What’s So Different About the City Different?

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Author Alan M. Webber

Publication SantaFe.com

Categories Health & Beauty


Every city likes to think there's something special about it.

Boston, for example, likes to tout its combination of blue-collar toughness and Harvard intellectualism. New York will always be the place where, if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere. Chicago has big shoulders and Mid-Western pragmatism: it's the city that works! Los Angeles, on the other hand, isn't about working-it's about glamour, glitz, and gold.

Look around America and you'll see it's true: Cities of all sizes, shapes, histories and heritages have something they can point to that let's them say, We're different.

Which is precisely Santa Fe's claim to fame. Unlike all those other towns and cities, we really are different!

And in some ways, of course, we are. We're a mix of a city, we've got great history, and, today, we've got the label of a creative city to point at with real pride.

At the same time, it's hard to escape the feeling that Santa Fe might be missing something-or, to be more accurate, missing out on something.

A November 3 article from The New York Times suggests what that something might be. The headline: "Mayors, Looking to Cities' Future, Are Told It Must Be Colored Green."€ One hundred or so mayors, the Times reports, attended a two-day Climate Protection Summit to talk about ways to make their cities walkable, workable, and livable-in other words, sustainable. As the Times says, "Cities that are centered on people and public transit, not cars, and built to higher standards of energy efficiency will save money, hum with new development and create jobs to sit a greener way of life."€

The Times' report made me pause to think about other recent changes that cities and companies had embraced to make their operations more sustainable-and ultimately both healthier and more profitable.

For example, San Francisco recently banned all plastic bags in stores, shops, groceries, and other commercial establishments. The United States currently uses-and then discards-about 1 billion plastic bags a year. With oil running up to the $100 per barrel mark, those 1 billion use-once-and-throw-away plastic bags must be adding up. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen once famously remarked, "A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money."€ So it goes with plastic bags.

Then there's the decision by our neighbor to the south, Albuquerque, to join a list of other cities that have decided to provide free parking meters for hybrid vehicles-just another small incentive to push us toward slightly more sustainable auto choices.

In New York, restaurants have taken to serving only locally bottled water, reducing the waste, expense, and energy used to ship bottles of French, Italian, or Fiji bottled water half way around the world. In the power restaurant of all power restaurants in New York, the Four Seasons, you can buy two kinds of bottled water: the sparkling kind has the face of one managing partner, the flat kind has the face of the other partner.

But what about what the mayors came up with at their Summit? Well, it turns out that across America, cities are assembling a virtual smorgasbord of practices that, quite simply, make sense. The idea is to change behavior in dozens of ways, large and small. It's not necessary to assemble a grand strategy-although for a city such as Santa Fe, with so much livability at stake, a grand strategy might be a wonderful thing. What does seem to make a difference is offering ways for the city, its businesses and people, all to get involved in making sane, sensible, and sustainable choices, and then to push the ideas out into the community so they actually can take hold.

What kinds of ideas?

Well, for instance, Alexandria, Virginia annually earmarks $200,000 for energy conservation in its capital improvement budget. And two years ago, the city replaced 15 cars in its car pool with hybrids.

Austin, Texas now boasts the most energy efficient building codes in the country-all new construction must be zero energy capable by 2015.

Baltimore, Maryland replaced all of its city traffic signals with LEDs-and as a result expects to save $6.5 million.

In Dublin, California, all city park benches and picnic tables have been replaced with new park furniture made from 90% recycled materials.

Fayetteville, Arkansas has decided to go the strategic route. Faced with rapid population growth, suburban sprawl, increased traffic congestion, the city has adopted a comprehensive land use planning process that will shape development and curtail sprawl in years to come.

Lexington, Kentucky, it seems, has gone to the opposite extreme: the city purchased 20 vending machines that are miserly with electricity to deploy in city parks and recreational facilities.

Minneapolis, Minnesota has been in the tree planting business since 2003: the city has planted 15,000 trees and distributed another 2,500 trees for others to plant. On top of that the city has developed and maintained a 99-mile bikeway system.

Santa Barbara, California has transitioned to Green Seal certified cleaning products in most facilities-using environmentally approved products that safeguard the health of the cleaning staff.

Stamford, Connecticut goes so far as to provide tax relief for citizens who purchase hybrid cars.

Atlanta, Georgia converted the roof of City Hall into a "green roof"€ both showcasing the technology and promoting its use throughout the Southwest.

Chattanooga, Tennessee implemented a zero-emission, no-fare bus system for the downtown and riverfront areas of the city-12 buses that are carrying between 700,000 and 1 million passengers each year.

In Pembroke Pines, Florida, all irrigation water must come from a non-potable source.

Houston, Texas sent volunteers door-to-door to hand out 10,000 compact fluorescent light bulbs.

And just to prove that no effort is too small, no improvement too insignificant, Hallandale Beach, Florida implemented computer technology to make the city government paperless, and, when making copies is a must, established a requirement that it be double-sided.

Get the picture?

Like I said, it's a smorgasbord. Some ideas are big, comprehensive-like the land use planning, transportation initiative of Fayetteville. Others are more demonstration projects, like Atlanta's green roof. Some involve school kids and volunteers in educational programs, designed to raise awareness and build community support; in these cases, it seems, the energy that is generated and the visibility that is gained may be as important, if not more important, than the actual substance of the program itself. There's no one right answer, no one way to do it, no mandatory components that make one program right and another wrong. Change is hard, slow, and requires patience. These programs are just getting the idea of change planted, trying to get ordinary citizens to do something different.

Which brings us back to the City Different.

All of these projects raise two questions for the City That Wants to Be Different.

First, if we really are different, why aren't we way ahead of everybody else on these initiatives? To be different surely doesn't just mean giving big box stores the cold shoulder when they want to open up in town. To be different can't be about ultra-restrictive design criteria. No, being really different must mean that we get it-that we see the future before all those guys who aren't so different, and that we do the right thing! To be really different means that Santa Fe is prepared to have its own list of 10 Really Different Ways to Keep Santa Fe Different-and then that we actually implement those 10 items.

Second, if the City Different wants to stay different, we also need to take a hard and honest look at the future that's headed this way at warp speed. All across the Southwest, growth is raising new and profoundly challenging issues. And I don't just mean water. I mean land use issues, jobs and economic development issues, and most important of all, a host of environmental issues. What makes this place so attractive is the livability it offers. The more livable it is, the more people want to live here. The more people who want to live here, without proper environmental planning, the less livable it is. It's a dangerous and vicious cycle that most cities and towns figure out only after it's too late. And by then, they look like Los Angeles.

So here are the questions for the day: What's so different about the city different? And what are we prepared to do to make the changes that must be made to keep it that way?