Guide to Greening Cities

The following is an excerpt from the book Guide to Greening Cities (Island Press, 2013) by Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas, Julia Parzen. The chapter, entitled 'Greening from the Inside,'  Stories from Working within City Government This book was a true collaboration between the three authors. This first chapter, however, is solely from the […]

The following is an excerpt from the book Guide to Greening Cities (Island Press, 2013) by Sadhu Aufochs Johnston, Steven S. Nicholas, Julia Parzen. The chapter, entitled 'Greening from the Inside,' 

Stories from Working within City Government

This book was a true collaboration between the three authors. This first chapter, however, is solely from the perspective of one author, Sadhu Aufochs Johnston. It tells his story of working within the city governments of Chicago, Illinois, and Vancouver, British Columbia, and serves to illustrate the lessons given throughout the book. It was written at the urging of the other two authors because while greening initiatives need to be discussed in terms of political agendas and dollars and cents, it is the people living and working within these cities who have the power to lead real change.

Like many green city champions, I never intended to work in government. I transitioned from trying to influence government from the outside to working on the inside because of a chance encounter with Chicago’s Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2003.

I began urban greening work when I started a nonprofit organization in 1999 that was focused on greening Cleveland, Ohio. Members of our newly formed organization wanted Cleveland to consider greening its building codes and creating policies to promote green building, but city officials hadn’t been exposed to green building strategies, so we decided to create a demonstration green building. We bought a historic five-story bank building in the inner city that had been vacant for over ten years and created the Cleveland Environmental Center. We made the building a living demonstration of innovative green and historic restoration with many innovative approaches—including on-site storm-water infiltration, solar power, and geothermal heating and cooling—in order to prove that green building strategies worked in the urban context, even in a historic building.

In addition to demonstrating innovative green building techniques, we brought leading green experts, practitioners, and thinkers to Cleveland from around the world to help us explore ways that environmental thinking and approaches could help a struggling Rust Belt city reinvent itself. These speakers often addressed large audiences in packed auditoriums and conducted workshops, tours, and interviews with local media. We would always take them to city hall to meet and share their work with city staff. We did see change in the city, but it was mostly because the business, nonprofit, and philanthropic communities became engaged and embraced the ideas and opportunities. In contrast, the city and its institutions, including organized labor, seemed uninterested or incapable of changing. This only confirmed the negative view that I, like so many other members of the younger generation, had of government. Now, fifteen years later, it’s great to see that Cleveland has become a real leader in the urban food movement and has dedicated staff focused on greening the city.

Nonetheless, at the time it never occurred to me that I could try to change government from the inside; that is, until I was asked to give Mayor Daley, who was visiting Cleveland, a tour of the nearly finished Cleveland Environmental Center. As we walked around the center, I was inspired by this mayor, who was so passionate about green approaches to urban issues. He asked good questions and talked about how he was integrating the same ideas we were using in our small building into his efforts to green a large city.

A few weeks later, a member of his staff called to ask if I’d be interested in coming to work for him in his quest to green the city of Chicago. I initially said “No, thanks,” without giving it much thought, but I was encouraged by my future wife, Manda, to reconsider. I toured some of the city’s green projects and met many city staff who were knowledgeable and passionate. The trip changed my mind, helping me realize that perhaps I could contribute to making a better world from within city government.

I learned valuable lessons from my work in Chicago and later in Vancouver, British Columbia, that built on my foundational work in Cleveland.


Don’t Ask Others to Do Something Until You’ve Done It Yourself: Lead by Example

During my interview, Mayor Daley said something, with a soggy, unlit cigar sticking out of his mouth, that I would hear him repeat again and again over the years I worked with him: “We can’t ask our residents or our businesses to do something that we haven’t already done ourselves.” The city had to lead by example, and while good work had been done, most of it, he said, had been on demonstration projects. The city still hadn’t institutionalized green policies and practices, and he wanted me to work with his senior staff to make sure that the city was a leader in greening its own operations. When I was offered and accepted the job, this was my directive, and over the next seven years I found that making green practices a routine part of city operations was in fact more difficult than formulating regulations to bring about change. But the mayor—to his credit—was insistent that the city practice before preaching.

When I went to work for Mayor Daley in 2003, he had already been in office for fifteen years, during which time he’d won several elections by more than 70 percent of the vote. He was one of the first mayors—and at the time the only one from a large American city—who espoused the greening of the city. He saw that greening the city could improve the planet, improve quality of life for residents, and give the city a competitive economic advantage. I was amazed by the resources he had allocated to achieving this goal. He’d spent millions of dollars replanting urban trees and demonstrating green building strategies. He was the first mayor in the United States to install a green roof on a city-owned building.

