2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation Starts April 1

This is a guest post by Steve Creech.

mayor's challenge for water conservationCities with the highest participation in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, but they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes as well. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Water shortages may be one of the most dramatic headlines in the news, but cities everywhere are facing mounting challenges to the tune of nearly $1 trillion to address aging water systems, eliminate water waste, and secure a legacy of sustainable water use for our communities.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation gives local governments a consumer-friendly way to rev up residential interest in addressing those issues, from promoting water and energy efficiency to waste reduction and ecosystem health. Held annually from April 1-30, the nonprofit challenge encourages cities nationwide to see who can be the most “water-wise.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (pictured) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will join together in Dallas on April 9 to promote the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Mayors rally residents to take action by pledging to conserve more water and other natural resources at mywaterpledge.com. Residents, in turn, rally their families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Cities with the highest participation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes, including efficient irrigation products, water-saving appliances, and even a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-in. The campaign gets national promotion all month long in USA Today, and winning cities are recognized in a special segment on the Weather Channel with Al Roker. There’s even a classroom edition for schools.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, winner of the 2013 Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

The campaign is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA, the National League of Cities, and the Toro Company. During the most recent campaign, mayors, city leaders and local water utilities led an effort among residents across 3,600 cities in all 50 states to take 277,742 specific actions over the following year to change the way they use water in their homes, yards and communities.

Translated, those online pledges meant potential reductions in water waste by 1.4 billion gallons. As residents conserve, it also means less money spent on transporting and generating the electricity that brings water to homes, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and less impact on the nation’s already overburdened water infrastructure.

Best of all, supplemental outreach campaigns like the Mayor’s Challenge bring together elected officials, companies, communities and individuals working together to protect and conserve the limited supply of water we have for the future health of our economy and environment.

Cities can participate in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation by signing an online letter of support, which includes complete details about the program, or by calling (949) 643-7070 to request participation information.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Climate Change Update: FOCUS 2015 and Preparing for COP-21 in Paris

This post was co-authored with Allison Paisner.

FOCUS 2015NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone (sixth from left) pauses for a photo with other elected officials at the FOCUS (Forum Of Communities for Urban Sustainability) 2015 event at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 2015. The event was designed around a discussion of how cities and local governments can fight climate change and provide residents with a higher quality of life. (photo: FOCUS 2015)

This December, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Paris for COP-21 (the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC) in hopes of negotiating a new, international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Whether you are optimistic or doubtful about the prospects for a global accord among the various nations, it is clear that cities and towns will continue to be at the center of any effort to mitigate or adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

That is why the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. recently hosted FOCUS-15: A Forum of Communities for Urban Sustainability. The mission was to spark thinking, create networks and establish bonds between local actors prior to the UN Conference of Parties in Paris this December. The event brought together French and American leaders from public, private and philanthropic sectors, including nearly a dozen representatives from the National League of Cities (NLC).

NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone and Henrietta Davis, both of whom were part of the NLC COP-15 delegation in Copenhagen, noted how much attitudes had improved in recognizing the role cities play in the process. Just six years ago, all of the attention was given to national governments, and local leaders were treated no differently than small, non-profit interest groups. Looking at COP-21 though, local leaders are closer to center stage.

Workshops centered on the pillars of urban sustainability: waste and water, energy, transportation and land use, resiliency, and urban policy and community empowerment. Because cities are engines of innovation where commitments to sustainability develop at the local level, the forum emphasized the need to for cities and regional authorities to coordinate policies and disseminate best practices as key actors. Communities also need to educate their residents and serve as facilitators for change by equipping citizens with the tools necessary to participate in the decision making process.

Green investments geared towards climate change mitigation, adaptation and resiliency involve high short-term costs – the results of which only translate in the long term. Policymakers need to understand this tradeoff and make fiscally and environmentally responsible decisions that balance the cost- and results-oriented spheres for the future of tomorrow.

Highlights from the FOCUS 2015 conference in Washington, D.C.

