Article President’s Message Maria Alegria

How California Cities Are Meeting the Challenges of Climate Change

The issue of climate change presents some robust challenges for California city officials and their communities. At the same time, it offers numerous opportunities for leadership and innovation.

Cities throughout the state are exploring ways to reduce their carbon footprint. They are implementing exciting projects and programs to cut greenhouse gas emissions, increase energy efficiency, lessen our dependence on foreign oil and improve air and water quality. These efforts benefit the local community, the region, the state and, ultimately, the planet.

It’s interesting to note that many of these municipal programs and projects have been under way for some time now — in some cases, several years.

Green Buildings Offer Multiple Advantages

For example, the City of Santa Rosa launched its Santa Rosa Build It Green (SR BIG) program in 2003. A voluntary program, SR BIG promotes building and remodeling homes in a way that reduces energy demands, releases far fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, conserves water and reduces construction waste. The program follows a set of simple but comprehensive Green Building Guidelines that provide a roadmap for building design and construction. SR BIG-certified homes look like any other home, and include large custom homes, production subdivision homes, affordable homes (built by Habitat for Humanity) and municipal remodeled dwellings, such as the Santa Rosa Samuel Jones Hall Homeless Shelter. An SR BIG home is at least 11 percent more energy efficient than a conventional new home and is commensurately less expensive to heat, cool and operate.

In the same spirit, in 2004, the City of San Jose opened the world’s first green library, which was conceived and constructed as a model of green building design. It uses 30 percent less energy and 50 percent less irrigation water than standard buildings, and incorporates natural light and a variety of chemical-free fabrics and materials to improve indoor air quality and the comfort of library patrons. At least 25 percent of the materials used during construction were made from recycled products, such as soda bottles, and 20 percent of the building materials were manufactured locally.

Green buildings make good sense financially. In October 2003, the State of California released an in-depth analysis called The Costs and Financial Benefits of Green Buildings, which presented a comprehensive study on the cost benefits of green buildings and concluded that the financial upside exceeds the cost by a factor of 10-to-1.

And on the flip side, the practice of deconstruction — the process of remov ing a building by taking it apart in the reverse order it was constructed — is enabling building materials to be salvaged and recovered for reuse. Deconstruction reduces greenhouse gas emissions created by the production of replacement building materials, provides lower-cost building materials to the community, extends the life of landfills and protects the natural environment by reducing the need to extract new resources. The City of Palo Alto requires salvage as part of its construction and demolition debris reuse and recycling ordinance, and numerous businesses throughout the state are now offering deconstruction services.

Encouraging Energy Conservation

Cities are also involved in efforts to increase energy efficiency. In Southern California , the 15 cities of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments launched an innovative effort to encourage residents to increase energy efficiency. The program was initiated in February 2003, and has now expanded to include partnerships with Southern California Edison, the Ga s Company and local water agencies. Now known as the South Bay Energy Savings Center (SBESC), the program is housed in a walk-in resource center and targets local businesses as well as residents. Its motto is, “Save water, save energy, save money!” Funded by grants from the California Public Utilities Commission, SBESC offers rebates, information kits and free compact fluorescent light bulbs, technical assistance for businesses, and “Build It Green” workshops. According to Program Manager Marilyn Lyon, SBESC works to help cities, residents and businesses reduce their energy use. In the past eight months alone, they’ve distributed more than 7,000 information kits and free compact fluorescent bulbs.

In a similar innovative effort, the City of Palm Desert is working with Southern California Edison, the Gas Company and the Energy Coalition (a nonprofit agency) to reduce the city’s overall energy consumption and peak demand by 30 percent over the next five years. The project includes a variety of rebates and financial incentives on energy-efficient air conditioning units, pool pumps, appliances, solar panel installation and ventilation duct sealing, as well as a comprehensive community-based marketing and energy education campaign to increase awareness and community participation. The partnership intends to create a model that, once proven successful, can be replicated by cities and utilities throughout the state.

And in 1999, the City of Irvine partnered with Southern California Edison, the Gas Company, the Energy Coalition and the City of Santa Monica to form what’s now known as the Community Energy Partnership. The partnership’s mission was to investigate new energy management ideas and technologies and introduce them to residents and businesses. Since then, the number of participating cities has grown to 10. Having the public utilities engaged with the partner cities allows for an exchange of ideas and an opportunity to capitalize on the successes of each. It has also allowed Irvine to draw upon resources available through the utilities, such as energy audits, products and installations for homes, schools and businesses. Providing personalized, one-on-one attention to residents and businesses is one method Irvine is using to deliver the mes sage, “Saving energy saves money and the environment!”