He had even created a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum– certified green building resource center to teach the local building industry about green building practices, on a site that had been used as an illegal dump near downtown. The facility, called the Chicago Center for Green Technology, served as a test bed for new approaches to green construction practices, included a teaching center, and provided tours to thousands of building industry professionals so they could see green building practices in action.

Without much in the way of resources or information about best practices—which, given the relative newness of this field, hadn’t yet been established—I set about creating a process to build understanding and buy-in within the city organization. The vision was to use the power of the mayor’s office to create a plan for key city departments and their leaders to guide their investments in greening their operations. These departments oversaw airports, housing, city facilities, fleet, streets and sanitation, buildings, and water; each was led by a city commissioner appointed by the mayor. These commissioners already had a great deal on their plates, however, and developing this plan would require a significant investment of their time. So I began meeting with the commissioners individually, quickly realizing that while they all understood that the mayor expected them to “go green,” they didn’t understand what this meant for their departments. They weren’t resisting his directive; they just didn’t know what to do.

We began by establishing the Green Initiatives Steering Committee, which included the commissioners as well as representatives from the city’s “sister agencies”—the Chicago Park Board, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the Public Building Commission of Chicago—whose boards were chaired by the mayor. Members were invited to the first steering committee meeting by the mayor’s chief of staff, who also attended the meeting in order to send the signal that the mayor took this effort seriously. The steering committee was to meet monthly, and I asked each member also to chair a small working group of internal and external topic experts with the goal of completing three tasks over the next nine months: to inventory their current green activities, to compare their work with work being done in other cities, and to develop action plans for the next five and ten years.

I didn’t have any staff, and most of the commissioners didn’t have staff with this expertise, so I worked closely with the first deputy at the city’s Department of Environment, who assigned a department employee to staff each committee, to take notes and support the work with background research. It soon became clear, however, that each department and agency needed to hire an internal green champion or assign someone the job. Once this was under way, we created a Green Team of these staff members, which also met monthly so members could apprise one another of their progress and get advice from the group or from me to help them address emerging issues. Green Team members were challenged by the fact that they were charged with helping entire departments go green, yet they had little power, little or no budget, and no outside help to assist them in getting this job done.

I faced similar challenges. Chicago city government is hierarchical, and, as with many large organizations, this made internal communication difficult. I began to understand that just as the mayor and his chief of staff had helped me communicate the importance of this effort to the commissioners, I had to help these internal green champions communicate the importance of their intradepartmental efforts to the commissioners and also help them talk about the barriers they faced.

In the meantime, their green plans began taking shape, and it was time to get the mayor’s feedback. Each commissioner and his or her key staff had a private meeting with the mayor, and when they presented their draft plans, Mayor Daley pushed them to do more, sometimes asking them to pursue particular initiatives. These meetings really helped promote leadership among the commissioners because they heard from Mayor Daley personally about what he wanted them to do.

After a year the plans were finally done, compiled into a document called the Environmental Action Agenda, and ready to be shared more broadly. We scheduled a meeting of the mayor’s entire cabinet, with its eighty-plus members, to be held off-site at a visiting “Big and Green” exhibition of innovative green practices from around the world. It was the first cabinet meeting ever to focus exclusively on the city’s green agenda. All the commissioners involved with the Greenest City Steering Committee made presentations about their current activities and gave recommendations from their plans. Then Mayor Daley, who was in attendance to reinforce the importance of these initiatives, told his cabinet members bluntly that he was intent on greening every city department, and if they weren’t on board with this agenda, they could find another job. It was a brief speech, but the impact was such that you could have heard a pin drop.

When the mayor later pulled me aside to ask if he’d been too forceful, I assured him that if he wanted the city to meet his objectives, he would have to be very clear about the importance of this work. But I was positively giddy. The mayor had not only paved the way for another six years of progress; he had also greatly enhanced our chances of success. Although I’d been in city government only a short time, I had learned that having the mayor on board and pushing his staff was perhaps the most important ingredient in moving things forward. A big part of my job was to keep him informed and engaged and to let him know if our progress was at risk, as well as to help the commissioners succeed in greening their operations.

Despite the mayor’s commitment, significant implementation challenges remained, even to initiatives as basic as recycling. Change is hard, and leading by example (the topic of the next chapter) requires endless innovation. And while I tried to avoid using the influence of the mayor’s office to get things done, I often had no choice. But slowly, over the next few years, using the Environmental Action Agenda that the Green Initiatives Steering Committee had developed as our guiding document, we made significant progress.

