International sustainability efforts – not necessarily a world apart

Stockholm, Sweden is a deserving recipient of the first-ever European Green Capital designation awarded by the European Commission and celebrated last week during a three-day conference bringing together municipal leaders from across Europe and the U.S. At the event, delegates learned about the city’s impressive efforts to restore water quality surrounding the city’s 14 islands to such a high standard that people can fish and swim in the same water used for drinking; about waste reduction efforts that maximize reuse and recycling while converting remaining materials into energy; and about highly efficient district heating and cooling systems found in buildings across the city. Stockholm truly is a beautiful blue-green city with much to offer others hoping to follow its example.

And despite the unending range of sustainability initiatives and examples, when asked which initiatives or efforts they would consider most important, representatives from both U.S. and European delegations easily identified common ground. Simply put: there is no one thing that makes a city sustainable. Rather, representatives agreed, the key to successful sustainability efforts lie in the combination and integration of sustainability objectives throughout city operations, planning, and development.

Comprehensiveness and integration are important aspects of sustainability too often overlooked in the quest to identify and isolate “low-hanging fruit” and maximize the impact of individual programs or policies (i.e. energy efficiency, waste reduction, water quality, etc). Taking a broader perspective and approach reminds us that far from a collection of separate programs, sustainability is an ongoing process comprised of complementary efforts. When approached in this way, sustainability initiatives highlight connections across issues and sectors (i.e. housing, transportation, land use, public health, buildings, energy, etc.) and offer solutions that bring together resources and stakeholders – both locally and globally.

In this spirit, the U.S. delegation of local leaders set the stage for ongoing information and resource sharing with international counterparts. During the final day of the conference, delegates were invited to the U.S. Embassy to take part in a special session with Swedish municipal leaders where the informal dialogue provided both groups with an opportunity to share perspectives on the roles of local leadership in sustainability and develop a better understanding of common challenges and approaches to a range of issues. NLC is excited to continue working and learning with Swedish municipalities and demonstrated this commitment during a concluding reception where NLC President Ron Loveridge signed a declaration on behalf of U.S. cities and towns to support ongoing dialogue and information sharing through SAGA – the Swedish-American Green Alliance.

NLC would like to especially thank U.S. Ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun and all those at the U.S. Embassy who not only made this trip possible but who had worked so hard to make it a tremendous success!

U.S. cities share best-kept sustainability secrets

There is a certain irony that at the first ever European Green Capital Conference the delegation of U.S. local leadership has garnered just as much attention and excitement as the European contingents. The U.S. delegation began the first full day of the conference with a private welcome from Ambassador Matthew Barzun followed by a press event where delegates showcased the range and depth of sustainability initiatives occurring across U.S. cities and towns. The diversity of efforts – ranging from energy efficiency in Cambridge and increased bicycle infrastructure in Portland, Minneapolis, and Boulder to smart grid integration in Tallahassee and open space preservation in Lawrence Township – discussed by the delegates demonstrate not only the unifying commitment of U.S. local leaders to sustainability but also the breadth of issues, challenges, and opportunities found across cities and towns of varying geographies and population sizes.

News of U.S. leadership at the local level on sustainability has apparently caught many European cities by surprise. While local leadership on these issues is widely recognized within the U.S., acknowledgment on an international level tends instead to focus on the lack of national commitment thus overshadowing the success at the local level. The need for greater sharing of information, resources, and opportunities among U.S. and European municipalities has been an overarching theme strongly emphasized throughout the conference. There is an eagerness and openness among delegates from all countries towards sharing experiences and learning from others. Even representatives from Stockholm, the winners of the inaugural European Green Capital award, acknowledged that they still have much to learn and continue to look for opportunities to work with a range of partners towards common solutions. In his keynote address Mr. Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment recognized the importance of the U.S. presence at the conference. “We are proud to have the Americans with us fighting for the same sustainability goals as we are” said Potočnik.

To facilitate and encourage information sharing and catalyze the implementation of sustainability solutions at the local level the U.S. Embassy in Sweden has launched the Swedish-American Green Alliance – SAGA – earlier this year. The name SAGA, as explained by Ambassador Barzun is especially appropriate as a major goal of the Alliance is to share stories and begin a dialogue with U.S. and Swedish stakeholders to find opportunities for collaboration and solutions to common challenges. A list of partners and collection of updates can be found on their website, http://sagastory.blogspot.com/.

NLC Delegation Carries Sustainability Message to Europe

A high-level NLC delegation of local officials has begun to arrive at the inaugural European Green Capital Conference, with the intent of sharing the successes and challenges of U.S. work on sustainability, while gathering best practices from across Europe. Stockholm, Sweden, is serving as the host of this inaugural sustainability conference, having been officially designated by the European Union as its first “European Green Capital.” The meeting’s purpose is to present examples of how European cities are working to meet the demands of growing cities while maintaining sustainable economic development and decreasing the negative impact on the environment.

NLC received a grant from the U.S. State Department to send a delegation of U.S. mayors and other top local officials, wanting to demonstrate that the U.S. is active on these issues, while highlighting that it’s the local governments in the U.S. who are taking the lead. NLC’s sustainability program in the Center for Research and Innovation has been working closely with the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, which originated the grant.

