Why the US Needs Smart Cities Ranking

The time has arrived to compare and rank US smart cities as we move into the second greatest techno-cultural wave of the century, after the mobile revolution. Smart cities will digitize and profoundly transform our energy, mobility, water, waste and municipal services, including safety and outreach.

smart citiesClearly, smart cities and its Internet of Things (IoT, along with blockchain, etc.) underbelly will catalyze and energize many sectors of our economy in software, hardware, services and infrastructure.

Ten years ago, I wrote the book How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings, which benchmarked the largest 50 cities in 15 categories of economic and environmental sustainability, as well as climate resilience, and provided an aggregate ranking—from #1 Portland, Oregon to #50 Columbus, Ohio.

Since How Green Is Your City? came out in with its 1,000 data points and three billion media impressions, mayors from Michael Bloomberg of New York (#4 overall), to Richard Daley of Chicago (#6), lauded the study; cities like Houston (#39) formed sustainability departments in reaction; while the national leadership of China asked for guidance on how to similarly measure and rank its cities. Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy took aim on New York City, and the Paris Climate Accord, approved in 2015, was driven significantly by the participation of the more sustainable cities in national coalitions.

So why embark on a similar ranking for smart cities? As our climate-change impacted and globalized world becomes primarily urban, and with cities as the molten core of financial, political and economic power, we will require the new ability to use sensors to provide Big Data, and then there must be responses based upon artificial intelligence.

The need for smart cities has long been evident. The Bay Area consultancy I founded, Common Current, has worked globally since 2008 with smart city issues regarding water, infrastructure, transportation, air quality, buildings and energy. Through government and private sector clients in the United States, I have addressed national, urban and industry leaders throughout Asia as well as the European Union, and a French national ministry session on achieving net zero buildings at COP 21 in Paris.

Clearly there is acute interest in smart cities, especially in Europe and Asia. The present field of US smart cities is highly active, but it is also fragmented and opaque, just as US cities were in sustainability a decade ago.

For smart cities, Common Current has been tracking developments in more than 25 large US cities so far, from Google’s Sidewalk Labs and the Vulcan mobility project in Columbus, Ohio (Columbus, Ohio, won a $40 million US Department of Transportation grant for last year’s Smart Cities Challenge), to Comcast’s new wide area networks for sensors in Chicago, the Bay Area and Philadelphia.

Unlike Singapore or Barcelona on the international level, there is no clear smart city leader in the United States. There are many participants and key early projects: San Diego (LED street lighting platform), Boston (smart intersection), San Francisco (smart parking), New York (smart microgrid), Cincinnati (smart sewers), Atlanta (AT&T cross-sector framework), Los Angeles (smart poles for lighting and broadband), Louisville (the grassroots “Louie Lab”), and Kansas City (Smart City Streetcar Corridor).

The goal of the US Smart Cities Ranking is to cover the largest 50 cities by population with a unified research methodology and survey project, rank the cities in each category and overall, and to publish the results in an open-source format.

Through involvement with technology, infrastructure and financing entities in smart cities, we may have some biases, but transparency and consistent data values will be evident, as it was with the rankings in How Green Is My City? Former Seattle Sustainability Director Steve Nicholas, vice president of Climate and Environmental Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said, “I’ve been in the sustainability business for 15 or 20 years now. And these types of rankings have been tried dozens and dozens of times and this in my opinion is the best one in terms of its rigor and how much care they’ve given to apples-to-apples comparisons. A lot of that comes from Warren’s commitment.”

To be clear, creating a study on the scale that the US Smart City Rankings necessitates requires resources for primary research, travel, networking, data analysis and results dissemination. Thus, Common Current invites sponsorship from large smart city players, including Global 1000 brands such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, IBM, Cisco, Deloitte, Intel, GE, Audi, Google, Microsoft and others, including the financial services, real estate and insurance industries.

With any benchmarking a central issue is effectively defining the universe: besides the activities in the cities themselves, what are smart city categories, their components and services, and emerging trends? How can performance measures best be applied to discrete categories? These answers will provide valuable insights and data, perhaps even more valuable than the results of the overall smart cities ranking.

Most importantly, benchmarking US smart cities by defined categories will enable city and market participants to move forward with a clearer sense of thoroughness and standards by which to measure innovation as well as general progress. Just as 2007 was the right time for US cities to have a template by which to guide their leadership in the sustainable economy and world politics, 2017-2018 is the right time for US cities and their partners to embark upon becoming global forces in smart technologies, management and economics.

I hope you’ll agree about the need for US Smart City Rankings. Please send inquiries to me:

warren (at) commoncurrent.com

regarding the US Smart Cities Rankings, which will be under development through 2018.

