Moving R&D into Practice
The fourth and final panel was designed to present the end-users’ perspective as a way of moving towards more user-defined research, a key ingredient to sustainability (NRC, 1999). Panelists included mayors, urban planners, and membership organizations that facilitate the flow of information to decision makers. To conclude the workshop, participants were encouraged to explore opportunities to both broaden the impact of place-based R&D and disseminate promising practices more efficiently.
Transitioning to More Sustainable Practices
From the rarefied air that often characterizes discussions about urban planning theories and models, Jeremy Harris, a biologist by training who served as Mayor of Honolulu from 1994 to 2004, brought the conversation back down to places where Americans live and work, when he proclaimed that: "The infrastructure in our cities is falling apart." At the same time, "America's suburbs must acknowledge the adverse consequences of decades of sprawl." Today, Harris added, a growing number of cities, including his own, must also confront the consequences of global warming and the threats that storms and rising sea levels pose to their future well being. Reiterating a fundamental theme of the workshop, he warned that "we haven't built our cities in a sustainable way," and we can no longer afford to wait to change our ways.
Harris spoke about several modest measures that Honolulu has taken to reduce its ecological footprint. For example, it has built a wastewater treatment plant that relies on membrane bioreactor technology to improve water quality in a more ecologically sound way; it has turned to ocean thermal conversion techniques to generate irrigated water through condensates; and it has designed a series of bus rapid transit routes, modeled after the successful program begun in Curitiba, Brazil, to promote public transportation. To reduce development-related environmental impacts, Honolulu has also begun micro-tunneling when laying sewer lines and has mounted photovoltaic cells on its street posts to power the city's lights.
Harris is proud of the efforts that his city has made – and rightfully so. But he candidly admitted that these are small, discreet steps, which will merely curb, but not
reverse, the city's unsustainable patterns of development. "We need a systems approach," he asserted. Otherwise, we will be straight jacketed into "solving our problems one at a time." And, when problems are as inter-related as they are today, solving them one at a time likely means not solving them at all.
"We are in the mess we are in," Harris contended, "because in the past our economic behavior, including our urban economic behavior, was not honest." According to Harris, we simply failed to account "for the value of ecological services" and exploited these services as if they were free and would last forever.
This is a lament often heard among scholars and scientists but rarely expressed with such directness by elected officials. Harris acknowledged that we will not be able to alter our patterns of behavior in a day, but that we can focus our attention on issues that can make a difference – paying greater attention, for example, to developing renewable energies that meet the demands of the marketplace, increasing the recycling and reuse of materials, easing traffic by relying more on mass transit, and improving our waste management techniques.
Most urban officials operate in a chronic state of "crisis management," he proclaimed, and you cannot expect them to take a long-term approach to urgent matters. Not surprisingly, then, urban officials often turn to the research community to help shed light on consequential matters that are continually unfolding over long periods. Researchers, however, must rise to the occasion and present their findings in ways that policy makers can understand and, more importantly, use. He asked whether it might be possible to draw on the experience of USDA's agricultural extension service to create an urban extension service where (this time drawing on the experience of the medical research community) "translational research" would take place in ways that would move ideas and insights from the classroom and computer laboratories to America's homes and communities.
John Frece, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Smart Growth Division, concurred with Harris's "think big, act small" approach. "It is important," he noted, “to align resources, regulations and legislation with urban sustainability principles" if we hope to make progress. He also maintained that such smaller measures as "tree plantings, electric buses and longer lasting and more energy-efficient light bulbs, while they may not seem "earth-shattering," do point us in the right direction and that the cumulative effect can make a difference.
To this "small may be valuable" to-do list, Frece added the recent announcement by HUD to allow mixed-income and multi-family housing to be built on brownfield sites (in truth, this represents an initiative of a larger dimension). With the help of other government agencies, both at the federal and state level and including the EPA, undesirable sites that had been abandoned because of high pollution levels can now be cleaned up and turned into areas where citizens can hope to lead better lives. Both people and the environment will benefit from this measure that will encourage more densely populated growth in places that are already built up.
The manner in which we have developed our land and constructed our cities has placed significant restrictions on our ability to adapt to the resource and energy demands of the present (development patterns are, in this sense, legacy costs we cannot avoid and must learn to deal with). At the same time, how we choose to develop virgin land in the future will impact the country’s overall energy and resource budgets (existing cities can
become more resource and energy efficient, but if suburbs and exurbs continue to grow, overall levels of energy and resource consumption will continue to increase). As Frece put it, “more brownfield redevelopment” will lead to less “greenfield development.”
He also suggested that it would be helpful to devise strategies for measuring small things such as the number of houses located within 15-minute radius of a bus stop or train station, or the percentage of low-income houses built within two miles of an employment center. Such indicators, while modest in their dimensions, could prove essential in determining whether a community—and a city—are moving in a sustainable direction. The message is clear: taking small steps – just as long as they are in the right direction— can be an effective way to create a more sustainable urban future.
Connecting with Political Will
Between 1950 and 1973, Dana Williams, the Mayor of Park City, Utah, recalled, "his town was listed on the national registry of ghost towns." Park City, in short, once a thriving silver mining town, had gone bust. Then, in the 1960s, "the city received a federal grant to build ski runs" as a way of giving renewed life to its moribund economy.
