Thursday, October 1, 2009

What's it really mean to be green?

Posted By on 10.01.09 at 07:48 PM

Among the many promises Mayor Daley and the 2016 bid committee have made to try to win the Olympics is a pledge to host the most eco-friendly games in history by incorporating green construction, renewable fuels, and recycled products into their planning—essentially the same formula that the mayor has used to burnish Chicago's reputation as one of the greenest cities in the world.

But a compelling new book argues that those sorts of initiatives are far more successful at making people feel good than at cutting the greenhouse gas emissions threatening the future of the planet. True sustainability, David Owen argues in Green Metropolis, is rooted in less sexy things like population density, reduced consumption and driving, and public transit, which Mayor Daley's policies have a mixed record of promoting.

As I wrote in a review for this week's Reader, not everything in Owen's book adds up for me, but it's thought-provoking all the same—and highly relevant. Cities and towns across the country are debating how to rewrite their building codes; which roads to upgrade with precious stimulus funds; and what the economic benefits might be of letting Wal-Mart set up shop on underused land in town. In fact, Chicago is set to return to that very debate later this fall.

But not enough places will frame their discussions with what Owen would consider the right questions: How do we get people out of their cars and onto the bus (or into their walking shoes)? How do we keep people in the central city instead of moving to ever-farther-flung suburbs? What kind of policies will provide incentives for reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, which are used for everything from manufacturing plastic water bottles to powering ethanol factories? What, in short, gets us to live more like people in dense urban centers like Manhattan?

Some of the answers should come out of Washington, where yesterday the EPA proposed stricter regulations on dirty power plants—such as the two on Chicago's southwest side—and the Senate took up consideration of a cap-and-trade bill that would make it cheaper to do the right thing.

But nothing's going to happen without a brutal political battle, and even when it does, local governments will still need to set policies and build infrastructure that create the potential for long-term survival. Evidence continues to mount that driving, sprawl, and the jobs and neighborhoods based on them aren't going to cut it. Evidence like Detroit.

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