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My TEDx Talk: Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Cities

Warren Karlenzig at TEDx Mission

TEDx Mission recently invited me to speak at their San Francisco event on how cities are using collective intelligence approaches to address climate change and climate change adaptation. Crowdsourcing and savvy planning are producing healthier quality of life and more resilient urban economies.
The talk drew upon my experience with Common Current, which is working with governments, the private sector and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) globally on urban sustainability master planning, policy and technology around energy, water, infrastructure, mobility, land use and economic issues.
An underlying premise is that as we increasingly become an urban planet, diverse cities will provide the key to sustainability innovations. Others, such as Asian Development Bank’s Guanghua Wan and UCLA’s Matthew Kahn in a report released last week (pdf), “Key Indicators for the Pacific (2012)“, have made similar observations.
Common Current is now helping Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory design indicators software for China’s Ministry of Urban Rural Development so China can better manage its 654 cities as “Low Carbon Ecocities.” China has been leading the trend toward urbanization, going from approximately 20 percent urbanites in 1980, to 53 percent now, to an estimated 70 percent by 2030. In our lifetimes, China has already experienced the fastest and largest mass migration of humans in the history of Earth.
Within this dynamic context, Common Current collaborates extensively with the United Nations, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States, as well as individual cities and communities, on green urban development policy and projects.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, effective strategy and management by city leaders is critical, but bottom-up approaches are also having surprisingly dramatic and replicable impacts that address climate change and resilience.
Climate change has been shown to be linked to prolonged drought, more frequent and damaging heat waves, record number of high temperatures (a 2-to-1 ratio over record lows in US over past decade), wildfires, record urban flooding, record urban rainfall amounts and record deadly superstorms, including violent tornadoes.
Nonetheless, on every inhabited continent, legions of talented and dedicated urban citizens (yes, suburbanites are included) are acting to slow climate change and protect us from its worst impacts through collective crowdsourcing, large-scale citizen participation and social media.
As you will see in the TEDx talk, green urbanization utilizing collective intelligence will assist a needed turnaround from our current plight. Instead of needlessly facing the brink of a volatile future completely unprepared, we are beginning to experience how the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its individual parts.

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Post Carbon Institute Uses Expert Network to Take on Climate, Energy and Community Challenges

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Tonight the Post Carbon Institute (PCI), a California-based think tank addressing sustainability issues associated with climate change, peaking resources and community resiliency, kicks off a three-day gathering with its Fellows (of which I am one) in Berkeley.

The Institute was founded in 2003, largely around the issue of peaking oil and energy supplies. Author Richard Heinberg (The Party’s Over, Peak Everything) was the group’s first Senior Fellow. Heinberg has been now joined by 28 other Fellows, and this is their first gathering.

From an initial focus on peaking energy resources and their potential impacts, PCI now addresses multiple areas and issues including climate change, consumption/ waste, communities, economies, ecology, education, energy, food/ agriculture, government, health, social justice, population, water, transportation.

Eighteen of those who are coming to Berkeley (five will join in remotely) to address how our government, society, communities and different industry sectors can prepare better for the system-based or “wicked problems” that climate change, peaking energy supplies and global recession present.

Participants will include:

  • David Orr (author and professor Oberlin College)
  • David Fridley (energy efficiency and renewables expert, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs)
  • Chris Martenson (“Crash Course” economist)
  • Josh Kaufmann (US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest Labs)
  • Michael Bomford (food and energy scientist, Kentucky University)
  • Sandra Postel (author, director Global Water Policy Project)
  • Tom Whipple (energy expert, former CIA analyst)
  • Zenobia Barlow (author, director Center for Ecoliteracy)
  • Bill Sheehan (consumption and waste expert, Product and Policy Institute)
  • Gloria Flora (public lands expert, director Sustainable Obtainable Solutions)
  • Erika Allen (urban agriculture expert, manager Growing Power)
  • Anthony Perl (author, transportation expert and professor, Simon Frazier University)
  • Hillary Brown (partner, New Civic Works, founder NYC Office Sustainable Design)
  • Stephanie Mills (author, bio-regionalism expert)
  • Wes Jackson (author, founder/ president The Land Institute)
  • William Ryerson (director Population Media Center)
  • Brian Schwartz (public health expert, professor Johns Hopkins University)
  • Bill Rees (community resilience expert, author, University British Columbia)
  • David Hughes (energy expert, geoscientist for Canadian Geological Survey)
  • Warren Karlenzig (urban expert, author, president Common Current)

Other participants that will join in remotely include authors Michael Shuman, Josh Farley, Bill McKibben and Richard Douthwaite, Transition Town movement originator Rob Hopkins; Johns Hopkins’ Cindy Parker.

