Local Leadership: High Hopes in a Time of High Anxiety

Posted by Steve Nicholas
on November 15, 2016

usdnThis post is by Steve Nicholas.


If you, like me, find yourself looking for signs of progress and promise in the wake of last week’s election, take a peek at what’s happening in a growing number of America’s cities and urban regions. Like never before, local leaders are coming together – across sectors, institutions, political jurisdictions and ideological perspectives – to co-create new ways of making their communities cleaner, healthier, safer, fairer and more livable.


As I reflect upon the results of the election, I can’t help but think back on my journey thus far as a sustainability professional. A mere 10 years ago, I was five years into my job as the City of Seattle’s very first “sustainability director.” It was a lonely gig, with only a dozen others or so scattered across the country – mostly in “usual suspect” cities such as Berkeley, CA, Portland, OR and Minneapolis, MN – toiling away in utter isolation.


Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, and I’m sitting in a jam-packed room at the Westin Harbor Castle Conference Center in Toronto at the 8th Annual Meeting of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN). The place is buzzing with collaboration and camaraderie as sustainability directors from nearly 140 cities across North America – from Denver, CO to Denton, TX – spend a few days together on the shores of Lake Ontario, comparing notes, exchanging insights and ideas, and sharing stories of battles won and lost on the challenging but rewarding path toward more sustainable, equitable and resilient cities.


What a difference a decade makes.


Toronto was a fitting venue for a gathering of municipal sustainability champions. The city is nearly a third of the way to its ambitious goal of reducing community-wide climate pollution by 80% by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). The 25-year, $34 billion Waterfront Toronto initiative, the largest urban revitalization project in North America, is transforming the city’s historically car-centric lakeside into a lovely, lively and livable stretch of homes, shops, restaurants, parks and playgrounds. I pedaled about 20 gorgeous miles of that stretch one day, thanks to Bike-Share Toronto. With more than 2,000 bikes in over 200 locations throughout the city, it’s one of the biggest and best programs of its kind in the world!


And then there is Toronto’s very cool (literally and figuratively) deep water cooling system, which I had the opportunity to see in action. The cold water is drawn from Lake Ontario through three tubes extending about three miles from shore. It is then treated and circulated through heat exchangers and a massive maze of big blue pipes. Along the way, the water cools more than 70 large buildings in downtown Toronto, reducing their use of electricity by about 90 percent. This is the largest system of its kind in the world.


Back at the USDN Annual Meeting, three promising, game-changing trends were on vivid display:

  • Getting serious and systematic about social equity: Social equity is part-and-parcel of sustainable development in its full and true form.  A community with a persistent and rising gap between “the haves” and “the have nots” is no more sustainable than one with tons of air and climate pollution or sky-high rates of poverty or unemployment. But integrating social equity solutions into their work has proven challenging for most municipal sustainability managers for many reasons. For example most (me included) are not people of color, and have neither the background (training, experience, network), nor the mandate from their bosses to do this work effectively. The USDN is gathered featured work in San Francisco and Boston to enhance equity through sustainability projects and efforts to support energy upgrades of low-income homes in Columbia, Chicago and Knoxville. The Center for Social Inclusion also delivered a keynote presentation called, “Social Equity Solutions for Cities” and ran two workshops on operationalizing equity in sustainability. And through an innovative “Building Diversity Fellowship Program,” young people are being hired and embedded in cities such as Oakland, CA and Plano, TX to help them find new ways to integrate social equity-enhancing actions into their urban sustainability strategies.
  • Accelerating the transition to clean energy: A growing number of cities, no longer satisfied with being passive “end-users” of energy, are working to take matters more into their own hands: setting ambitious energy goals, partnering with their utilities to transition more quickly to renewable energy sources, and putting in place policies and programs to increase local deployment of renewable energy, including rooftop solar systems and community solar programs. In addition to the tour of Toronto’s deep lake water cooling system (a renewable energy district, essentially), the USDN meeting featured sessions on setting 100% renewable energy goals and developing plans to achieve them (highlighting efforts in San Diego, Cleveland and Burlington), developing microgrids (highlighting work in Boston, Berkeley and Washington, DC), and getting to zero net carbon in buildings. This is the new leading edge of the urban sustainability movement!
  • Getting stronger and more resilient in the face of climate impacts: Climate disruption is here and now, slamming cities across the country with increased flooding, more extreme heat, changes in precipitation patterns that affect critical drinking water supplies, inundation from sea level rise and other costly and debilitating impacts. Cities are scrambling to better prepare themselves to face such increasing climate-related risks with strength. The USDN meeting featured sessions on leverage points and skills for enhancing climate preparedness (highlighting work in Baltimore and Seattle) and creating community teams to advise on local resilience challenges (highlighting work in Providence, RI and Northampton, MA).

So, while last week’s election results bring high anxiety about the future of climate solutions in America, trends such as these bring high hopes. Community-driven innovation is on the rise. The urban sustainability movement is not only alive, it’s kicking – and getting bigger and better as time progresses. Ten years ago, the idea that cities could and should lead the way in solving big, hairy, global challenges such as climate disruption was boutique at best. Today, it’s becoming common knowledge and standard operating procedure. If we can make as much progress on the ground in the next decade as we have in the last one, our cities and our world will be much better places for ourselves, our children and generations to come.