Other sustainability trends recognized in French and American cities over the two-day event included the need to accommodate population growth while limiting urban sprawl, transitioning away from a carbon-based transportation system, the inclusion of natural systems and green infrastructure as sustainable alternatives to depreciating built infrastructure, and working within the institutional framework for research and support of city innovation.

Partnerships between local & federal governments and the public & private sector are crucial stimulants to sustainable development, providing means for innovation, access to financial capital, and broadening the scale of influence.

Based on the dialogue between national and local actors throughout the conference, it is clear that the gradual transition to sustainable cities will involve healthy competition and inspire a race to the top.

More immediately, though, there is significant preparation and progress to be made prior to COP-21 this December. With limited authority as local and regional governments, cities need a “Paris deal;” sub-national actors need to bring clear objectives to the discussion, outline what is possible, and show their political support for an equitable and achievable agreement.

Whatever is decided in Paris will not be the end of the road, however. With luck – and the support of cities and towns – it will be only the beginning of a new and ambitious era in urban sustainability.

About the Authors:

Headshot1-CMartin Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

 

Allison Paisner headshot Allison Paisner is an intern with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

How Startups Solve Problems at the Intersection of Urbanization and Climate Change

This is a guest post by Stonly Baptiste.

startups postCould startups be the secret weapon to make cities smarter and combat climate change in the face of ever increasing urbanization? (Getty Images)

When you see the word ‘startups’ in the news, you see headlines like “Meet the Hottest Tech Startups,” “Snapchat Could Become One of the 3 Highest-Valued Startups in the World,” or “Why Startups Want This 28-Year-Old to Really Like Them.” But the most interesting startups may be the ones working on problems that can directly help cities.

The Problem: More People + More Energy Consumption = Climate Change

People are moving to cities at rates never before recorded. The urban population of the world has grown rapidly since 1950, from 746 million to 3.9 billion in 2014. This represents a shift from two out of 10 people to five out of 10 people living in cities. The motivations behind this migration vary, from the search for more employment opportunities and increased earning potential to better health care and improved living standards; social factors like better education opportunities also play a role. Whatever the cause, there is no denying the rapid rate of global urbanization.

So what does this mean in terms of climate change? Energy consumption is the biggest contributing factor to global climate change, and more people means more energy consumption. In fact, 75% of global energy consumption occurs in cities. That consumption is likely to increase as we experience the shift from 54% of the world’s population residing in urban areas in 2014  to 66% by 2050. The environment around us will simply not be able to support this kind of growth and the increased level of energy consumption. Managing climate change seems more and more like a city efficiency challenge.

The Challenge: Redesign Cities

“No challenge – no challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.”
– President Barack Obama, State of the Union, Jan 20, 2015

The challenge is to create a fast, widely-adopted, effective and lasting impact on the future sustainability of cities; to redesign cities in response to climate change. Previously, the burden of these issues fell on the government. However, due to the increasing budget constraints of so many of the world’s economies, government can no longer afford to take on all of that responsibility.

The Solution: More Urbantech Startups

Technology has always helped shape urban and suburban environments. “Urbantech” describes the emerging technologies that are being used to solve problems at the intersection of urbanization and climate change, from reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions to reducing crime and increasing government efficiency.

Over the last 18 months at Urban.Us, we’ve analyzed hundreds of startups that are working on Urbantech problems. We wanted to understand what problems they are solving as well as their customer focus (consumers, businesses or governments). By creating the Urbantech radar, we were able to visualize companies according to their customers and problems they are trying to solve.

startups pic

The visualization reveals some interesting patterns about where founders and investors have chosen to focus – but it also shows where there is open space and opportunity.

The radar also provides strong evidence that the challenge of redesigning cities to positively impact climate change could very well lie in the hands of the consumer, therefore circumventing the government-first approach. By reaching mass consumer adoption, these startups are able to make cities sustainable through channels like the Apple Store, Home Depot and Amazon.