Look for my report next week on the outcome of this historic gathering.

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Top Ten Sustainability Stories of the Decade

It’s the end of the decade 2000-2009, and there has been
progress as well as potential disaster for sustainability. In chronological
order, I’ve chosen these ten stories to show a range of relevant global and national
issues and events on climate, business, government, media, design, technology,
language and demographics. Some of the entries are pegged to an exact date, while
others cover a time period.

The first entry, climate change is impacting all aspects of
sustainability thought, planning and action.

1.       Terror
of the Decade: Global Climate Change Confirmed by…Climate, IPCC, Heads of State

Time Period: 2000-2009

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The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that we humans are
changing the earth’s climate in ways in which millions are beginning to regret.
Ten of the hottest years on record globally have been recorded in the ten years
since
1997. Some of the impacts: rising overall sea levels from melting polar ice are
already damaging low-lying areas in Bangladesh, India, Egypt and China, and
threatening the very existence of island nations. More intense hurricanes (Katrina
killed more than 1,300 in 2006
and helped shut down the oil and gas refining sector in the Gulf Coast);
droughts, heat (the Europe heat event of 2003 caused more than 35,000 deaths) and wildfires (Australia’s Melbourne-area deadly firestorm of 2009 exploded
during one of the hottest periods ever recorded Down under, dramatizing the
ravishes of an ongoing 8-year drought).

So what if these are chance events, unrelated to man’s
impact on the globe’s climate? That’s a fair question and an outside
possibility, but odds are that these extreme events were at least partially due
to the rising global concentration of CO2, which is now at about 390 parts per
million (ppm), up from 315 ppm in the late 1950s. The real threat is that things will get much
worse (heat waves, droughts, floods, depletion of glaciers and water supplies,
agriculture and fisheries disruption) if our global greenhouse gases continue
to increase. Human-based greenhouse gas emissions increased 70% between 1970
and 2004, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, also known
as the IPCC). The watershed IPCC Fourth Assessment Report of 2007 developed by 2,500 of the world’s leading climate
scientists, put the likelihood at more than 90 percent that the global
temperature increase of .74 Celsius between 1906 and 2005 has been caused by
human greenhouse gas emissions. How often have 2,500 scientists agreed on
anything? The landmark 2007 “Stern Review on the Economic of Climate Change,” by former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern,
estimates that global climate change could negatively impact the world
economy annually at 5-20 percent Gross Domestic Product, while Stern estimated
that the annual costs of reducing the risks of global climate
change are estimated to be about 1 percent of world GDP.

Unfortunately, the UN COP-15 conference in Copenhagen ended with a whimper, producing only a non-binding agreement
to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above
pre-industrialized temperature levels. Follow-up actions, including a potential binding
treaty, will set the agenda for the next decade and beyond.  

2.      
Word: Sustainability

Time
Period: 2000-2009

 

The use of the term
“sustainability” itself has been a major surprise this past decade. In 2000,
only a few policy wonks and academics used the word, traditionally defined as meeting
present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet
their needs.”
Now the
public (maybe even more than the media) is gleaning that “sustainability”
differs considerably from “environmentalism” as it is based on planning for an
uncertain future based on economics, culture, resources and technology.

As the current decade closes many are searching for a
term that could replace “sustainability,” claimed to be almost meaningless now
because it has been hijacked by greenwashing corporate marketing campaigns (I
bet some such ads pop up next to this post somewhere in future digital
ether!). “Resilience” is currently gaining  traction, but we’ll perhaps need another decade to see if the “s-word” gets dethroned.

3.       Standards:
LEED Green Buildings

Date: March 2000

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The US Green Building Council
formally released its Leadership in Energy and Environment Design building standards
(LEED)
full Green Building Rating system 2.0 in March 2000. The impact on the nation’s
building and construction industry over the next ten years has been wildly
popular and transformational on numerous levels. The number of LEED-certified
or registered buildings increased from 10,000 in 2007 to 20,000 by the
beginning of 2009
. Providing a system-based measurable standard of what “green” means is useful
for policy, benchmarking and new market development. The LEED ratings, for instance,  were
integral to my ability to develop an overall sustainability benchmarking of US
cities starting in 2005 (which can found in my book How Green is Your City?). Critics
have assailed LEED
for providing standards in certification that do not reflect
actual performance in energy efficiency. Nevertheless, LEED standards, are now being positioned for international
markets (in competition with Europe’s BREE-AM and China’s
emerging Three Star standard), and they continue to be a powerful
teaching tool, not to mention an industry onto themselves. Today’s savvy urban
planner, construction manager or architect must possess the LEED-AP,
“Accredited Professional” tagline on their business card. In addition to new
commercial building construction, LEED is now being applied to homes, existing
buildings, schools, neighborhoods and may even extend to cities, under the LEED for
Neighborhood Development
standard
that was launched in 2009.