Park City quickly emerged as a captivating winter resort and, in 2002, it became an internationally renowned winter wonderland when it hosted the Olympic games. In many respects, Williams noted, this town of just 7,500 residents, with vacation homes owned by the "rich and famous," is a "poster place" for sustainability concerns. "Our entire economy," he said, "is based on the weather and disposable income." If climate change transforms the weather in ways that adversely affect the winter snow pack, the core of Park City's economy will be damaged—perhaps irreparably.
Park City has the resources—and the economic motivation—to pursue sustainability initiatives, which includes efforts to promote greater energy efficiency and an expansion of open space. Yet Williams observed that crafting and using the right language to argue the case for reform has been crucial to the city's success. For example, he remarked, the city's concern for the potential impact of climate change went nowhere in the legislative corridors of the state capital until "we started talking about the need for energy independence." This created appealing images of a more self-reliant people, which resonated with the strong sense of patriotism among his constituents. In a similar way, discussions concerning the need for open space become more palatable in other parts of Utah, including the state capital, when the talk shifted from “land conservation” to “range protection.”
That is why Williams pleaded with the researchers in the audience to "get the word out about your findings in ways that people can understand and appreciate." Indeed he claimed that this advice, however "simple it may sound," could be "more important than anything else you do" in seeking to lay a strong scientific foundation for sustainable growth. Briggs had made a similar point in his talk when he spoke about the need for comprehensive planning to serve as a tool for “liberating people” by “popularizing concepts that have been locked up in the science or planning professions.” The goal is to have “people grasp the concepts and put them into practice in their daily lives.”
"America's mayors are innovative," proclaimed Harriet Tregoning, Director, District of Columbia Office of Planning. "Cities," as a result, "often serve as testing grounds" for new ideas and new technologies. And, while Tregoning acknowledged that the problems faced by American cities have been persistent—rising poverty rates,
shrinking tax bases, crumbling infrastructures, crime, poor schools, the list is long – she also believed that the solutions have been evident, although rarely enacted upon, for some time.
We may not know how to address every problem but even when knowledge is lacking, we often know enough about the challenge—and possible solutions—to devise a response that can be assessed for its effectiveness. In other words, Tregoning maintained that, in many cases, we can begin to tackle a problem with pilot projects and then check the results before deciding whether to broaden the scale of the activity.
What has been lacking in efforts to move urban sustainability efforts forward, however, are two indispensable ingredients for success: financial resources and political will. And while urban problems are national in scope, Tregoning was quick to add that each city will need to devise its own distinctive answers to the problems it faces. "Cities," she cautioned, "cannot compete as generic places."
Tregoning pointed to recent developments in Washington, D.C. to shed light on how to build a more sustainable urban future. The capitol city she spoke about was not the seat of power for the world's most powerful nation (D.C.'s federal zone), but the capitol city of neighborhoods – low- and moderate-income residential areas, industrial zones that await redevelopment, transportation corridors that enable residents to get to-and-from work, and commercial districts where people shop, go to restaurants and see movies.
For Tregoning, neighborhood improvement initiatives, however halting and fragile, give hope of a better future and serve as examples of how we might be able to chart our way out of the endless swathes of urban decay and suburban sprawl that have been the twin hallmarks of the United States' unsustainable growth patterns for the past half century.
The areas lining the banks of the Anacostia River in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C. have been home to some of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, and the river carries the dubious distinction of being one of the nation's most polluted. Yet, today, three new neighborhoods are rising from the squalor on brownfield sites that had long been abandoned as industrial wastelands.
Tregoning readily acknowledged that no matter how crucial housing may be to a city's well being, housing alone will not ensure a sustainable future. Echoing the earlier comments of Freedberg, she affirmed that transportation is also a key element. She went on to note that Washington, D.C. may have some advantages when it comes to urban transportation networks in the 21st century. For example, she stated that household transportation costs in the capitol city consume 9% of family income, while nationally the figure is l9%.
This means rising fuel prices may not have directly impacted D.C. residents as much as those in other cities and suburbs across the nation, at least in terms of household transportation expenditures. It also suggests that D.C. residents have options (namely, access to an efficient public transportation system) that others may not. Indeed during the last six months of 2008, when the economic recession was at its worst, residents in Washington, D.C. were selling off their cars at the rate of 4,000 a month. In the nation's capital, automobiles can become a luxury in tough times. In America's car-dependent suburbs, on the other hand, an automobile (and likely two or three) has remained a necessity.
Tregoning ended her talk by emphasizing the need to "walk the walk" and "bike the bike" to sustainability. She noted that the Washington D.C.'s bike-sharing program would soon be expanding its fleet from 100 to 3,200 bikes. She also mentioned Washington, D.C.'s recent transportation survey, which was designed to determine people's transportation preferences.
She pointed out that the findings of the survey confirmed the prevailing notion that little things can mean a lot. For example, the survey suggested that people would be willing to increase their daily walk to work or to a transit hub from one-quarter to one-half of a mile if there were storefront windows to gaze at along the way. In short, if the walk could be made more interesting, people would be glad to walk longer distances.