Sustainability Hearts Cities

12 Nov 2012Mark Lee

As I look ahead to joining VERGE at Greenbuild in San Francisco November 12-13, and begin to get my head around a brief One Great Idea presentation patterned on the ways my colleagues and I believe cities are vital to the future of sustainability, I have something to admit: Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies. Ever. And its 1982-era vision of Los Angeles 2019 — a dark, rainy, violent, morally rudderless, cultural mash-up — is not well-suited to imagining and nurturing the sustainable city of the future that I truly think possible.

But maybe that’s the challenge we all face. We know a sustainable economy will demand enormous personal and institutional change, perhaps especially related to how and what we consume, but knowing that and shifting the very structures and institutions that shape our world are two different things. We have to overcome the inertia.

If we look carefully, we find cities revealing early glimpses of how they might evolve to be sustainable. If we can understand today’s tentative, experimental steps, we might determine how we can support further transformation, speeding change in leading metropolises and encouraging replication elsewhere. Blade Runner be damned — let’s do this!

Citystates

In March 2012, at VERGE DC, we launched Citystates in partnership with GreenBiz. And I should mention before going further that all credit for the thinking in Citystates goes to my colleagues Mohammed Al-Shawaf and Chris Guenther, the report’s authors, who also helped with this post.

Citystates posits that in addition to being “where we build our most ambitious and symbolic structures, where we come together to share experiences and exchange capital, goods and ideas, and where we go in search of a better life,” cities are “ground zero for the collision of the economic, environmental and social imperatives that define sustainability.” The paper then exploits its name in order to define and explore the different zeitgeist of various cities on the sustainability edge: Connected, Decisive, Adaptive, Collaborative/Competitive, Visceral, Personal and Experimental. Each of these “states” has strengths to lend to sustainability’s advancement. For example, the relative speed and autonomy of mayors and their administrations, and their direct connection to citizens’ everyday lives, define the Decisive City, which sees metro areas prototype, evolve and implement sustainability solutions faster (and with less interference) than regional and national governments.

In addition to identifying and plumbing the seven states listed above, Citystates claims: “Sustainability needs cities as much as cities need sustainability,” and that “business should view cities as a crucial frame through which to understand and pursue sustainability.”

The first claim is the more self-evident. We humans are now an urban species globally, and rapidly consolidating that position. If cities aren’t sustainable, sustainability just won’t be.

The second claim has proven the harder to express, and it’s the one I want to expand upon in my One Great Idea presentation on November 13. That is, while cities are clearly sustainability laboratories which business might study, how do they present the private sector with opportunity, and how is that opportunity to be seized?

My kind of town

Yes, Chicago. Which is reinventing itself to be more sustainable, particularly in terms of mitigating climate change and adapting to the elements of global warming it cannot avoid. As this excellent PBS NewsHour report explains, Chicago is doing this in order to be cooler – literally a few degrees colder, not another hipster destination (though I am sure it’s that too).

While the NewsHour feature is told mostly from the perspective of the city and its managers, the business opportunities evident between the lines are numerous and enormous. Consider, for example, that Chicago has more miles of alleyways than any city in the United States — about 1,900 miles’ worth. And it plans to resurface every inch of those passageways with permeable pavement, which will reduce the burden from runoff on sewer systems and, by storing rainwater under the surface that gradually evaporates as temperatures rise, reducing the urban heat-island affect.

From the advanced materials that will be used to repave through to the act of paving itself, Chicago’s green ambition will spur innovation and create new intellectual property at the same time as generating shovel-ready jobs.

Chicago also is experimenting with regulatory carrots that incent the private sector to undertake green initiatives — for example, offering faster permitting services for buildings with green roofs than those with conventional designs. Businesses that embrace this opportunity literally open and start earning faster, then compound their advantage with lower operating costs and improved tenant attraction.

Mobilizing the base

Other evidence that cities are the nucleus of sustainability innovation abound. Base Cities “organizes city-focused events that address and accelerate the potential of green and smart city initiatives to drive economic growth and development,” emphasizing “delivery, commercial opportunity and how this underpins economic growth, investment, enterprise, job creation and a sense of place.” And the United Nations has just turned Jeffery Sachs loose to lead the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, in which one area of focus is “Smart, Healthy and Productive Cities.”

So the word is out: We can’t and won’t build a sustainable societies and economies unless we solve urban sustainability in the process. But for all that today’s Connected, Decisive, Adaptive, etc., cities do for themselves, cities need the private sector’s help and have a lot to offer to business in return.

One great idea – shared

My talk at VERGE will be an appetizer for a keynote by Zappos founder and CEO Tony Hsieh, the visionary and driving force behind the ambitious Downtown Project, which will use the relocation of Zappos’ corporate offices to a moribund section of downtown Las Vegas as a catalyst to build a more vibrant, innovative and, he hopes, permanent urban community. Hsieh is explicitly striving for large-scale societal impact — this New York Times feature on the project quotes his modest explanation of intent: “If you fix cities, you kind of fix the world.”

However wonderful that might be at a macro level, the Downtown Project is also a means to attract and nurture and retain the kind of young, connected, ambitious and innovative talent that helps drive Zappos’ success. Hsieh has not only internalized the new-again notion that cities – especially successful ones – are the fundamental engines of innovation and progress, but also that he and his company should invest in radically new ways to benefit from them.

As we come to terms with the idea of 6.7 billion urban inhabitants by 2050, we must see the city as the newest and biggest sustainability frontier for business, education, governance and, truly, civilization. Whether life on that frontier will be more Blade Runner black, Chicago green or Hiesh’s vision of “Vegas, Baby!” remains to be seen, but Chicago and Las Vegas are the kind of urban experiments needed if we are to produce the best possible outcomes — a chance for citizens and companies to map the nascent terrain of urban sustainability in order to be players on it.

This article originally appeared as part of SustainAbility’s Changing Tack column on GreenBiz.com.

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