The next challenges for green building standards will be
rating life-cycle impacts (carbon, water, scarce resources) of construction processes and material, while integrating measures of building performance–how much buildings actually save energy or water once they are occupied.

4.       Product:
The Toyota Prius

Date: July 2000

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Back in the 1990s, Toyota
Motor Corporation CEO Katsuaki Watanbe helped birth the “G-21,” later known as
the Prius, when he decided that middle-class consumers wanted a car that used
new motor innovations to be fuel-efficient. The Prius hybrid gas-electric car
was introduced in the United States in July 2000. It quickly became a Hollywood status symbol after Leonardo DiCaprio bought one
in 2001, and he and other stars such as Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart
(remember her?) began showing up at the 2003 Oscar ceremonies not in
chauffeured limos, but behind the wheel or driven in their own Priuses. By the
decade’s peak sales year of 2007, the Toyota Prius had sold 180,000 units in the
United States. These cars get 40-50 miles per gallon but
perhaps even more importantly provide a meter showing real-time and historic
fuel efficiency; self-monitoring feedback is one of the greatest ways of
changing behavior to reduce energy use.

Plug-in electric models of the Prius will begin to be released on  test basis in
2010
, in a challenge to the introduction of GM’s Chevy Volt. Plug-ins may
create fuel efficiencies that can truly reduce carbon emissions and oil
dependency, getting from 51 to 100+ miles per gallon. One problem with electric
cars or plug-in hybrid electrics is that their true sustainability impact depends on exactly
how the electricity they use is produced at the power plant: renewables or
dirty coal? In parts of the United States that continue to burn large amounts
of coal to generate electricity (Southeast, lower Midwest and Plains states),
driving an electric car does little or nothing to reduce a person’s overall
carbon footprint when compared to gas-burning cars. When you consider cars and
health, social, land use and material life-cycle impacts, driving less is better for people’s
fitness
, the
environment and the planet.

5.       Corporate
Story. Wal-Mart Embarks on a “Green” Path

Time
Period: 2004-2005

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I must admit, I was a skeptic when I first heard of
Wal-Mart’s plan to go green in 2004 from Jib Ellison, founder of Blue Skye
Consulting
, one
of the major collaborative forces behind Wal-Mart’s transformation. Wal-Mart,
at that point the largest company in the world (it’s now number 3), had
been known for its ruthless management style, questionable labor practices, and
for helping put locally owned stores in towns across the country out of
business. Ellison had met with Wal-Mart’s then-CEO Lee Scott at the behest of
Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman, and
Scott decided upon a serious campaign to make the company more resource and
energy efficient. Since that meeting, the company has been streamlining its
transportation fleet, buildings and some products to be less environmentally
destructive. The company is now targeting its supply chain, which is primarily
in China, in a loosely defined, greening protocol.

The impact of Wal-Mart going green helped awaken the
nation’s business leaders to the potential of making their own operations and
supply chains energy and resource efficient, (just sounds like good business to me). Wal-Mart announced earlier in 2009 that it would require
manufacturers to calculate and disclose the full environmental costs of
ingredients and processes on product labels sometime in the next five years.
Suppliers, formerly isolated or little regulated, are now assessing their
operations in a way they never would have without the threat of greater
scrutiny from their biggest customer.

6.      
Regulations: California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006
(AB 32)

Time
Period: 2005-2006

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When California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger made the declaration in June 2005 that, “I say the debate is
over (on climate change),” 
many were still heatedly arguing that climate change needed more studies before
action was taken. The Governor and the California Legislature pressed ahead in
2006 to sign the nation’s first major climate change mitigation legislation,
known as AB 32 . Now AB 32 will soon be implemented across industries and even in local
communities through follow-up legislation such as the regulation known
as SB 375, the nation’s first statewide
regulatory attempt to limit suburban and exurban sprawl. Meanwhile, opponents
of AB 32, are gearing up for 2010 gubernatorial elections, claiming AB 32 will
cost the state $143 billion in auction taxes alone. Whatever happens
next, California is being looked on by the Obama Administration and world
leaders as the pace setter in climate change mitigation with its aggressive automotive
fuel standards
,
green building standards and AB 32’s goal of reducing
greenhouse gases 80% over 1990 levels by 2050.

