The Urban Green Revolution

Forget watered-down global treaties among nations — cities are the next environmental frontier

In June, mayors from around the world gathered in San Francisco to draw up an ambitious blueprint for the green city of tomorrow. They also compared notes on new experiments in mass transit, energy use, and other aspects of urban life that will need to be transformed if cities are to lower their impact on climate change and environmental decline. Associate editor Leif Utne attended the event, which he calls the moment when a quietly growing green-cities movement revealed itself to be a global phenomenon. Here is his report. — The Editors

SAN FRANCISCO — Jaime Lerner is beaming like a proud grandfather. After speaking at the United Nations summit on urban sustainability, held here in early June, the 67-year-old architect and former mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba has just been mobbed by adoring fans. For the founder of the growing green cities movement, this is nothing new. He’s long been the darling of progressive urban policy wonks for the way he transformed his hometown into what many now call the greenest city on earth.

When Lerner took office in 1971 as a young technocrat appointed by the country’s military junta, he designed a high-tech network of roadways reserved for buses carrying up to 300 passengers each. The system became the main mode of transportation for the city’s residents, who now number 2.2 million, racking up over 2 million rides a day. Meanwhile, dense development along the transit routes spared a lot of green space elsewhere. Bus rapid transit systems like Curitiba’s have recently been built in Bogot‡, Jakarta, Melbourne, and Los Angeles.

Environmentalists have long nurtured a Jeffersonian grudge against cities, saying they are injurious to ecological and human health. They’ve been written off as indelibly dirty places marred by air and water pollution, poverty, and disease. But as the gathering in San Francisco revealed, that attitude is changing. For many reasons, cities are now often seen as playing a crucial role in environmental improvement.

One simple factor is the world’s increasing urbanization. According to the United Nations, 2005 marks the first time in human history that more than half of the earth’s population lives in cities, and urban areas consume some three-quarters of the planet’s resources. With developed countries living far beyond their ecological means, many now realize that our cities must dramatically reduce their ecological footprints, and fast, if we are to avoid disaster. Three decades after Lerner began his visionary experiment in urban planning, others are adopting his longtime mantra: “The city is not the problem. The city is the solution.”

The green cities movement has been slowly building for decades, as Lerner and others began to re-imagine transportation, land use, urban food systems, and alternative energy. Since the 1980s, groups like the Toronto-based International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) have been bringing city leaders together across borders to share innovations — a trend that went largely unnoticed beyond a few interested planners and academics. Meanwhile, activists and the public remained focused on big-picture environmental issues like climate change, species decline, and deforestation.

But as the Bush administration and other national governments blocked real progress on global environmental accords, local efforts moved to the fore. London’s iconoclastic mayor Ken Livingstone grabbed headlines in early 2003 when he imposed a “congestion charge” of $12 a day on cars driving into the city center. Suburban drivers howled in protest, but many switched to public transit, and car trips in central London have dropped more than 15 percent, greatly reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. The experiment has been widely hailed as a success, and cities around the globe — including New York and San Francisco — are considering similar measures.

More recently, on the last day of February, when the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels pledged that his city would meet the treaty’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to below 1990 levels by 2012. He also challenged other mayors to do the same. At a June gathering in Chicago, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed a climate protection agreement that 171 mayors had signed by midsummer.

The U.N. summit was a coming-out party for the global green cities movement — a chance for participants to share ideas and show the world that cities have unique power to improve the environment. Cities have always been laboratories for political and social reform. And city officials are more accountable to their constituents than state and national officials.

At the summit, some 68 mayors — including many from urban giants like Sao Paulo and Mumbai and those from environmental leaders like Vancouver and Stockholm — gathered to draft and sign a bold manifesto for urban sustainability. The San Francisco Urban Environmental Accords ( lay out 21 concrete steps to a greener city, grouped into seven broad categories — energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health, and water. The actions range from enacting strict new construction guidelines to protecting critical habitat and urban wildlife corridors.

The accords are voluntary but include firm targets — like increasing renewable energy use to 10 percent within seven years, and reducing per capita water consumption by 10 percent by 2015. Generation Earth, a nonprofit group that worked with ICLEI and U.N. officials to organize the summit, will regularly grade each city’s effort to meet the accords. “There is tremendous power in targets and timetables,” says summit co-convener Randy Hayes, director of sustainability for Oakland under mayor Jerry Brown. “Even if the same person isn’t there, if you set a goal of 10 percent renewable power within seven years, you can check and see if they’ve achieved it.”

Though the accords brought the mayors together, the summit’s most important function was as a forum for trading ideas. “We wanted to create a safe space for the mayors to compare notes about what works in other cities, beyond the borders of their own countries,” said Parin Shah, one of the U.N. summit’s organizers. Indeed, how often does the mayor of tiny New Paltz, New York, get a chance to discuss recycling programs with the mayor of Kampala, Uganda?

While the mayors were meeting, more than 200 events took place that week throughout San Francisco — dozens of panels and lectures, an energy-efficient technology fair, a documentary film series, art projects in local schools, and a green cities expo with hundreds of exhibitors.

Ironically, as San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom shuttled from event to event throughout the week — including a ceremony at which the group SustainLane ( named San Francisco America’s most sustainable city — he encountered demonstrators. Some were protesting a proposed transit rate hike and others were criticizing him for delaying the promised shutdown of two dirty diesel-burning electric power plants in Bayview-Hunter’s Point, one of the city’s poorest, most polluted neighborhoods.

In fact, environmental justice became a dominant theme at the summit. Calling for an end to “environmental racism,” Oakland activist Van Jones, director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, pointed out that the predominantly black neighborhood of West Oakland had seven times the asthma rate of California at large. “That’s an environmental issue,” he said. At a panel on green jobs, Jones implored the mayors to steer sustainable economic development toward such communities. “The people who have suffered the most from the oil-dependent economy should be the first to benefit from the green economy,” he said.

The international scene is littered with failed environmental treaties, each hailed as a turning point in global consciousness, only to be weakened or even gutted, often thanks to the U.S. government and its financial interests. The recurring argument is that environmental protection is too costly.

If cities are to fulfill Jaime Lerner’s claim that they’re the solution to a greener world, they’ll have to prove the naysayers wrong. The fascinating thing is how uniquely positioned they are to do so. The modern city is perhaps the most effective unit of social change these days, small enough to marshal social cohesion for getting things done yet large enough to be an engine of cultural influence on the wider stage.

As Oakland’s Randy Hayes noted, there’s no guarantee that the accords drawn up in San Francisco last June will work where so many other agreements have failed. But it’s clear that the green deals struck between nations aren’t doing the job. “That’s why we pulled these mayors together,” he added. “Cities have more in common with each other than national governments.” From New Paltz to Kampala, there’s a growing awareness that if we’re ever to address environmental decline and other crucial challenges of the 21st century, cities, not nations, may lead the way.

Leif Utne is the associate editor of Utne.

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