No one can predict what the future of cities will look like – but we can get a glimpse of what’s possible by looking at some of the fastest-growing startups currently reshaping the way people live and work in cities:

  • DASH, a hardware plugin tool that syncs to your mobile phone to turn any car into a smart car, unlocking enhanced performance, cost savings and social driving.
  • OneWheel, a one-wheeled electric skateboard to quickly and easily get you to and from mass transit.
  • Whill, an all-terrain wheelchair that makes hard-to-navigate obstacles like stairs a thing of the past for people with disabilities.
  • Radiator Labs, a radiator cover that converts old cast-iron radiators into precision heating machines with climate control, operational efficiency and safety comparable to any radiator, transforming steam heat into a comfortable and efficient solution.
  • Hammerhead, a handless device that enables cyclists to safely navigate streets.
  • Rachio, a smart sprinkler controller that automatically adjusts your watering schedule based on weather or seasonality to save on water consumption.
  • Zuli, a plug-and-play smart outlet that enables users to control appliances, dim lights, set schedules, and conserve energy from their mobile phones.
  • Lagoon, a smart water sensor that alerts you when there is a leak, tracks usage, and saves money on water bills.

These startups have found a way to impact climate change by leveraging consumers’ need to collect data, save money, and enjoy the user experience. The climate change aspect may not even be a factor for consumer adoption – but through new crowdfunding platforms, distribution channels and government procurement initiatives, these startups could change the future of our cities and the environment.

The Next Step: Local Government as the Coach vs. Quarterback

The way cities work with emerging technologies is entering a new paradigm in which the city is not always the customer but, more often, the regulator and promoter of the best ideas. We are excited to be hosting 100 of the most promising Urbantech startups at this year’s Smart City Startups event – and, thanks to the support and partnership of the National League of Cities, we will introduce local government officials from Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and elsewhere to the innovations these startups offer.

We have all seen the battle between Uber and regulators – and it’s likely that no local government made an attempt to discuss regulating Uber before the battle occurred. We’ve also seen the impact that Rachio is having on water consumption around the country – and in most cities, this shift is still under the radar. Recently, we’ve seen police departments fighting against some of the information shared on Waze.

Our goal is to enhance awareness and increase partnership between local governments and startups working to solve the same problems, so that the best solutions can be promoted and cities can begin to preemptively manage the impact of regulation. Urban.us and NLC are joined by Direct Energy, the Knight Foundation and others aligned with the goal of sharing experiences that cities are having as they work with startups to build new relationships that will forge the future of urbanization and climate change.

stonly_baptiste_headshotAbout the Author: Stonly Baptiste is the Co-Founder of Urban.Us, where he leads investment research, community management and platform development for the fund, which now works with 16 startups around the world solving urban challenges. Additionally, he is co-organizer of Smart City Startups, a multi-day, multi-track event based in Miami that recruits 100 of the the most promising startups from around the world who are working to solve challenges at the intersection of climate change and urbanization. Additional participants include officials focused on innovation and economic development from local governments in Tel Aviv, San Francisco, New York, Boston and more. Investors such as Vast Ventures and Fontinalis Partners, and global companies such as Direct Energy, EDF, and Canary Wharf join to further government efforts to work with startups and promote innovation in cities.

The Best Lifestyle Might Be the Cheapest, Too

This is a guest post by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. It originally appeared here.

If you were to build a city from scratch, using current technology, what would it cost to live there? I think it would be nearly free if you did it right.

This is a big deal because people aren’t saving enough for retirement, and many folks are underemployed. If the economy can’t generate enough money for everyone to pay for a quality lifestyle today, perhaps we can approach it from the other direction and lower the cost of living.

Consider energy costs. We already know how to build homes that use zero net energy. So that budget line goes to zero if you build a city from scratch. Every roof will be intelligently oriented to the sun, and every energy trick will be used in the construction of the homes. (I will talk about the capital outlay for solar panels and whatnot later.)

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I can imagine a city built around communal farming in which all the food is essentially free. Imagine every home with a greenhouse. All you grow is one crop in your home, all year, and the Internet provides an easy sharing system as well as a way to divide up the crops in a logical way. I share my cucumbers and in return get whatever I need from the other neighbors’ crops via an organized ongoing sharing arrangement. My guess is that using the waste water (treated) and excess heat from the home you could grow food economically in greenhouses. If you grow more than you eat, the excess is sold in neighboring towns, and that provides enough money for you to buy condiments, sauces, and stuff you can’t grow at home.