While it was a little chaotic, staff in virtually all parts of city government explored ways to improve the city’s environmental performance. We used our experience gained from some high-profile pilot green building projects to develop and adopt a policy to build all new city facilities to a minimum of LEED Silver certification. We saved millions of dollars annually in energy costs through lighting and energy retrofits of existing buildings. We used city hall’s green roof as a model to install green roofs on other city facilities. We learned that we could divert over 80 percent of the waste from our construction sites and then adopted the most aggressive construction site recycling policy in the country for all larger buildings being built in the city. We introduced recycling into city facilities and schools and reduced the city’s use of hazardous chemicals by using healthier paints, carpets, and pest management strategies. We piloted the use of waterless urinals in city hall and at the airport and then battled to change building codes to allow them to be used more broadly. We integrated these green and healthy construction strategies into the low income housing we built.

We used warm-mix asphalt in our street paving, which saved energy, improved working conditions, and resulted in lower greenhouse gas emissions. We further greened our public works operations by using permeable pavement in alleys (see “Case in Point: Permeable Pavement and the Green Alley Program in Chicago” in chapter 4). We began testing ice and snow removal systems that didn’t use salt. We implemented an anti-idling policy for city vehicles, purchased greener vehicles, started powering the city’s fleet with alternative fuels, and installed alternative fueling infrastructure.

These changes weren’t easy, and there were many battles along the way. I went head to- head with senior managers who worried about implementing unproven practices and with powerful unions that didn’t like some of the changes, such as waterless urinals. Sometimes I succeeded—as with the school recycling program, which took a long time but was well worth it—and sometimes I had to compromise, as in our efforts to allow waterless urinals in all buildings. Perhaps most important, we discovered that while we reduced the city’s environmental impact we also saved money, about $6 million a year on utility costs and $2 million because of the anti-idling policy, for example.

In retrospect, I realized our greening effort could have been more focused. The Environmental Action Agenda should probably have been shorter and more concise so that the priorities were clearer and the departments more easily held accountable. In spite of these challenges, the city benefited from the mayor’s focus on leading by example, which provided a platform for engaging the public and members of the business community and asking them to take similar steps. While demonstrating leadership in city operations was critical, even in a large city such as Chicago, the environmental impact of city operations was small compared with that of the larger community; thus, getting the community involved is critical.

Get the Community Involved

We had been testing green practices before asking the public to follow suit, but now that we’d found some things that worked, it was time to engage the broader public. Early in my time with the mayor’s office, I met with members of the Home Builders Association of Greater Chicago to talk to them about following the city’s lead in constructing green buildings. While the city had committed to achieving LEED Silver certification for every new building and every major renovation project, relatively speaking we constructed a small number of new buildings compared with the number built by the private sector.

As with so many of my visits to industry associations, however, this discussion didn’t go as intended. Instead of convincing the builders to go green, I had to listen as they vented their frustrations with the city. They mostly complained about the length of time it took to get a permit and how the lack of transparency made it difficult to track where a permit was in the process. It was clear that these problems had to be addressed before we could even begin a conversation about green building, but that meeting planted a seed for what eventually became one of the first green permit programs in North America.

We evaluated our options for engaging the private sector in green building. While some cities required that all public buildings meet LEED certification standards, the mayor wanted to use an incentive, not a mandate. We agreed that we needed to address the industry’s frustrations with our building permit process by improving service, so we developed a program that would deliver permits for green buildings in thirty days instead of one hundred, the average processing time for a regular building permit. Some city departments were concerned, however, that while it was good to use an expedited process to incentivize green building practices, the process should also incentivize buildings that met the priorities of other departments, including construction of affordable housing, rehabilitation and reuse of existing buildings, high-quality design, and investment in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

We came up with a program that required projects to meet minimum green requirements as well as affordable housing and transit-oriented development goals. The program was intended to promote innovative technologies including green roofs, rainwater harvesting, and renewable energy systems such as solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal systems. A LEED-certified housing development would get permitted in thirty days instead of about one hundred, and if developers added other features, such as additional affordable housing units, or increased the accessibility of the units, they could get even faster permitting and a waiver of up to $25,000 in permit fees. By broadening the options beyond green strategies, we won support within city government from the affordable housing and accessibility departments, as well as in the advocacy community. While it was initially a compromise to include non-green building strategies in the Green Permit Program, without adding these components we probably wouldn’t have gotten enough support and resources from the city to make the program a success.

The Green Permit Program differed from approaches taken by many other cities in that it offered incentives instead of issuing mandates. Because the permits were reviewed by multiple employees in each department and several departments had to sign off, it took us a while to communicate to staff that they were to prioritize the green permit projects. And because we were the first city to create this kind of program, many questions emerged that had to be answered. For example, should the city allow construction of wind turbines in residential neighborhoods? What color should be used for pipes carrying potable water and what color for gray water?

