The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Greening Cities

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ASPEN -- In an age where Washington doesn't seem capable of dealing with any major structural problem, cities have become the most exciting laboratories for policy. Endowed with a unique electorate, things can happen at the local level that aren't possible at the national or even state level. And because there are a lot more cities than there are countries, many more minds in many more environments are trying to solve the basic problems humans face all living together: Where do we get energy? What do we do with waste? How do we keep the air clean? How will people get around?

The Ideas Report

Today at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit unveiled a new tool for city planners. The U.S. and Canada Green Cities Index took 27 cities and scored them on CO2, energy, land use, buildings, transport, water, waste, air and environmental governance. A report accompanying the rankings looked at individual policies and factors that helped shape the cities' scores.

On the top line, the results aren't shocking. San Francisco led the list, followed by Vancouver, New York City, Seattle and Denver. The cities with the lowest rankings were mostly in the old rust belt. The bottom five were Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Cleveland, St. Louis and (in dead last) Detroit. The full list follows the gallery, which shows the cities in alphabetical order. The graphics illustrate the components of the city's overall performance.

overall.jpg

I think the granular data available from the study is more interesting than the topline results. Take Atlanta's water situation. The city's score is middling, but the details are fascinating. Atlanta does exceptionally well restricting water consumption per capita, especially for a town with its weather profile. That's a good thing because Atlanta has been wracked with droughts over the past few years, a problem that may get more severe as the climate gets weirder and the population continues to grow. But get this: Atlanta loses nearly one-third of its water due to leakage! That's far above the city index average of 13 percent and unthinkable, given the city's water problems. Atlanta's losing so much water because of an aging infrastructure that hasn't been fixed.

All these problems we talk about at the abstract level on the national stage -- air quality, water, infrastructure, energy -- are embodied in our cities. If you're Atlanta's mayor, you ignore water infrastructure at your peril. On the positive side, other cities across the world are also facing crumbling infrastructure and coming up with creative ways to finance their renewal. The new report has dozens of examples of problem solving at the city level.

Siemens and the Economist Intelligence Unit have actually put out several similar reports for other parts of the world: Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Sadly, data problems prevent the lists from being mashed up into global rankings. One thing we do know, though, is that density is the lever that makes sustainability easier, and U.S. cities aren't dense. So, it's likely that American cities would have a hard time beating comparably sized cities in Europe, say.

And finally, this isn't the first green cities ranking, nor is it the only one. But it strikes me as significant that one of the largest companies in the world is now putting out this kind of list. the muscle lining up behind a future that uses less resources, produces less waste, guarantees cleaner environments and reduces the derangement of the atmosphere can be shocking.

As the futurist and seer Bruce Sterling said back in 2007: "'Corporate Green.' Get used to this. It's what's for breakfast, lunch and supper. You're going to get Corporate Green whether you like it or not.'" Luckily, I suppose, I like it.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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