7.       Film: An Inconvenient Truth

Date: May, 2006

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Released in Summer 2006 at the Sundance Film Festival, An Inconvenient Truth made the debate on
climate change public. The documentary, which was actually just a series of
lectures and slideshows that former Vice President Al Gore was giving around
the world, hit a nerve. Despite “action scenes” that consisted of Gore either
1.) riding up elevators or 2.) riding down escalators, the film created a major
public buzz and introduced the subject of climate change to popular culture. An
Inconvenient Truth
received an Academy Award in 2007 for Best Documentary
and went on to set records for box office revenues in its category. An Inconvenient Truth offered very few
solutions, suggesting compact fluorescent bulbs and little more. This critical
learning opportunity was finally addressed when Gore released a follow-up book
in 2009, A Plan to Solve the Climate
Crisis
.

8.       Book:
The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Date:
May, 2006

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Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma made clear the benefits of sustainable
agriculture and food production, and even foraging or killing your own food:
it’s healthier for people, animals, farmers, the land and nature. The ongoing
popularity of this book has helped create a demand for sustainably raised food
that has out-paced supply. The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
patiently outlined what is wrong with industrial agriculture and
livestock production, where highly subsidized ingredients such as high fructose
corn syrup have become a surplus commodity to be forced upon products or
animals in order to reduce the price of ingredients, without regard to health
(diabetes, reduced nutrition). I had the good fortune of meeting Angelo Garro,
the Italian forager, now based in Northern California who was profiled in the
last half of the book. As we traded notes on wild huckleberry picking one
afternoon at a friend’s orchard party, he was pulling off some strips of meat from a boiled
carcass. When the sun went down most were unknowingly eating a jack rabbit that
Angelo had shot in the orchard a few hours before–it had made its way into a
delicious bolognese pasta sauce.

9.       Design:
Masdar City, First Planned Net-Zero Carbon City

Time Period: 2006-2017

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Masdar will be a 50,000-person city based on applied sustainability
research and technology that is being developed in Abu Dhabi, United
Arab Emirates. While other cities have been planned to be net-zero carbon
(Dongtan, China, which is not being developed because of local corruption and
other issues), Masdar
has been one of the few net-zeros that appear to be proceeding as planned. With
financial partners Credit Suisse, Siemens and General Electric, Masdar is also
backed by the city-state of Abu Dhabi, as well as technology partners from the
UK and Spain. The complex is being used for cutting-edge research in: renewable
energy (including dozens of active and passive solar and wind technologies), water
conservation technologies that can distill drinking water from ambient moisture
both indoors (sweat) and outdoors (dew), as well as local urban food production
schemes. In fall 2009, the Masdar Institute of Technology opened, in conjunction with
MIT, where students get degrees in engineering,  material sciences, IT, water and the
environment, all with a relationship to the real world demonstration projects
taking root in the city that in Arabic means “the source.”

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10.   Future
Trend: Mega-growth of Unregulated Asian Cities + Mega Drought

Time
Period: 2009-2030

Between now and 2027 Asian Cities will account for more
than half of the world’s greenhouse gas increases,
according to a study by the Asian Development Bank.
From Mumbai to Beijing, cities will add a projected 1.8 billion people over the next two
decades; they are almost entirely unregulated in their growth, carbon
management and environmental impacts, despite some new siloed attempts to
manage their industries, power production and energy efficiency. The daunting
challenge is that no regulatory structure exists to monitor this collection of Asian mega-cities,
despite the fact that many of these cities has or will have populations of 10-20 million individuals. This megagrowth began
around the beginning of the 00’s, when Asian urban population was at 1.4
billion. Asia is projected to have about 3 billion urbanites by 2030.

Water is the first epic Asian city resource
crisis. The Tibetan Plateau, source of most of the region’s major
sources of fresh water (including the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges,
Irrawaddy and the Indus rivers) has been experiencing a seven percent loss of
glaciers on an annual basis, according to a report released last week (pdf) at the
Copenhagen climate conference. 

Beijing has been hit especially
hard by a ten-year drought (pdf): the city of 17 million has enough water for only 14
million. Beijing has been forced to procure
water from surrounding agricultural regions and rapidly diminishing groundwater, while some cities in India have
completely run out of water during periods of drought over the past decade.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy
consultancy. He is
a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

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European Green City Index Released: City of Copenhagen Ranks Highest, Kiev at Bottom

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A sustainability ranking of 30 major European cities was released today in Copenhagen, the Scandinavian city that besides hosting the UN COP15 climate talks, has been chosen as top scorer in the new European Green City Index.