The building industry appreciated the fee waivers and faster permitting as well as the additional staff to help builders navigate the new process. They were particularly pleased with the addition of a Green Permit Program manager who had a deep understanding of green building technologies and could answer their questions. Within a few months, the new program was working well and any problems that arose could be raised with the program manager, who would convene a meeting of relevant staff to resolve the issue quickly. By 2008, when the program had been in operation for a couple of years, Chicago had more projects seeking LEED certification than did any other North American city (including those that mandated LEED certification), and the city’s signature Green Permit Program signs, which were displayed on buildings all over town, were understood to indicate a project that was both green and of high-quality design and construction.

My other attempts to convince the private sector to go green were more of a mixed bag. Cities across the United States have tried many different approaches to engage residents and businesses, offering incentives such as rebate programs for people who install water-efficient toilets and curbside recycling to make participation easy. Generally speaking, though, municipalities are more inclined to mandate and regulate, and while this sometimes works, making it attractive for residents or businesses also works. If cities make it easy, convenient, and “cool” to participate, they can increase public participation.

Keep Sustainability Leaders Out of Silos

Across North America, green leaders generally work in the mayor’s office, lead a sustainability office, or are embedded in a department. During my time in Chicago, I worked in the mayor’s office first as assistant for green initiatives, next as commissioner for the Department of Environment, and finally as deputy chief of staff. For people not familiar with city government, it can be quite surprising to see how each department is like its own silo, in which staff don’t coordinate, or even communicate, with staff in other departments. The most significant benefit of being in the mayor’s office is that it allows green city leaders to break out of the silos of individual departments and work across departments, thereby having a broader influence. Being a silo-buster can be extremely satisfying because you can cajole people into working together. The challenge is that in this role you do not have direct oversight over staff or budgets.

During my tenure as commissioner, we focused on creating the Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP), one of the first climate plans to address and integrate both adaptation and mitigation (see the CCAP case in point at Up to this point, cities in the United States had mostly focused on mitigation strategies to reduce carbon emissions, while only a few had worked on adaptation strategies to prepare for a changing climate. Chicago’s plan prioritized actions that would address mitigation and adaptation concurrently. A green roof, which has plants and soil, for example, addresses an adaptation issue—the urban heat island effect—because it keeps the roof cooler than would a traditional roof, which is typically black and absorbs heat. The plants on the green roof help to keep the roof surface cooler and the soil provides additional insulation; together this reduces temperatures in the building, reduces energy consumption, and results in a more comfortable building with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

With a strong team and the resources of my department, I was able to take the time to develop partnerships in the business and nonprofit sectors, and we leveraged our relationships with civic, philanthropic, and nonprofit leaders to raise more than $2 million for research that supported the plan’s concepts and goals. We hired leading scientists to downscale global climate projections and predict what Chicago could expect from climate change.

It would have been more difficult to be this ambitious if I were still working in the mayor’s office, where I wouldn’t have been in control of the staff and financial resources required to do the job. But, as we struggled to break out of our departmental silos and get the commissioners and their staffs to prioritize CCAP implementation, I realized that the plan was so ambitious that it was going to be difficult to implement unless the mayor owned it and championed it. So, after several years at the department, I moved back into the mayor’s office as chief environmental officer, mostly to ensure that we adopted and implemented the CCAP. From this seat of power, I could more readily get sign-offs from the departments and the support of the mayor. Having operated from these various vantage points within Chicago’s municipal government, I concluded that while running my own department definitely provided benefits, I could get more done from a centralized position of leadership in the mayor’s office.

When I started working in Vancouver, British Columbia, as the deputy city manager, I realized that there is a “magic middle ground.” In Vancouver, I was in a senior position within the city and had the committed leadership of the mayor, the city council, and a talented city staff. In the City of Vancouver it isn’t just the city leadership pushing the idea of going green; residents are demanding it. Although my father is Canadian and I had spent time in the country during my teens, moving there to work still required some adjustments. I’d come from a city with a strong mayoral system and a mayor who’d been in office for years, whereas Vancouver’s system is structured to give more power to the city council than to the mayor. In Vancouver the mayor has to work with the city council to shape policy and the city manager takes direction from the council to oversee policy implementation and city operations. There’s a distinct separation between politics and the city bureaucracy. Having worked with two such different cities made it clear to me that the lessons of greening can be pertinent regardless of the municipal structure and that ultimately success depends on citizen participation, which drastically increases when participation is easy and appealing.

