What Is a City of the Future, Anyway?

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The federal stimulus money flowing to America’s municipalities right now presents them with a choice and a question.

The choice: Will they use the money to become cities of the past or cities of the future?

The question: What is a city of the future, anyway?

The choice should be simple. A city official’s first responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of the people in his or her community. Insofar as stimulus funds are available to repair failing bridges, dams, roads and vital infrastructure, that’s where they should be invested.

But as more funds are available – for example, the $100 billion earmarked in the stimulus package for energy grants to states and localities, or the $6.3 billion targeted for clean energy grants, or the $17 billion for transit or part of the $40 billion for roads, bridges and other infrastructure – a high priority should be to begin putting each city on the road to the future.

That means building communities that are secure from energy supply disruptions and crippling energy prices; free from the air pollution that threatens the health of 186 million Americans today; laced with safe routes for people to walk and bicycle; able to provide a variety of mobility options so that everyone – including the young, old and disabled – has access to vital services.

Cities of the future condemn no neighborhood to be the dumping ground for waste, pollution or traffic; conserve vital resources such as water; prepare to withstand the anticipated impacts of climate change, including heat waves and extreme weather; protect and restore natural places so that kids of all ages have contact with nature; foster social interaction; and avoid urban sprawl, to name a few criteria.

If the benefits of building for the future are not clear, the urban leaders should think of it this way: If they plan to invest in buildings, transit systems, streets or infrastructure and those improvements are meant to last more than a decade, they are not building the city for themselves. They’re building it for their children. The goal should be to create a community that remains competitive for generations to come as a wonderful place to live and do business.

A more interesting way to define a city of the future is to see one. For example, check the work of Jonathan Arnold, an architect turned computer artist in Kansas City. Arnold shows how his hometown could evolve to become greener and better in the not-too-distant future (see video).

Or take a look at the animations for the greening of Manchester, England, produced by the global development firm Arup – the company that designed Dongtan, China, which, when it’s built, will become one of the most sustainable cities the world has ever known.

Or check out this animation of a new transportation system being built at London’s Heathrow Airport – a technology that may soon come to a street near you. Or look at this image of a vertical garden – a farm within a skyscraper, growing food without producing those nasty CO2 emissions that come from fertilizers and soil disturbance.

If you’d like to redesign your own street, check out Good magazine’s site. If you want to explore the features of a green home, go to the site created by Global Green and Yahoo. If you want to learn the features of a carbon-neutral neighborhood, check out the graphic by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

As these visuals demonstrate, becoming a city of the future is not out of reach. The necessary designs, tools and technologies already exist to make each community in the United States a thriving and sustainable member of the emerging clean energy economy.

To better empower cities, Congress and the Administration can do more than stimulus money. If and when if finally emerges from Congress, the Waxman-Markey climate bill should empower rather than preempt the power of urban leaders and citizens to innovate.

The climate scientists within the Obama administration should make sure their work is translated into terms that business and community leaders can understand and factor into their planning. Among other things, federal climate science must pay more attention to the expected local impacts of climate change so that communities and companies can prepare and adapt. That translated knowledge also will help define new markets for green and carbon-reducing goods and services, new niches for business to fill.

Let’s make sure our scarce taxpayer dollars are investing in the future rather than the past. That means de-subsidizing carbon in federal policy in favor of support for clean energy, resource conservation and the restoration of natural systems – America’s natural capital.

If you are a local leader deciding how best to invest your city’s stimulus dollars, I encourage you to contact and partner with some of the outstanding people and organizations that can help you build for the future. Among them:

Global Green is the U.S. affiliate of Green Cross International, the organization created by Mikhail Gorbachev to promote a more sustainable world. Run by Matt Petersen, Global Green has helped design homes for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, operates a green building resource center, and runs programs on green cities and schools, climate action, water conservation and other critical elements of a sustainable future.

PlaceMatters is a fascinating nonprofit operated by Ken Snyder, formerly an expert in the Department of Energy’s Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development. PlaceMatters offers a toolbox of cutting-edge software that enables more intelligent community planning and more civic engagement in urban design. Those tools include iCommunityTV – a program that allows citizens to post local news videos about developments in their communities.

ICLEI, which I mentioned in my previous post, Why Cities & CEOs Can’t Relax, operates one of the nation’s best programs to help communities prevent and deal with global climate change. Its Climate Resilient Communities Program trains local officials on adaptation; its Climate Mitigation program coaches cities through a five-milestone program that starts with an inventory of local greenhouse gas emissions and ends with the implementation of greenhouse gas mitigation plans.

Another important ICLEI initiative is the STAR Community Index, a national system to help cities develop sustainability indicators and to certify their progress. The U.S. Green Building Council and Center for American Progress have partnered with ICLEI on this new tool, which is scheduled to be available next year.

Three new cities are joining ICLEI every week — but there are nearly 20,000 cities in the United States, and more of them should be working with ICLEI.

Speaking of the U.S. Green Building Council, its internationally popular LEED rating system now involves not only green buildings, but also green neighborhoods. The USGBC has built a national network of local chapters and local green building experts, including some that may be near your city.

In its 2030 Challenge, Architecture 2030 has rallied key organizations in the U.S. building industry around the goal of making all new and renovated buildings carbon-neutral by 2030. Its leader, Ed Mazria, has developed guidelines for communities to modify their building codes to meet this goal, as well as dramatic visualizations of how much of the nation’s coastal areas will be lost with climate-related sea level rise.

Rails to Trails Conservancy, led by Keith Laughlin, who helped guide environmental programs in the Clinton White House, works with communities to build hiking and biking trails. One of Keith’s goals is safe routes for children to walk or bike to and from school.

There’s no lack of vision or help for cities that want to build for the future. With the stimulus package, there’s also some money. And with the imperative that we reduce our reliance on foreign oil and our greenhouse gas emissions, there is no shortage of critical milestones.

The cities that help America create its new energy economy will be tomorrow’s prosperity places, where people will want to live and businesses will want to build.