A mole at the recent Clinton Global Initiative conversation reported that Chicago was being held up as an example of a “green city,” a theme echoed in the Massive Change exhibition now up at the MCA. It’s quite fashionable to talk of Chicago as a deep-green city, but the real accomplishments to date have proved rather scattershot. As with the nascent approach to obesity, there is no approach, just photo opportunities.
Why? It’s a classic case of hacks vs. wonks, as Bruce Reed calls it. The way machine politics works — “I’ll create a little exception for you to get your vote, and your people’s votes” — inhibits Chicago politicians from thinking, much less acting, in a manner which considers broad impacts and bigger plans. Its deep skepticism of technocrats leaves no room for cold policy analysis, whether of the celebrity-driven “green ribbon commission” sort used to develop the climate action plan for Seattle or even for a Comp Plan (sure, it’s mandated by state law, but we’ll let that slide) or a regional plan that has about as much authority as Houston’s.
Hence, the biggest polluters — like the ancient coal power plants or the rivers of cars flowing oh-so-freely down freeways and through downtown, unimpeded by flitting concerns like pedestrian lives — get off scot-free, while expensive solar panels sprout in conspicuous locations and the transit system rots. This results in odd scenarios, like Daley championing a
Climate Protection Agreement at the recent US Conference of Mayors convention that he hosted, effectively signing on USCM to Kyoto (as he already has for Chicago) — even though there’s not even been discussion of how to even begin planning for the agreement’s 2010 deadline. (Pertinent text of the Agreement below the fold.)
A few years ago, some photo opportunities might have been sufficient to proclaim one’s green-ness, but thankfully most other places have moved their sustainability initiatives beyond symbolism. Even other old-line cities are doing so. NYC (which similarly has no comp plan and, unlike Chicago, allowed a zoning rewrite to die on the vine a few years ago) recently recruited away former Massachusetts smart-growth czar Doug Foy to lead a new Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability. In Providence, a rare city with more corruption per capita and even more hardened white-ethnic politics, the mayor has convened Providence Tomorrow, a weeklong charrette to guide a comp plan rewrite.
Indeed, ICLEI, an international organization that helps countless local governments with sustainability plans, defines planning as absolutely crucial to every step of achieving sustainability:
We help local governments generate political awareness of key issues; establish plans of action towards defined, concrete, measurable targets; work towards meeting these targets through the implementation of projects; and evaluate local and cumulative progress toward sustainable development.
So far, the Environmental Action Agenda is a start, but outlines mostly basic purchasing decisions: switching solvents, adding hybrid vehicles, starting capital projects. In the “mobility” section, the only “good” goal (5% of short trips by bike) comes from the Bike Plan, not the EAG. It doesn’t add up to the big goals that the mayor has set by adopting Kyoto, nor does it attempt to work backwards from that goal to create quantifiable near-term targets. Viewed as a response to the Agreement, it’s skipping straight past the Big Picture items that start the list and jumping right to the small-bore items — not what we expect in the city of Big Plans That Stir Men’s Blood.
U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement ["signatories":http://www.seattle.gov/mayor/climate/quotes.htm%5D
We will strive to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking actions in our own operations and communities such as:
1. Inventory global warming emissions in City operations and in the community, set reduction targets and create an action plan.
2. Adopt and enforce land-use policies that reduce sprawl, preserve open space, and create compact, walkable urban communities;
3. Promote transportation options such as bicycle trails, commute trip reduction programs, incentives for car pooling and public transit;
4. Increase the use of clean, alternative energy by, for example, investing in “green tags”, advocating for the development of renewable energy resources, recovering landfill methane for energy production, and supporting the use of waste to energy technology;
5. Make energy efficiency a priority through building code improvements, retrofitting city facilities with energy efficient lighting and urging employees to conserve energy and save money;
6. Purchase only Energy Star equipment and appliances for City use;
7. Practice and promote sustainable building practices using the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program or a similar system;
8. Increase the average fuel efficiency of municipal fleet vehicles; reduce the number of vehicles; launch an employee education program including anti-idling messages; convert diesel vehicles to bio-diesel;
9. Evaluate opportunities to increase pump efficiency in water and wastewater systems; recover wastewater treatment methane for energy production;
10. Increase recycling rates in City operations and in the community;
11. Maintain healthy urban forests; promote tree planting to increase shading and to absorb CO2; and
12. Help educate the public, schools, other jurisdictions, professional associations, business and industry about reducing global warming pollution.