Medical costs will never go to zero, but recent advances in medical testing technology (which I have seen up close in start-up pitches) will drive the costs of routine medical services down by 80% over time. That’s my guess, based on the several pitches I have seen.

Now add Big Data to the mix and the ability to catch problems early (when they are inexpensive to treat) is suddenly tremendous.

Now add IBM’s Watson technology (artificial intelligence) to the medical system and you will be able to describe your symptoms to your phone and get better-than-human-doctor diagnoses right away. (Way better. Won’t even be close.) So doctor visits will become largely unnecessary except for emergency room visits, major surgeries, and end-of-life stuff.

 

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Speaking of end-of-life, assume doctor-assisted-suicide is legal by the time this city is built. I plan to make sure that happens in California on the next vote. Other states will follow. In this imagined future you can remove much of the unnecessary costs of the cruel final days of life that are the bulk of medical expenses.

Now assume the city of the future has exercise facilities nearby for everyone, and the city is designed to promote healthy living. Everyone would be walking, swimming, biking, and working out. That should reduce healthcare costs.

Now imagine that because everyone is growing healthy food in their own greenhouses, the diet of this new city is spectacular. You’d have to make sure every home had a smoothie-maker for protein shakes. And let’s say you can buy meat from the outside if you want it, so no one is deprived. But the meat-free options will improve from the sawdust and tofu tastes you imagine now to something much more enjoyable over time. Healthy eaters who associate with other healthy eaters share tricks for making healthy food taste amazing.

Now assume the homes are organized such that they share a common center “grassy” area that is actually artificial turf so you don’t need water and mowing. Every home opens up to the common center, which has security cameras, WiFi, shady areas, dog bathroom areas, and more. This central lawn creates a natural “family” of folks drawn to the common area each evening for fun and recreation. This arrangement exists in some communities and folks rave about the lifestyle, as dogs and kids roam freely from home to home encircling the common open area.

 

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That sort of home configuration takes care of your childcare needs, your pet care needs, and lots of other things that a large “family” handles easily. The neighborhood would be Internet-connected so it would be easy to find someone to watch your kid or dog if needed, for free. My neighborhood is already connected by an email group, so if someone sees a suspicious activity, for example, the entire neighborhood is alerted in minutes.

I assume that someday online education will be far superior to the go-to-school model. Online education improves every year while the classroom experience has started to plateau. Someday every home will have what I call an immersion room, which is a small room with video walls so you can immerse yourself in history, or other studies, and also visit other places without leaving home. (Great for senior citizens especially.) So the cost of education will drop to zero as physical schools become less necessary.

When anyone can learn any skill at home, and any job opening is easy to find online, the unemployment rate should be low. And given the low cost of daily living, folks can afford to take a year off to retool and learn new skills.

The repair and maintenance costs of homes can drop to nearly zero if you design homes from the start to accomplish that goal. You start by using common windows, doors, fixtures, and mechanical systems from a fixed set of choices. That means you always have the right replacement part nearby. Everyone has the same AC units, same Internet routers, and so on. If something breaks, a service guy swaps it out in an hour. Or do it yourself. If you start from scratch to make your homes maintenance-free, you can get close. You would have homes that never need paint, with floors and roofs that last hundreds of years, and so on.

Today it costs a lot to build a home, but most of that cost is in the inefficiency of the process. In the future, homes will be designed to the last detail using CAD, and factory-cut materials of the right size will appear on the job site as a snap-together kit with instructions printed on each part. I could write a book on this topic, but the bottom line is that home construction is about 80% higher than it needs to be even with current technology.

The new city would be built on cheap land, by design, so land costs would be minimal. Construction costs for a better-than-today condo-sized home would probably be below $75,000 apiece. Amortized over 15 years the payments are tiny. And after the 15th year there is no mortgage at all. (The mortgage expense includes the solar panels, greenhouses, etc.)

Transportation would be cheap in this new city. Individually-owned automobiles would be banned. Public transportation would be on-demand and summoned by app (like Uber).