The study, sponsored by Siemens AG and developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked 30 major cities across Europe relative to one another in eight categories with 30 underlying qualitative and quantitative indicators.

The top cities, in ranked order:

1. Copenhagen, Denmark
2. Stockholm, Sweden
3. Oslo, Norway
4. Vienna, Austria
5. Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Don’t think that this ranking is of the “Greenest Cities” in Europe, even though it’s called The Europe Green City Index. Such an assumption is made by many about city sustainability indices. The cities at the bottom of this list are the poorest overall performers out of the study universe of 30. (Many thought the sustainability ranking for 50 US cities that I created in 2004 was a list of “America’s greenest cities,” even though we called it the SustainLane US City Rankings; the study is also featured in the 2007 book, How Green is Your City?)

The lowest-ranking cities in the European study, out of the total of 30 cities:

26. Zagreb, Croatia
27. Belgrade, Serbia
28. Bucharest, Romania
29. Sophia, Bulgaria
30. Kiev, Ukraine

Kiev_SunnyLake.JPGKiev, Ukraine

Interestingly, all the laggard cities are located in either the former Soviet Union, or in former Soviet-controlled Eastern European nations. The difference between the overall highest ranking city, Copenhagen, at 87, and the lowest-scoring city, Kiev at 33 is substantial.

The new European city ranking analyzed cities by the following eight categories:

  • CO2
  • Buildings
  • Energy
  • Transport
  • Water
  • Waste and Land Use
  • Air Quality
  • Environmental Governance

These categories leave out food, the only large oversight. Food accounts for a significant amount of greenhouse gas and other environmental impacts in its production, processing, transportation, storage, retailing and disposal. Siemens does not have a direct interest in the food business, so such an omission is not surprising.

When I added “food” as an indicator category for the 15 SustainLane US City Rankings categories–as measured in community gardens and farmer markets per capita–many, even in the “environmental community,” were baffled. It’s amazing to think that just five years ago there was so little connection seen between food to sustainability, especially in urban areas.

Fortunately, times have changed and the emphasis on local food and on sustainable agriculture and food production has been significant, especially in certain US urban areas (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle).  

Back to the Europe Green City Index, Copenhagen ranked high in energy use–number 2–as measured in percentage of renewable energy, and also in environmental governance, in which it tied for first with Helsinki, Stockholm and Brussels, all scoring a perfect 10 points.

Copenhagen also ranked third in transportation; it has the highest rate of commute cycling of any major European city, with 36 percent of all trips taken by bicycle. Portland, the leading US city for cycling, by comparison, has an overall bike rate of 6 percent.

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City cycling in Copenhagen

There is an obvious correlation in overall scores between the more wealthy–and higher-scoring–northern European cities and their poorer Eastern European counterparts, but the study did not include criteria for any direct economic or social factors. Housing affordability was one ranking criteria I added to the SustainLane US City Rankings after teachers that couldn’t afford living in pricey San Francisco asked, “How sustainable is that?”

Some of the specific underlying indicators for the European Green City Index, included quantitative data points such as recycling rate, and use of public transportation along with other qualitative indicators (e.g. CO2 reduction targets, efficiency standards for buildings).

Besides these tidbits of indicator information and the chart provided at the beginning of this post showing overall scores, the study has not yet provided adequate methodological factors such as weighting of indicator categories and a better explanation of exact scoring within the eight individual indicators for qualitative categories.

The index would also benefit by breaking out categories of analysis that are artificially grouped in a single category, such as “Water and Land Use.” Water itself can and should be broken into separate categories such as “Water Supply” and “Water Quality.” Land Use is also significant enough to merit a separate category of analysis, since planning and zoning can create large-scale urban sustainability impacts for many decades

Still, the results of the Europe Green City Index should be very useful, and will hopefully have the impact on European cities that other city sustainability rankings have achieved elsewhere with citizens, business, media and politicians: making urban sustainability performance more transparent, understandable within a class of peers, and subject to competition in “a race to the top.”

Some of our biggest challenges in cutting carbon to reduce global climate change will be in understanding the system dynamics that cities and other complex entities such as corporations, neighborhoods or even our households comprise. We no longer have the luxury of viewing our energy sources, food, water, buildings and land as separate, unrelated systems, even if business, government and academic institutions have been formulated according to these silos.

Nor can we view our cities as separate systems from nature, the global climate and our social fabric.