Eleven officials comprise the U.S. contingent, which has already generated considerable buzz at the conference and in the press. Six officials are attending on behalf of NLC:
• NLC President Ron Loveridge, mayor of Riverside, Calif.;
• NLC EENR committee chair Henrietta Davis, vice mayor of Cambridge, Mass.;
• Mayor Sam Adams of Portland, Ore.;
• Councilmember Matt Appelbaum of Boulder, Colo.;
• Mayor John Marks of Tallahassee, Fla.; and
• Mayor R.T. Rybak of Minneapolis.

NLC is partnering with the Institute for Eco-Municipality Education and Assistance, which identified representatives of four U.S. towns which have formally adopted the eco-municipality program which originated in Sweden:
• Mayor Dave Cieslewicz of Madison, Wisc.;
• Mayor Larry MacDonald of Bayfield, Wisc.;
• Councilor Eric Spear of Portsmouth, N.H.; and
• Township Manager Rich Krawczun of Lawrence, N.J.

Additionally, the group is joined by the President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors:
• Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minn.

The group will be active participants throughout the conference, highlighted by a Thursday plenary session dedicated to American “green success stories.” Following the close of the conference on Friday, the delegation will also meet with several dozen officials from Swedish cities at a session hosted by the embassy.

Stay tuned for updates from Stockholm. If you wish to follow the conference live, much of the proceedings will be streamed at the conference website:

http://international.stockholm.se/-/web-in-web/Stadsledningskontoret/Welcome-to-Stockholm-and-the-first-European-Green-Capital-Conference/

October 20th Watch

This post is by Andrew O. Moore, Senior Fellow at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families.

October 20, 2010 is likely to shape up as yet another challenging day for America’s cities – short on revenue, shorter on public sector employees than two years ago, facing the demands imposed by the ongoing recession.

In Great Britain, October 20 is another kettle of fish.  That’s the day the coalition government will release the Comprehensive Spending Review.  Already, government workers and citizens alike know to expect 25% cuts in national agency budgets.  What they don’t know yet are the details.

A major question at hand: Will the UK’s 60+ year experiment in social welfare bend to the crushing budget realities?  Related “wonderings:” Can the British transform the complex multi-benefit system that has built up over the years – reportedly requiring recipients of benefits to earn as much as £20 per hour to justify leaving benefits behind – into the proposed unified (i.e., one) benefit structure?  Will the NHS continue to provide medical care on demand? What new relationship might form between the central government and local municipal authorities?  Will public sector unions – and the Labour Party they help fund — propose effective alternatives to the almost certain proposals for layoffs at a vast scale?

Participating in a recent US-UK exchange conference focused on the reentry of former prisoners into communities, brings the discussion into sharper relief on that one issue.  Will the UK’s National Offender Management Service -– responsible for some 87,000 prisoners, with a per-prisoner budget roughly four times that devoted to the US’ 2+ million prisoners –- be able to continue to provide extensive substance abuse treatment to all, upon entry to the system?  How will the UK’s prisons and jails, some dating back 900 years, respond to Minister of Justice Kenneth Clarke’s clarion call for all prisoners to go to work for wages?

For those of us in the U.S., the direction the UK takes this autumn is of material interest.   Notwithstanding a certain 1776 revolution, the US and the UK have traded domestic policy ideas and compared strategies for well over 100 years – though the British went ever so much further toward creating a “welfare state” in the post-World War II years.   Among recent examples, the UK roughly paralleled the US transition to work-based welfare with its New Deal, and closely watched the success in the US of particular strategies such as paid transitional employment.  Moreover, the proposed scale of national cutbacks is reminiscent of the block grant fever, and end to anything approaching general revenue sharing for cities, that occupied the US government in the early 1980s.

Especially with a potentially momentous election of our own two weeks away,

those of us in the US will do well to monitor the initiatives, politics, and outcomes of UK efforts to economize.   We might see approaches worth adapting – or to avoid.

Foreclosure Moratorium is Still Not the Answer

The vision of one lone clerk at Ally Financial hastily signing off on thousands of eviction documents has galvanized the national imagination. It’s a vivid picture. One can anticipate a future episode of The Office taking shameless advantage of this embarrassing corporate negligence. Coming as it does after several years of a foreclosure crisis, this latest revelation may indeed prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

But where was the rage before now?  Where was the rage over no document mortgage loans, over cozy relationships between mortgage lenders and appraisers, and over the contrived Option Adjustable Rate Mortgages? Surely all this was cause enough to unleash the fury!

Perhaps the day of reckoning now is upon us. However, as part of that reckoning it would be both misguided and counterproductive to implement a moratorium on foreclosure proceedings. A moratorium only delays the inevitable. As cruel as it may be to say, a mortgage so delinquent as to be one final step from eviction and sale cannot and should not be further delayed because clerks failed to exercise due diligence. Document procedures should be verified, certainly. But that does not require a moratorium.

If the present foreclosure disposition pipeline, already choked with delinquencies, loan modifications, vacancies and short sales, is forced to cease, the real estate and housing construction businesses will not recover for many more years.

Supporters of a moratorium contend that such a move will help keep large numbers of borrowers in their homes. However, one need only look at the roughly 50% of delinquent mortgage payments on loans that have already received a temporary or permanent medication under the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) to realize that hope is unrealistic because of the negative equity positions of so many borrowers.

Be mad at the institutions that created this mess in the first place. Be mad at those who committed fraud. Sympathize with those facing foreclosure and contribute to efforts that extend relief. But don’t postpone the inevitable.