If that happened, one might envision a time when eco-labels exist for a wide range of economic activity, showing not just how much energy a product (for example) consumes in use, but how much energy was consumed to create and transport it and how much would be required in its disposal or recycling. Consumers would eventually learn to scan and interpret those labels in the same way that they now read nutrition labels to check a food’s saturated fat content. Once again, product developers and manufacturers would probably voluntarily exceed expectations for energy efficiency, much as they did in phasing out dangerous chemicals once TRI was put in place.
Convening Public Engagement
Portland, Ore., enjoys a reputation as America’s greenest city, and it is distinguished by its collaborative, regional approach to governance. An agency known as Metro — the only directly elected metropolitan planning organization in the country — oversees the area around and including Portland. Metro conducts land-use planning, manages parks, plans the region’s transportation systems, and maintains the Portland-area urban growth boundary, which separates urban from rural land and reduces urban sprawl. The agency works closely with the region’s 25 cities and three counties to ensure that a 20-year supply of developable land exists.
To forecast transportation and land-use needs, Metro developed a regional data center. Each local jurisdiction uses and contributes to the center, which eliminates duplication and streamlines data — allowing the region’s jurisdictions to spend more time focusing on policy and less time arguing over technicalities. Additionally, Metro is supported by a series of advisory committees that offer opportunities for citizens to have a meaningful involvement in Metro’s policy decision making. Those policy decisions tend to be geared toward sustainability; the city makes green space and public parks a priority.
Far from paying a price for its collaborative emphasis on sustainability, Portland has enjoyed a significant “green dividend,” as described in a recent study by the not-for-profit organization CEOs for Cities. This study shows that Portlanders enjoy shorter commutes, drive their vehicles less, and own fewer vehicles (but more hybrids) than other Americans. As a result, they save nearly US$2.5 billion per year — $1 billion in direct savings (in part through owning fewer cars) and $1.5 billion in time saved in shorter commutes. Moreover, these savings in time and money often are plowed back into the local economy.
Metropolitan regional planning in Portland is also an excellent example of the third high-leverage strategy: engagement. Portland’s approach created and empowered a megacommunity in which leaders and citizens of all stripes — heads of political jurisdictions, civic activists, business owners, transit riders, and others — could envision and move toward a future that reflected their shared aspirations. In doing so, they surpassed weaker forms of cross-sector partnership (such as some government-sponsored councils) that create venues for information sharing and communication but do not have budgetary or decision-making authority, and therefore do not change the underlying dynamic among various political jurisdictions and between these jurisdictions and the public.
The grave environmental challenges now looming are archetypal megacommunity challenges. They span political boundaries and demographic groups. And although technically viable solutions exist, the challenges cannot be addressed by business, government, or interested citizens acting independently, because the causes of the challenge are fundamentally embedded in the way we live.
Consider land use and regional planning. Although the “new urbanism” movement and the popularity of upscale center city districts are visible in many places, the popularity of suburbs continues to grow overall. As neighborhoods extend farther away from places of employment, social gathering spots, and commerce, driving increases. For instance, a resident of the suburbs of Washington, D.C., will drive 27 miles a day on average, whereas the average driving distance of city residents is 17 miles. Unfortunately, the population of Washington suburbs is projected to grow twice as fast as the District of Columbia’s urban population between now and 2030, with the most distant exurbs growing seven times as fast. A recent study in the Journal of the American Planning Association showed, unsurprisingly, that residents of suburbs and exurbs create more auto-generated air pollution. They also pay a toll with their own bodies; a related study found that people who live in the suburbs, because they drive more and walk less, tend to weigh more than their urban counterparts. And larger exurban homes, as already noted, require significantly more energy to heat and cool than urban dwellings. Eventually, technological improvements may neutralize the differences in environmental impacts from urban, suburban, and exurban residents, but that’s not the case today.