Keeping score matters, or else we wouldn’t know the score.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

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Common Current’s Top Ten 2008 Sustainability Stories

Here are the top ten sustainability related stories of 2008 that we have been watching and participating in at Common Current, a global sustainability consultancy. True to sustainability system dynamics, most of these items impact the other items on the list, and they will continue to unfold in 2009 and beyond.


1. Election of Barack Obama


After Barack Obama’s historic November 2008 election, he continued to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the risks posed by  global climate change and the nation’s dependency on foreign energy. In addition to making green jobs and clean technologies a major part of a national economic stimulus package and a precondition for many cabinet appointments, Obama’s view of sustainability as an opportunity shows he will take on vexing problems with new solutions.

 

Obama’s statement on “60 Minutes” when asked about his energy priorities with oil going from $147 a barrel to under $60 a barrel was telling: “We go from shock to trance. You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start filling up our SUVs again. And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. It’s part of the addiction, all right. That has to be broken. Now is the time to break it.”

 

Obama’s dipping into the Clinton well to appoint former EPA politcal warhorse Carol Browner as Energy and Climate Czar demonstrates that his new solutions don’t necessarily mean new people will be addressing them.

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Barack Obama with new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, EPA chief Lisa Jackson and “Energy and Climate Czar” Carol Browner (AP photo)

 

One of Obama’s sustainability-related appointments, though, does demonstrate how multi-sector collaboration will reshape the US economy to be more energy efficient and less carbon intensive. Steven Chu as Secretary of Energy is a savvy choice. Chu, a Nobel-prize winning director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has piloted economic-development enhancing climate change solutions with the energy industry, the green building sector, venture capital firms and alternative fuel academic researchers. He also supervised the Helios Project, which is trying to bridge the gap between transportation and solar energy technologies.

And to bolster the administration’s science-based approach on policy further, Obama selected Harvard’s John Holdren as Chief Science advisor. Holdren is respected as one of the leading experts on global climate science (he advised Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth), and is well versed in clean technologies.



2. The 2008 Presidential Campaign

Unlike previous elections where “The Environment” garnered nary a mention, the months leading up to the 2008 election of Barack Obama saw the big-time advent of sustainability topics.

 

Both McCain and Obama supported carbon cap and trading for industry to reduce greenhouse gases. Obama also made a vague campaign pledge of investing $150 billion over 10 years on clean tech and energy efficiency.

 

But the most memorable sustainability campaign moments came in spring when gas prices began to hit their historic high of more than $4 a gallon. McCain’s call for a consumer federal gas tax holiday was met with derision from most including Obama, as it would only make foreign oil dependence worse, not to mention increase carbon emissions. The McCain “gas tax holiday plan,” supported by then-candidate Hillary Clinton, died on the vine during the heat of June.

3. 2008: The Highest Gas and Oil Prices Ever

When oil reached $4-5 a gallon at the pump and more than $145 a barrel in July, a future of energy volatility and potential energy scarcity came into sharper focus. Record numbers of Americans took to public transit, while others reconsidered where and how they could use less gas not only in their cars but in their lives: “Mixed-use” real estate (neighborhoods with shops, jobs and homes) with good public transit were suddenly hot tickets. Meanwhile, people started using web tools such as “WalkScore to judge whether potential jobs and homes were easy walking distances to shopping, schools and entertainment. Offices or homes that were too car-dependent were suddenly out of fashion.

 

4. 2009: The Lowest (Relative) Gas and Oil Prices Ever?

The world economic meltdown of 2008-2009 demonstrates how closely energy supply, particularly oil, greases the gears of commerce–and vice versa. As the stock market and demand plunged, so did oil prices. Oil reached a year low of under $40 a barrel in late December, when OPEC’s announcement of production cuts did little to stop the slide.

The real hand on the throttle of pricing is the economy, as global demand has slowed considerably. When the economy does pick up, scarce supply (or speculation about scarce supply) might again force steep price hikes, as private oil companies and nationally owned oil producers are canceling development plans for refineries and exploration because of the large drop in prices. In the meantime, alternative fuel development will be hurt as this emerging market, when unsubsidized, requires a minimum oil price of about $50 a barrel to be competitive with crude.

 

5. Arctic Ice Cap Melting Accelerates Wildly

The surprising loss noted by scientists in 2008 of the Arctic ice cap and inland Arctic ice is major cause of on-going global environmental, economic and geo-political concern, with the area now up to ten degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the 1980s. The newly open Arctic waters will cause even warmer temperatures in the region and beyond, as water absorbs far more heat from the sun than does ice.

