. The city partners with local community colleges and training centers to identify low-income, at-risk, unskilled, and/or dislocated workers to become part of the growing green collar workforce. A city-based initiative that is a win for people, the economy, and the planet? Sign us up!
“LEED” The Way With Infrastructure
If you have ever found yourself looking at a toilet with two flush handles, one for – each type of deposit -- you were probably in a LEED-certified building. Maybe you were even in the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. In 2018, Chicago became one out of 7 cities in the world to receive the highest level of certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for a program called LEED for Cities.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green building rating system is the most widely used of its kind. LEED sets a framework for cities to track progress on sustainable goals, reduce waste, pollution, and overall energy and water usage. It focuses on buildings and cities as the bedrock of sustainability measures. In fact, due to these measures, From 2016-2018, emissions from Chicago’s largest buildings decreased by 20 percent, roughly equivalent to shutting down a coal-fired power plant for two months.
Chicagoans recognize that without environmentally friendly spaces in which to live and work, even the most creative sustainability initiatives wouldn’t hold much water (pun intended).
Transforming West Coast Transportation
Many places on the West coast claim to have the worst traffic. While LA might inevitably win every time, Seattle’s constantly jammed freeways and exploding population should at least get an honorable mention. If you have ever visited Seattle by flying into SeaTac airport, you know what your main choices are: hassle a friend or family member into struggling through traffic to pick you up, or pay upwards of $50 in cab or Uber fare. It is inconveniently far from the city center. Due to a massive undertaking by the city of Seattle, you can now also add “take the lightrail to a reasonable pickup location” to your list of options.
The Sound Transit lightrail calls itself the “most ambitious transit expansion in the country”. If that wasn’t enough of a sustainability win, Sound Transit will implement a tree replacement program, effectively quadrupling the number of trees removed during the construction of a rail line through a forested area. Because Seattle has the future of their native ecosystem in mind, all trees will be selected for their adaptive, native characteristics. The voter-approved undertaking to effectively integrate expanded urbanization alongside natural landscapes is just another major advance on behalf of the Emerald City.
How America Greens From Here
Notably, every large-scale sustainability effort mentioned here has the full support of local voters, elected officials, or both. Local government action and decision-making at levels in which individuals can have an impact are seen making progress on larger sustainability goals. If these cities can begin to make progress on addressing environmental degradation and climate change in ways that work for both the economic and social health of their citizens, why can’t more? Looking to the future, we hope that a greener way of living catches on and is recognized as the new norm. We all can make a positive impact. What courses of action are you taking in your own home to better reduce your waste? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!