And the self-driving cars would be cheap to build. Once human drivers are out of the picture you can remove all of the safety features because accidents won’t happen. And you only summon a self-driving car that is the size you need. There is no reason to drag an empty back seat and empty trunk everywhere you go. And if you imagine underground roads, the cars don’t need to be weather-proof. And your sound system is your phone, so the car just needs speakers and Bluetooth. Considering all of that, self-driving cars might someday cost $5,000 apiece, and that expense would be shared across several users on average. And imagine the cars are electric, and the city produces its own electricity. Your transportation budget for the entire family might be $200 per month within the city limits.

The cost of garbage service could drop to nearly zero if homes are designed with that goal in mind. Your food garbage would go back to the greenhouse as mulch. You wouldn’t have much processed food in this city, so no cans and bottles to discard. And let’s say you ban the postal service from this new city because all they do is deliver garbage anyway. (All bills will be online.) And let’s say if you do accumulate a bag of garbage you can just summon a garbage vehicle to meet you at the curb using the same app you use for other vehicles. By the time you walk to the curb, the vehicle pulls up, and you toss the bag in.

I think a properly-designed city could eliminate 80% of daily living expenses while providing a quality of life far beyond what we experience today. And I think this future will have to happen because the only other alternative is an aggressive transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor by force of law. I don’t see that happening.

Scott AdamsAbout the Author: Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic series. He can be reached on Twitter at @ScottAdamsSays. You can also find Dilbert on Facebook.

Love Your Block: How Birmingham Citizens are Transforming Their City, One Block at a Time

This is a guest post by Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., Birmingham, Ala. This post is part of the NLC Community Service Series, and originally appeared here.

cities of service 2 - birmingham, ala.The office of Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with various local organizations in order to revitalize communities in Birmingham, Ala. (image courtesy of citiesofservice.org)

In Birmingham, implementing Love Your Block is not just the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. Love Your Block gives my residents the opportunity to create projects that will have a deep impact on their neighborhood and ultimately improve the health, safety, and well being of the whole city.

Birmingham became a member of the Cities of Service coalition in 2012 – and committed to making an impact by revitalizing neighborhoods one block at a time. I was proud to receive a Cities of Service Impact Volunteering Fund grant so we could tackle neighborhood blight in a collaborative and actionable way. As recommended in the Cities of Service Love Your Block blueprint, my office engaged citizen volunteers and formed partnerships with organizations such as HandsOn Birmingham, Home Depot, and the Alabama Power Foundation in order to make a significant impact.

In the first year of Love Your Block Birmingham, we exceeded all of our impact metrics and goals. Thousands of Birmingham volunteers cleaned more than 26,000 square feet of graffiti, disposed of more than 70,000 pounds of trash and debris, planted over 500 trees and revitalized 40 blocks. We were able to identify 15 future neighborhoods for ongoing revitalization projects and leveraged 13 additional funding sources to support neighborhood revitalization projects. We also realized that we didn’t just make the streets cleaner – we brought people together to work alongside one another and empowered our citizens to take ownership of their neighborhoods and make a real and measurable impact.

After we completed the first round of our Love Your Block initiatives, I recognized that there was still a lot more work to do. Building on our early success, I pledged to make Love Your Block a part of my citywide strategy to make Birmingham a healthier and safer city through my RISE Birmingham program. With the support of an additional Impact Volunteering Fund grant from Cities of Service, we were able to distribute 20 mini-grants to support neighborhood groups in new and continued revitalization projects. RISE Birmingham has now become a movement across the city – we plan to revitalize 60 blocks, remove 90,000 pounds of trash and debris, clean 35,000 square feet of graffiti, plant 300 new trees, and conduct 7 neighborhood clean sweeps. We have also added a community policing component and are forming neighborhood watch groups to promote a sense of pride and community for neighborhood residents.

Like so many cities in America today, Birmingham has faced and continues to face many challenges. As mayor of this great city, it is my duty, privilege, and honor to bring people and organizations together to solve our challenges. I want every resident to know that I will continue to work on the issues about which they care most deeply and I am constantly focused on moving Birmingham forward in the best way I know how: through citizen engagement and collaboration among nonprofit, public, and private partners. Love Your Block has become an essential piece in the puzzle for a brighter future for Birmingham and I look forward to continuing to find out what it really means for residents to love their blocks by deepening our impact across the city.

