Cities around the country have emerged as leaders in trying to become more sustainable places. Their sustainability efforts are often broad and sweeping, tackling such issues as climate protection, smart growth, pollution prevention, energy efficiency, environmental justice, and new approaches to local economic development focusing on “green jobs.” Although many people find the term sustainability to be too abstract, practical definitions have emerged as cities have worked to produce tangible results in terms of the quality of life, protecting and improving the quality of the environment, and job creation.

Kent Portney, a professor of Political Science at Tufts University, has been studying the local public policies and programs that U.S. cities adopt and implement in their efforts to try to become more sustainable. 

MuniNet:  Let’s start with the basics:  Can you define sustainability, and what it means to be a “green city?”

Portney:  The fundamental definition of a sustainable city is one that pursues economic development without damaging the physical environment of the city or surrounding areas.  While the common denominator is environmental preservation, each city has its own perception of sustainability consistent with its own character.  Sustainability initiatives may take the form of developing renewable energy plans, reducing airport noise, planting rooftop gardens, or creating bikeways – and these represent just the tip of the iceberg.

MuniNet:   Aside from the obvious (or not-so-obvious?) environmental benefits, in what other ways can sustainability help cities?  How can sustainability boost economic development?

Portney:  Some cities decide to adopt sustainability projects because many people consider quality of the environment an important factor in the overall quality of life.   More and more citizens are becoming increasingly concerned with the physical environment, and place value on “green” practices.   Many cities that have implemented sustainability initiatives have stumbled onto other tangible benefits for their local economy.  Programs that may have initially been construed as green “amenities” have taken on greater importance in terms of population stability and even growth within a community.   Protecting and improving the physical environment, for many cities, has actually led to protecting and improving the population and economy.

Sustainability has become a viable economic development strategy.  Whereas the old mindset was to promote community development by attracting a big company, like a large chain or discount store, into the area to serve as an anchor, many cities found disappointing results with this approach.  These companies brought in mostly low-wage jobs, often taking workers from one local employer and simply moving them over to the new one, effecting little or no net gain in area employment.  Cities began to look for other opportunities for economic growth, and began focusing on sustainability.

Local sustainable economic development is about building on existing green advantages, sometimes using cluster development.  A development cluster could be defined around electric buses and vehicles, as was done in Chattanooga, or around green building and energy efficiency, just to name a few.

MuniNet:   You published “Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously” in 2003 … As we fast-forward to 2010, how has the landscape changed? 

Portney:  Perhaps the biggest change since I wrote the book is the increased focus on sustainability, especially in large cities.  I recently completed a survey of sustainability initiatives in the 50 largest cities in the U.S., and found that more than half of those cities now have established sustainability programs in place – definitely not the case back in 2003.

In 2003, cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City were not considered leaders in sustainability initiatives.  However, these cities have all moved swiftly, and caught up with – if not surpassed – many cities that had implemented sustainability programs earlier on.   Each of these cities has developed remarkable, innovative projects that land each of them a spot among the top green cities in the country.

MuniNet:   How does the list of top cities named on the “Our Green Cities” website compare to the cities that were highlighted in your 2003 book?  Any surprises?

Portney:   Many of the same names remain on the list of the most sustainable cities in the U.S., including Denver, Portland, Boulder, Seattle, and Minneapolis, to name a few.   As I prepare an updated list, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia will also find a place among the top contenders.

Excellent sustainability programs are in effect in cities some might not expect, like Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, for example.   Philadelphia gets my vote for developing perhaps the most innovative sustainability programs.  The city is partnering with many area employers, including the Philadelphia Eagles, which plans to retrofit their entire stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, which plans to become an energy self-sufficient venue by the end of 2011.

MuniNet:  How does a city justify spending money to implement sustainability programs, particularly in the face of budget shortfalls?

Portney:  Because this is a relatively new concept, there is little research to support the theory that sustainability is a viable economic development strategy.  It isn’t so much the case that cities need to spend more money, but rather that they are front-loaded costs.  But payback benefits can be realized in as few as five or six years for a city that, for example, invests in greening city vehicles to save not only fuel and operation costs, but also the environment.

Many states offer creative financing tools, providing bonding instruments for municipalities to raise necessary capital for sustainability projects.   California’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, for instance, finances loans to cities for energy-efficient projects.

MuniNet:  How does sustainability move from concept to reality, particularly in cities that have been slower to embrace environmental programs?

Portney:  Throughout the course of my research into sustainability and economic development, “political will” has emerged as a pivotal factor in the successful implementation of sustainability programs.  Many local elected officials enter office with an agenda, and a lot of these leaders stay in office for a long time.  Often, initiating change in established administrations can be difficult.

These days, however, we are seeing a lot of grassroots organizations not only pushing local leaders to seriously consider sustainability programs, but also making the effort to crystallize citizens’ efforts.  With an interest in helping local green businesses grow and expand, local chambers of commerce have also become influential vehicles in helping sustainability initiatives take shape.  As long as a critical mass is on board – somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 percent of citizens – these programs have a fairly strong chance to succeed.

About the Expert

Kent Portney, Ph.D., is a professor of Political Science at Tufts University, where he teaches courses in methodology, judicial politics, public administration, and environmental politics.  He has authored several books and articles, including Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously: Economic Development, the Environment, and Quality of Life in American Cities (American and Comparative Environmental Policy), published in 2003.  Dr. Portney also hosts Our Green Cities, a website and companion blog focusing on green cities and sustainability.