 

Besides releasing the trapped methane (worse than carbon dioxide in terns of greenhouse impacts) from permafrost, melting inland ice is raising global sea levels. Two trillion tons of arctic ice has melted since 2003, according to NASA. Sea ice in the arctic region broke up earlier in the season, opening up a potential permanent shipping lane around the former polar ice cap and precipitating an international scramble for the region’s energy resources.

 

6. Super Storms and Global Climate Change Adaptation

The strength, duration and location of major storms in 2008 led many to speculate how much global climate change is contributing to deadly and economically devastating events.

 

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Burma’s southern coast before and after (May 2008) Typhoon Nargis. A present day image providing a snapshot of what many climate change forecasts project for some coastal areas.


On the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ike came ashore as a dangerously large hurricane (though only officially Category 2 strength) near the Houston-Galveston area, killing at least 17, and destroying or damaging thousands of homes as well as knocking out refineries, oil platforms and major supply pipelines. Southeastern US cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, NC were hit with severe price hikes and gas shortages for the month that followed Ike, demonstrating the vulnerability of the nation’s economy to storms that may be intensified by climate change.

 

7. China’s Industry Impact on Olympics, Consumer Products, Global Food and Air

(Thanks to Jared Press on this)

After taking up a “Blue Skies” campaign and relocating or ceasing industrial production and much of Beijing’s downtown traffic, China barely cleared its polluted skies in time for the opening Summer Olympic ceremonies. Air, water and toxic waste pollution have been increasing steadily in the nation as a result of consumer demand in the United States for inexpensive products. Only one tenth of the nation’s sewage is treated, according to a University of Hong Kong scientist. This “ask no questions” mentality has created runaway cancer rates, turned rivers bright green or black, and smudged the atmosphere so much that at times in Beijing airplanes have not been allowed to land.

 

China also by 2008 became the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It spews a dangerous blend of particulates, sulfur, mercury and other deadly compounds, as new coal plants are fired up at a rate of two per week. Air pollution on the West Coast of United States and Canada has been recently shown to contain as much as one-third of its air pollutants directly from China.

 

Then there is product contamination from China, which began with lead-tainted toys and jewelry, and spread to exported poisonous toothpaste by 2007. In 2008 the industrial and agricultural by-product melamine, first detected in animal feed for chickens, cattle, and fish has now gone up the food chain into eggs and milk. The tainted baby formula has caused kidney failure and illness in 294,000 Chinese infants and six deaths. Tainted chocolate, chickens and hogs have been found in the US, though the meat was not recalled, so it’s likely that many Americans have been unknowingly exposed to China’s dangerous practices not only in the air that they breathe, but in the food they eat.

 

As for the ballyhooed “Eco-City” of Dongtan that China was said to be developing with Arup Engineering, groundbreaking has not occurred and the permit for development has lapsed.

 

 

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8. Foreclosure Crisis: Recipe for Smart Growth?

 

The foreclosure crisis that started in 2007 when gas prices began to skyrocket and that magnified in 2008, had its beginnings in the areas of the United States that largely lack public transit, walkability and mixed real estate uses. Meanwhile as gas prices rose to record levels, metro areas that had housing and jobs close to good transit and walkable amenities saw their value hold steady. Any plan for preventing future housing sector meltdowns needs to include an analysis of how gas and transportation prices pushed many over the financial edge, despite the plentiful supply of distant housing from job markets that seemed (or seems) affordable with low gas prices.

One smart move in policy in 2008 was California’s Senate Bill 375, the nation’s first law designed to limit sprawl and provide communities and developers incentives to build transit-oriented “infill.”

 

9. US Auto Fleet to go Electric? 

With the survival of the current US auto industry in doubt, whatever rises from the ashes will likely be greener and cleaner than anything Detroit ever thought possible before the 2008 downturn. Leading the “charge” for an electric US fleet is none other than Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Ford III, grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford. Bill Ford met privately with Obama during the campaign and with Obama and his advisors after the election: Ford is reportedly advocating for a mostly consumer electric fleet as a way of restructuring the industry to be competitive with imports while reducing climate change emissions.

 

10. Green Jobs

Through the leadership of Van Jones, president of Green For All, the reality of “Green Collar Jobs” came roaring into the United States during 2008, culminating in the “Green Jobs Act” which could be included in Congress’s 2009 economic stimulus package. The act aims to provide 25,000 jobs in solar panel installation, home and business energy retrofitting and other high-paying jobs for Americans, launching new training centers and education programs in high unemployment areas with disappearing manufacturing jobs. The US Conference of Mayors estimates growth of 4.2 million new “green collar” jobs in the nation over the next 30 years. Welcome news after a sobering year.

 

 

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