Journeying to Jerusalem: Examining the Benefits Urban Agriculture Can Bring to Your City

This is a guest post by Allison Paisner.

How can local leaders create a community-building activity that helps citizens make healthy food choices and get outside more? Gardens may be the ideal answer.

Mizmor L'David Garden

Mizmor L’David Garden

While you may not have immediately jumped to the same conclusion, consider that gardens are a valuable resource, providing a good source of nutritional local produce, an opportunity for community engagement, and symbiotic environmental stewardship efforts.

In my travels to urban gardens throughout the city of Jerusalem last summer to conduct food security and community participation surveys, I found the interdependent benefits of locally grown foods too tempting to ignore. Even with the severe water shortages inherent in a desert climate, the proliferation of gardens and edible landscaping in Jerusalem allows cheap access to fresh produce and helps to eliminate food deserts. Whether this is accomplished through a private venture, a municipal undertaking, or even participation in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), gardens offer rewarding personal and community experiences as well as health and environmental benefits.

From a health perspective, growing your own food or participating in a CSA puts you in control of what’s fueling your body – you choose the seeds (for all those non-GMO lovers), and you control the pesticides (or lack thereof). Gardening can even be a form of moderate cardiovascular exercise.

Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School

Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School Garden

In Jerusalem, community-wide urban gardens are run by volunteers or non-profit organizations such as Hand in Hand, and they often offer the fruits of their labor to the public in a very literal sense. Private garden owners donate extra produce to religious institutions or schools such as Mizmor L’David, with some even selling their surplus. Water for the community gardens’ drip irrigation systems is generally provided and paid for by the municipality. One garden run by the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Jerusalem Bilingual School brings students and their families, of both Jewish and Muslim faiths, together for garden work days to achieve a common goal and vision. Whereas crops such as olives, cactus fruit, almonds, pomegranate and figs differed slightly from those found in the more temperate U.S. climate, I was surprised to find that these Jerusalem gardens boast large yields of peppers, tomatoes, onions, eggplants and even corn.

I was able to experience urban agriculture first-hand in Jerusalem, but municipalities across the US – as well as NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute – are no stranger to gardens and best practices. A growing number of cities across the nation are already promoting the growth of urban agriculture through direct community engagement by passing new zoning policies and by creating Sustainability Plans and local food networks. So this year, instead of stocking up on frozen or artificially low-calorie, low-fat products, try to discover the resources and opportunities available in your neighborhood for locally-grown fresh produce. You might be inspired to participate in a community garden – or even start one of your own!

Allison Paisner headshotAbout the Author: Allison Paisner is an intern with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” Initiative: Connecting Kids to Nature and History

Two developments last week provide opportunities for cities to connect young people to the outdoors and to local history.

Every Kid in a Park initiativeThe President’s new Every Kid in a Park initiative will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to our national parks. (Getty Images)

For some children, spending time outdoors isn’t as easy as it should be. In many communities, safety concerns and a lack of access to parks and green space hinder young people from spending quality time outside. This, coupled with a national screen time average of 7½ hours a day (seven days a week) among eight to eighteen year olds, has contributed to an increasingly indoor and sedentary lifestyle for many young people.

Last week, President Obama announced a new initiative, dubbed Every Kid in a Park. This initiative will provide all fourth-grade students and their families with free admission to national parks and other federal lands for a year beginning in September 2015. It’s an important step to providing needed access to the outdoors and ensuring that kids across the country have the opportunity to visit America’s national parks and landmarks. President Obama also requested new funding in his FY 2016 Budget to support transportation for school outings to parks for students from low-income areas.

In line with the Administration’s new initiative, NLC is partnering with the Children & Nature Network on the Cities Promoting Access to Nature initiative. This new, three-year project will help city leaders develop and expand strategies for getting more young people outdoors and connected to parks, green space and natural areas, with a focus on children and youth in economically stressed communities.

