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Sustainable Communities: An Urban Imperative

It may be one of the most endearing human qualities to think we are the first to experience something when millions before us have actually traveled the same path, thought the same thoughts and crafted solutions to similar problems. I may think no one else has ever solved a particular problem before; you believe you are the first to find a hidden waterfall in a forest; and a child stares at a full moon with the wonder of an astronaut. We may describe the experiences in different ways, but they are fundamentally the same.

Perhaps it is this quality that makes the subject of community sustainability both an old and a uniquely new issue for city officials. After all, city officials have long concerned themselves with sustainability. Urban living is complex, requiring a balance of laws, goods, services and amenities that make habitation in close proximity to each other not only bearable but enjoyable and rewarding.

The earliest cities required sustainable ways of:

  • Providing food and fresh water;
  • Removing human and animal waste;
  • Providing employment within a reasonable distance of home; and
  • Eliminating conditions that breed diseases and crime.

Throughout history, cities' viability has depended on residents being fed, hydrated, employed, healthy and safe. In modern cities we would add education, recreation, wildlife and culture as important ingredients for a sustainable community.

In the past few years, we have become fundamentally aware that our ability as community leaders to ensure this type of balanced urban development can be heavily influenced by national --- and indeed international --- developments. The current economic crisis is gripping not just our nation but the world, and it is clear that global solutions will be required to restore economic prosperity and growth.

Similarly, climate change is a global problem calling for action on all levels. Not only must Americans reduce their carbon emissions, but the developing world must also grapple with ending its harmful forest-burning practices (which contribute 20 percent of all global emissions), and countries with emerging economies need cost-effective tools and technologies to avoid using carbon-based fuels to power their development.

Sensible Sustainability

When the League set its sights for the second year in a row on "supporting sustainable communities," it made a commitment to work on an issue that fits into the "think globally, act locally" framework --- perhaps like no other. The leadership is linked inextricably to advancing the so-called "green revolution" in our economy; the development of new international, national and state policies to promote sustainability; and individual choices we make on how to live.

In setting a strategic course for this year, the League leadership was unanimous in committing the organization to support sustainable communities in a broad, meaningful way, striking a balance between economic growth and environmental protection in what some called "sensible sustainability." This is the commitment, which is one of the League's four strategic priorities for 2009:

Support Sustainable Communities. Support the efforts of city and state leaders to build and redevelop sustainable communities that strike a necessary and achievable balance between economic growth and environmental protection. Advance sensible community sustainability within a framework of local land use control, reasonable implementation of AB 32 and SB 375, increased water supply and conservation, and reform of the profoundly broken regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process. Support policies that promote the increased use of renewable energy resources and public transit.

Today, city officials are leading the way in implementing sustainability strategies in their communities. Whether it is by expanding the use of water conservation strategies, reducing the carbon footprint of city operations, making their neighborhoods more walkable, expanding transit, improving the energy efficiency of city buildings or providing tools to help homeowners weatherize their homes and use solar energy for heat and electricity, cities have been amazingly innovative and are helping create the economic climate in which further innovation can thrive. As it has been throughout the history of urbanization, building sustainable communities is what city leaders do.

As our world becomes increasingly Hot, Flat and Crowded, the title of an excellent book by Thomas Friedman, we can only hope it is not too late. Some of our recent experiences suggest there may be some surprises in store for us. Friedman writes that while we understand today that coal is an unsustainable and environmentally damaging energy source, its use became widespread in the 19th century because coal is more energy efficient, having twice the energy content of wood. He further observes that this fuel shift also resulted in saving countless acres of forest that would have been consumed for fuel --- a perhaps unforeseen but hardly insignificant consequence.

A Pointed Reminder

Friedman begins the final chapter of his book with a speech that was delivered by a remarkable 12-year-old girl at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She had formed a small environmental group with a few friends, and what she had to say explains in the most profound way why adults --- like us --- have to take building sustainable communities seriously:

Hello, I'm Severn Suzuki, speaking for ECO, the Environmental Children's Organization. We are a group of 12- and 13-year-olds trying to make a difference ? We raised all the money to come here 5,000 miles to tell you adults you must change your ways. Coming up here today, I have no hidden agenda. I am fighting for my future. Losing my future is not like losing an election or a few points in the stock market. I am here to speak for all generations to come. ?

I used to go fishing in Vancouver, my home, with my dad until just a few years ago we found the fish full of cancers. And now we hear of animals and plants going extinct every day --- vanishing forever. In my life, I have dreamt of seeing the great herds of wild animals, jungles and rain forests full of birds and butterflies, but now I wonder if they will even exist for my children to see. Did you have to worry about these things when you were my age? All this is happening before our eyes, and yet we act as if we have all the time we want and all the solutions. I'm only a child and I don't have all the solutions, but I want you to realize neither do you ? You don't know how to bring the salmon back up a dead stream. You don't know how to bring back an animal now extinct. And you can't bring back the forests that once grew where there is now desert. If you don't know how to fix it, please stop breaking it!

At school, even in kindergarten, you teach us how to behave in the world. You teach us not to fight with others, to work things out, to respect others, to clean up our mess, not to hurt other creatures, to share --- not be greedy. Then why do you go out and do the things you tell us not to do?

My dad always says, "You are what you do, not what you say." Well, what you do makes me cry at night. You grown-ups say you love us, but I challenge you. Please make your actions reflect your words. Thank you.

Enough said. Thanks for all you do to make your city --- and our world --- more sustainable.

The League's 2009 Strategic Goals

Protect Funding for Vital Community Services. Vigorously oppose any state efforts to erode funding for vital community services. Oppose proposals to borrow or reduce any local revenue source, including the property tax, the redevelopment agency (RDA) tax increment, sales tax, Proposition 42 funding or any other local financial resources needed for critical community projects and services.

Promote Economic Stimulus and Infrastructure Investment. Promote expansion of federal, state and local investment in transportation, water and other infrastructure projects that will provide immediate jobs and economic benefits for the state of California. Strongly oppose efforts to divert, reduce or steal RDA funding that is the most significant source of infrastructure investment and economic stimulus in the state today.

Support Sustainable Communities. Support the efforts of city and state leaders to build and redevelop sustainable communities that strike a necessary and achievable balance between economic growth and environmental protection. Advance sensible community sustainability within a framework of local land use control, reasonable implementation of AB 32 and SB 375, increased water supply and conservation, and reform of the profoundly broken regional housing needs allocation (RHNA) process. Support policies that promote the increased use of renewable energy resources and public transit.

Promote Reform of State Governance, Budget and Fiscal Systems. Build partnerships for reform of the laws affecting the governance of California state government, including the timely adoption of a balanced state budget, to strengthen the ability and responsibility of the executive and legislative branches to perform their necessary and proper roles in our system of state government. Support proposals that provide local policy-makers with the fiscal tools and local control necessary to deliver critical local services.