Still no grand green plan

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”:

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.

4 thoughts on “Still no grand green plan

  1. posted in a thread on “gripes about Chicago” at skyscrapercity:

    Originally posted by Abner: I don’t understand why a city needs to be corrupt to get the trash picked up… And speaking of trash pickup, why exactly are we about 15 years behind everybody else when it comes to recycling? Oh, that’s right… Daley saving face for his failed policy.

    This kind of addresses one of my concerns: there are two kinds of politicos, wonks and hacks, and this city’s run by hacks. (Google “wonks and hacks.”) Setting aside my own wonky predisposition, a better balance between wonks and hacks would result in better planning, better policy, and ultimately better governance. Example: Daley says that he wants a green city, and chances across green roofs (which have a rather poor cost/benefit ratio, either for albedo or runoff) in a major magazine. City officials go gaga over green roofs, allocating $millions in grants and very nearly requiring them atop every single PD — even while the transit agency is starving to death, and countless more acres of trees and lawns are bulldozed for parking lots.

    The wonky alternative is to study the problem to death, but then, at least, you have solid assurances that the right choice had been made and a good plan for moving forward. Painting roofs white/silver would’ve saved unknown millions of dollars, which could have better addressed urban heat island or stormwater via any number of less flashy but cheaper strategies.

    That better balance need not end up in a morass of endless bickering, either. I once sat next to a Vancouver city councilman at a conference, who said that council almost always defers to staff on planning decisions. Now, who would you trust more with skyline decisions: Sam Assefa (who comes from the West Coast’s wonkier political culture) or Burt Natarus (RIP)?

    You can say that the graft, corruption, and incompetence is a fact of life, but it’s not, and it in fact does cost us dearly — while just that apathetic attitude just perpetuates it. Today’s high property tax bills are just a taste of what’s to come: businesses pay much higher property taxes, both city and state have both mortgaged themselves to the hilt and put off billions of dollars in required pension contributions, and yet everyone’s still whining that there’s not enough money.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on three-man trash crews. A single driver in a robotic truck picks up my uncle’s trash — and single-stream recycling, and compost! Is it any wonder that the city’s budget is growing nearly 60% faster than inflation?

    Originally posted by Abner: Unfortunately, even though the beaches themselves are great, there’s absolutely nothing like the wilderness you can get to from any West Coast city and many East Coast cities… As for the question about New Hampshire being “somewhere,” the point is that there’s so much “nowhere” around there–you can actually get solitude in the mountains.

    Word. I grew up in a coastal family — I doubt anyone in my direct lineage has lived more than 200 mi. from an ocean, ever — and moved out here just for the novelty of it. I’ve vacationed in driftless Wisconsin, harbor country, explored nearly every big city within 300 miles, and while it’s nice enough, other cities do put it to shame. I’ve taken city buses to trailheads, then walked up into the wilderness, right outside Vancouver, Denver, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. Even elsewhere on the Great Lakes, Toronto has ski slopes and safely-exotic Montreal within easy reach. Oh, and lake beaches are not ocean beaches.

    Originally posted by Sam_Harmon: What it all comes down to, both unsafe cyclists and motorists, is the conscious decision on the part of the Daley administration to virtually ignore moving violation enforcement in favor of the far more financially lucrative work of parking violation enforcement.

    Amen. First off, I see far more sidewalk riding in Manhattan than in Chicago. Never counted, but seems so. And yes, the cops do ticket bikes on sidewalks very aggressively in certain areas — especially along Sheridan north of Hollywood, where a friend of mine once paid $250. I personally never ride along pedestrians; if the coast is clear and it’s less than a block away, I’ll ride only at walking speed. Yet instead of pedestrians and bicyclists tussling over the scraps of road over by the gutter, why don’t we look at the guys hogging the rest of the road — the cars? When was the last time cars yielded the right of way to let you cross at an unsignaled crosswalk? Or heck, even stopped behind the dang stop line? (Oh, and Srika, we bicyclists are traffic and are allowed use of the full lane under state law. Look it up in your drivers’ ed manual.)

    Lots of people fear crime in the city, but the number of people I know (or have known) who’ve been hit by a hit-and-run driver exceeds the number of people I know who’ve been mugged, even. And yet the cops just can’t be bothered about any of it. Unless there’s blood, they don’t care, and when there’s blood, it’s too late. Driving cultures can indeed be changed with enforcement: Portland runs pedestrian sting operations to catch drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians.

    Again, perhaps it’s a wonks and hacks thing. The #1 reason why people don’t bike more is because they think the streets unsafe; that probably holds for walking and perhaps transit use as well. Cracking down on unsafe drivers and reshaping streets to tame traffic would achieve the policy goal of encouraging cycling, walking, and transit use, but would cost political capital, make the police work harder, and require turning around a vast (and lucratively contract padded) roads bureaucracy.

    About transit: it’s nicer in other cities because either (a) they’re denser, and you need a “mass” to make “mass transit” work, and/or (b) they get far more in public subsidies, and/or (c) they’re not actually as well-off as you think. Even MTA in NYC (which has a much bigger “mass,” Manhattan’s average densities being higher than the Gold Coast’s) has dug itself into a huge hole of red ink; why else do you think Bloomberg is pushing the congestion charge so hard?

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