Turning Brownfields Green

Brownfields — land that is contaminated with industrial pollutants and often abandoned — present another opportunity for local governments to revitalize neighbor hoods and protect the environment. Cities throughout the state have been working to transform brownfields into affordable housing, parks and mixed-use developments. The City of Emeryville launched an aggressive effort in 1995 to clean up 385 acres of brownfields and build housing on the land. To date, the city has built nearly 2,000 housing units. About 20 percent are affordable for low- and moderate-income households.

In a similar effort, in 1987 the cities of Bell Gardens and Commerce began cleaning up a 10-acre site that straddled the two communities. In 1995, the site was clean and safe. Using redevelopment funds to leverage private investment, the two cities partnered to build Vista del Rio, a 102-home development — half of which is affordable for low- and moderate-income families. Construction began in 2000, and today the development is home to dozens of families.

Ensuring Future Clean Water Supplies

In March 2005, the Local Government Commission convened a group of for-ward-thinking water experts from the federal, state and local levels to craft a set of land use principles that would provide guidance to communities concerned about future water supplies. The Ahwahnee Water Principles for Resource-Efficient Land Use advocate a change in land use planning to create the compact, walk able, mixed-use neighborhoods and town centers that are growing in popularity with young adults and seniors as a place to live.

The Ahwahnee Water Principles focus primarily on how California cities might provide for a growing population while developing a minimal amount of land. They provide a strategy to ensure that new growth is accommodated without destroying the precious watersheds that supply our water. The principles call for:

  • Stretching the water we do have via water recycling and conservation strategies, such as low-flow toilets and drought-tolerant landscapes;
  • Planning urban areas to reduce paved, nonporous areas by using narrower streets and smaller or multi-storied parking lots;
  • Using newly available porous concrete and asphalt; and
  • Incorporating water-efficient technologies, such as low-flow toilets, efficient clothes washers and efficient water-using industrial equipment, in new and remodeled construction. Such innovations also reduce the amount of energy consumed (and greenhouse gases emitted) in the treatment and distribution of these precious water supplies.

The City of Los Angeles has demonstrated the effectiveness of such efforts. Despite an increase in population, the city is us ing the same amount of water today as it did 30 years ago. This was accomplished through a citywide campaign to retrofit all homes with low-flow toilets.

At the October 2005 League of California Cities Annual Conference, members voted to send the Ahwahnee Water Principles to every city, accompanied by a resolution that encourages members to consider adopting them. The California State Association of Counties took similar action at its annual conference. Preserving natural water systems and fostering appropriate, water-sensitive new growth will have multiple benefits, including an adequate supply of clean water, reduced flooding, a stronger economy, more livable communities and a better quality of life.

Buying Green, Best Practices And More

This month in Western City, the climate change section that begins on page 11 includes articles on the advantages of green purchasing and how cities can save money by buying green, best practices for reducing greenhouse gases in city operations and services, and how California cities are tackling climate change. In addition, the article on page 35 explains how Santa Barbara is co-generating methane gas for renewable energy. If you missed last month’s climate change articles and related features, you can find them online at

These are just a few examples of the efforts under way in cities throughout California to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve natural resources.

New Program Helps With Climate Change Issues

And now there is additional assistance with climate change issues available for local governments. The Institute for Local Government recently launched the California Climate Action Network (CalCAN), an exciting new program that is helping local officials by:

Providing quality information and resources on specific strategies that can be applied in individual communities to make a difference on climate change issues;

Coordinating the statewide CalCAN to bring local city and county leaders together to share ideas, and link officials to a wide variety of climate change programs and resources that provide technical assistance to local agencies; and

Recognizing the voluntary efforts of communities that implement climate action best practices.

The CalCAN program is featured in a section of the ILG website (, which offers climate action resources, best practices, case studies and more.

Local communities are implementing many strategies to reduce carbon emissions and combat global warming. In most cases, these strategies not only help the environment, they also save money and make great economic sense. I urge you to become familiar with the numerous ways that cities are doing this, and put these strategies to work in your community. By making changes at home, at work and at play, we can work together to improve the environment and the quality of life for all.

Silicon Valley Launches Climate Protection Task Force

The cities and counties of Silicon Valley have formed a Climate Protection Task Force to take collective action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. With assistance from Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, more than 25 cities and special districts are partnering with local climate protection organizations, utilities and clean technology companies. Task force members will share experiences, collaborate on conducting greenhouse gas emissions inventories, pilot new technologies, form a procurement pool and weigh in on public policy issues, including AB 32 implementation.

For more information, contact: Seth G. Fearey, vice president and chief operating officer, Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network; phone: (408) 938-1511; fax: (408) 271-7214; or visit

This article appears in the August 2007 issue of Western City
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