New National Monuments
Along with the Every Kid in a Park Initiative, the President announced that he is designating three new national monuments, including the Pullman National Monument in Chicago. “What makes Pullman special is the role it plays in our history,” President Obama said on a recent trip to Chicago, where he designated the factory district a national monument. “This place has been a milestone in our journey toward a more perfect union.”

The Pullman District was America’s first planned industrial town, created in the 1880s to house railroad and factory workers. Many of the jobs in the Pullman district went to African Americans, and the site became a symbol of economic opportunity for African Americans and other minority groups. The area was also where the seeds for the modern labor rights movement were planted. In 1894, workers organized a strike after railroad mogul George Pullman refused to lower rents when he lowered wages.

The designation of Pullman as a national monument means that fourth-graders and their families in Chicago, and from cities and towns across the country, will have the opportunity to visit the site (at no charge) and learn about our nation’s rich labor and civil rights history.

EmilyAbout the Author: Emily Pickren is the Principal Associate for Communications in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Emily on Twitter at @emilypickren.

LED Street Lights: Energy Savings Likely to Outweigh Initial Costs for These Three Cities

LED streetlights on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in MinnesotaLED streetlights, such as those found on the Lowry Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., can provide better visibility while reducing emissions and cutting cities’ energy bills by more than 60%. (Joe Ferrer/Getty Images)

Nearly every boulevard, avenue, road or side street in America is lined with opportunities to reduce energy consumption and save important municipal dollars. Street lights in the United States are estimated to use as much energy as six million households, and the energy bills cost local governments more than $10 billion per year.

Due to recent advances of LED and other solid state lighting options, modern streetlights have the potential to cut those figures by 50% or more.

This is why the Obama Administration has challenged mayors around the country to retrofit their lights and install modern, high efficiency lighting. The Presidential Challenge for Advanced Outdoor Lighting sets a goal of upgrading at least 1.5 million poles by May 2016, tripling the previous goal to upgrade 500,000.

The challenge is backed by extensive resources in the Better Buildings Outdoor Lighting Accelerator, which contains financial calculators, case studies, and more. The Solid State Street Lighting Consortium, a DOE-managed peer group of cities pursuing lighting upgrades, also has technical specifications and market reports to help cities through the procurement process.

Thanks to early adopters like Raleigh, Los Angeles and Seattle, many of the concerns surrounding technical issues and public acceptance have been debunked in the last few years, illuminating the path for others to follow. Costs for both energy use and maintenance have proven lower under the new systems. In surveys conducted for the city of Seattle, more than 85% of respondents approved of the new lights.

For many city leaders, though, the decision isn’t quite that clear. As with any major retrofit, the upfront capital cost can be daunting. Los Angeles, for example, has replaced more than 140,000 lights in four years, yielding an annual savings of more than 60%. Even with a payback period estimated at just seven years, the initial cost has been reported to be $57 million. Given the constraints on local budgets, it can be difficult to justify a costly upgrade for a system that is already functioning.

Additionally, some city officials may be waiting to see if those installation costs continue to drop before they convert. Between 2011 and 2013, the cost of new LED streetlights fell an estimated 50%. Even then, the price was four times that of high-pressure sodium lights. In the short term, waiting may result in further savings and an even more efficient LED product.

Nonetheless, the takeaway is overwhelmingly positive. A tipping point seems to have been reached as the rate of adoption accelerates. If the President’s challenge is met, and the 1.5 million poles achieve the same efficiency and CO2 reductions as Los Angeles, it will create a reduction of more than 369,000 tons of emissions each year.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Mayors’ Challenge Seeks to Create Safer Walking and Bicycling Networks

Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx issued the Mayors’ Challenge for Safer People, Safer Streets to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists over the next year.

Bike lanesMayors who commit to creating safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks in their cities will be invited to attend the Mayors’ Summit for Safer People, Safer Streets on March 12 in Washington, D.C. (Getty Images)

For the first time in human history, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including 80 percent of Americans. The increase in the number of city dwellers in the U.S. correlates with an increase in the number of people using non-motorized forms of transportation, such as walking and bicycling, to move around their communities. However, this increase in healthy and environmentally friendly travel modes has a significant downside – pedestrian and bicycle injuries and fatalities have steadily increased since 2009.