Make Green Living Easy and Appealing

By 2012, Vancouver had reduced its overall carbon emissions below 1990 levels, even though the city’s population had grown by 27 percent during that period and the number of jobs had increased by 18 percent. The city could never have achieved these emissions reductions had residents not changed the way they lived and supported planning and policy changes that made it possible for new residents to live low-carbon lifestyles in Vancouver’s dense and transit-oriented downtown.

Unlike many cities in North America, which were built or retrofitted to accommodate travel by car, Vancouver has managed to avoid the same level of car orientation. Residents successfully fought efforts to build a highway through the downtown in the 1960s (which would have required demolition of the house in which I now live), and as a result Vancouver has one of the only downtowns in North America that can’t be accessed by highway. This 1960s resident uprising helped shape the urban form of the city over several decades, including development of a transportation plan in 1997 that prioritized walking, followed by cycling, public transit, goods movement, and, last, the car. During the following decade, the city significantly reduced car trips and increased walking, biking, and transit use. This progressive transportation plan provided the people of Vancouver with greater and greener transportation options, such as a citywide cycling network.

The city could never have achieved such impressive emissions reductions if land use and transportation planners hadn’t aligned their plans and policies so that people could live in “complete communities” close to shops, services, and jobs, so they didn’t have to drive. Land use planners promoted development near transit and complete communities where people can walk or bike between shops, work, and home. Zoning and other regulations encouraged the development of large multifamily residential buildings near transit and focused most of this development and infrastructure investment downtown. By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, downtown was truly the heart of the city, proving that downtown living in a small city such as Vancouver could be as attractive as living in Manhattan or San Francisco.

The success of downtown Vancouver also demonstrated that thoughtful city plans and policies—especially those that create appealing, convenient, and compact housing choices and multimodal transportation choices—can result in low-carbon lifestyle choices. From 1996 to 2011, while the number of people living downtown increased by 75 percent and the number of jobs downtown increased by 26 percent, the number of cars entering downtown decreased by 20 percent. Vancouver had demonstrated what many thought wasn’t possible in North American cities: there was population and job growth at the same time that carbon emissions were reduced and the city provided its residents with a very high quality of life.

These results were impressive, and city leaders wanted to do more. Because buildings accounted for 55 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, the city turned its attention to advancing renewable energy. Nearly all of the city’s electrical power was hydroelectric, but natural gas was used for both space and water heating. One way that cities have reduced natural gas consumption is to build district energy systems that use renewable sources of energy. Vancouver decided to try this, building a district energy system that supplied heat for the 2010 Olympic Village and the surrounding neighborhood.

District energy systems distribute heat that is generated in a central location for residential and commercial heating—and sometimes cooling—within a “district” or neighborhood. Energy is distributed to the buildings through a system of insulated underground pipes, eliminating the need for boilers or furnaces in individual buildings. The City of Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek (SEFC) Neighbourhood Energy Utility is the first district energy system in North America to recover heat from the sewer system. A large sewer pipe transports sewer water from downtown to a treatment facility, and because residents and businesses send a lot of hot water down the drain from showers, dishwashers, and other uses, the sewer water is hot. When the city needed to upgrade one of its pump stations, instead of the typical pump station, it built an energy center. The heat from the sewer water is transferred to hot water pipes and used to fulfill the heating needs, such as domestic hot water and space heating, of buildings in the neighborhood. Producing heat for these buildings, which currently amounts to about 2.7 million square feet of space, in this way reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent and costs less than 3 percent more than if the heat were provided by furnaces powered by natural gas. The energy center was given a prominent location in the city, and an artist designed innovative smokestacks in the shape of a hand coming out from under a nearby bridge, with light-emitting diode (LED) lights in the “fingernails” that change color depending on how much energy the neighborhood is using. By this approach, the city has made it simple, affordable, and convenient for Vancouver residents to have significantly lower carbon emissions.

Municipal leaders are often frustrated because they feel they have few tools to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption. But district energy systems that utilize renewable energy demonstrate that cities can employ land use planning and infrastructure investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On the basis of the success of this approach, the city adopted policies requiring new developments to either build a district energy system or connect to an existing system. In October 2012, the city council unanimously adopted a comprehensive district energy strategy to ensure the expansion of systems across the city.

In short, Vancouver’s integrated land use, transportation, and energy planning enables residents and businesses to reduce their carbon emissions. Despite significant strides, achieving Vancouver’s green ambitions require even fuller participation from the public. Shortly after I arrived in Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson and the city council directed staff to develop a plan that would make Vancouver the greenest city in the world, requesting that we engage the community in its development.

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