Elected officials at the local, state and federal level recognize the need to create safer, more connected walking and bicycling networks. As part of the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a challenge to mayors and other local elected officials to create safer walking and bicycling options for their residents. He challenged city leaders to undertake seven activities over the next year to improve safety for pedestrians and bicyclists of all ages and abilities. Over 90 cities have already joined the challenge.

Many mayors, city councilmembers and other local elected officials are already making changes to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. In Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael B. Coleman and the city council adopted the Safe Streets Ordinance, which includes provisions that clarify that bicyclists are protected under the law from being “doored” by motorists, and specify that motor vehicles must allow a minimum of three feet when passing bicycles.

Cyclobia Brownsville 1

City streets are closed to vehicles during CycloBia Brownsville. (photo credit: City of Brownsville, Texas)

In Brownsville, Texas, City Commissioner Rose Gowen and other city leaders have adopted an Open Streets approach; through CycloBia Brownsville the city closes some public streets during designated times so residents can safely use city streets for walking, bicycling and other recreational activities.

Mick Cornett, mayor of Oklahoma City, Okla., is leading an effort to consciously redesign and rebuild the city’s streetscapes with millennials in mind, many of whom are less likely to have a driver’s license and more likely to walk, bike and use public transportation.

NLC, through Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties has helped cities implement strategies such as Complete Streets, Safe Routes to School and Open Streets to improve the design and use of streets for pedestrians and cyclists. To date, more than 200 cities and counties are using such strategies to enhance opportunities for residents who walk and bike to school, to work and just for fun.

To make your city safer and easier to navigate for pedestrians and bicyclists, sign up for the Safer People, Safer Streets Mayors’ Challenge today! When you sign up, let us know on Twitter by using the hashtag #mayors4safety.

About the Author: Tracy Wiedt is the Program Manager for Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties at the National League of Cities.

First (Only?) Environmental Case of the Supreme Court’s Term is a Big One

power plantThis coal-fired power plant is excited to receive its 15 minutes of fame when the Supreme Court rules on a complex environmental case later this term. (Getty Images)

The consolidated cases of Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency and National Mining Association v. Environmental Protection Agency challenge a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation intended to limit mercury and other emissions from mostly coal-fired power plants.

Before regulating emissions from electric utilities, the Clean Air Act (CAA) requires the EPA Administrator to find that regulation is “appropriate and necessary” based on a public health hazards study. The simple legal question in this complicated case is whether the EPA unreasonably refused to consider costs in making its determination that regulation was “appropriate.”

In 1990 Congress required the EPA to identify stationary sources for 189 hazardous air pollutants and adopt maximum achievable control technology standards (MACT) for limiting their emissions. But the CAA regulates emissions from electric utilities differently than from other stationary sources. Before the EPA may regulate electric utilities under the MACT program, it must perform a health hazards study and determine whether regulation of them is appropriate and necessary.

In 2000, the EPA determined it would regulate mercury and other emissions from electric utilities, but it reversed course in 2005. Then in 2012, the agency issued the final rule challenged in this case which concluded that regulating electric utilities was appropriate and necessary. The EPA “rejected the 2005 interpretation that authorizes the Agency to consider other factors (e.g., cost).”

The D.C. Circuit agreed with the EPA that it was not required to consider costs. “Appropriate” isn’t defined in the relevant section of the CAA and dictionary definitions of the term don’t mention costs.  Throughout the CAA “Congress mentioned costs explicitly where it intended the EPA to consider them.”

A dissenting judge pointed that the cost of regulation in this case is nearly $10 billion dollars annually and opined that the cost of complying will “likely knock a bunch of coal-fired electric utilities out of business and require enormous expenditures by other coal- and oil-fired electric utilities.”

States are involved in this case on both sides. During its last term, the Supreme Court ruled on two significant Clean Air Act cases: EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, involving the CAA’s Good Neighbor Provision, and Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA, involving greenhouse gases and stationary sources.

Lisa Sorenen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.