This is the first blog in a series on why the key to protecting our environment lies in city innovation.
I grew up feeling a lot of guilt on Earth Day. When April 22 of every year came around, I felt a huge pile of bricks dropped on my shoulders. How many more natural resources could we waste? How could we ignore what we were doing to our water bodies? How could I have thrown away my leftovers yesterday? For twenty-four hours, the burdens of protecting the natural environment, large and small, fell on me.
Ok, so that’s a bit exaggerated but you get my point. Earth Day often feels like this thing removed from us — a day to celebrate/reflect/commemorate “nature” as though it is a play we are not quite a part of, only a peripheral spectator (or sometimes active villain) in.
The reality, though, is this is far from the truth. The fact is the makeup of our Earth has radically changed. We have a global population steadily on the rise, over half of which currently lives in cities. Think about that — over half. And this rate is only increasing.
Yes—as a society we are responsible for resources wasted, overused and undervalued. But we are also responsible for technological innovations; creativity; and conservation efforts that have helped us make leaps and bounds in conserving natural resources, and preserving and protecting the natural environment — all the while meeting the varied needs of a growing global population.
The fact is, on Earth Day and every other day, cities matter. Cities are where unlikely partners come together to solve a problem that seems impossible. Cities are the places where people’s ideas collide to form better, more effective outcomes than any of us could imagine on our own. And cities provide the key to protecting and enhancing our natural (humans included) environment.
Take, for example, the Wyland Foundation’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, an annual competition, which in 2013 had participation from residents in over 1,000 cities across the United States and saved 5.4 million single use water bottles from being used—all in a month’s time. Or the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a friendly competition where small-to-medium sized local governments across the country will be competing to design replicable, scalable energy efficiency programs to win a multi-million dollar prize.
Healthy competitions like these spur creativity and innovation, but they are also capitalizing on the fact that local governments across the country are already innovating and finding creative solutions to jointly meet environmental, economic and social issues. Cities across the country are framing their priorities with a recognition of our present situation and a nod towards the future, allowing them to create comprehensive, forward-looking programs and policies that embrace the natural and human environments as inseparable.
In reflecting on his city’s commitment to sustainability, Mayor Ralph Becker, of Salt Lake City, said: “As we look ahead toward 2015, we envision continued progress to a new kind of urbanism that embraces accessibility, sustainability, diversity and culture. Sustainable Salt Lake – Plan 2015 reflects a broad and ambitious agenda to protect our resources, enhance our assets and establish a path towards greater resiliency and vitality for every aspect of our community.”
I no longer feel burdened when I think of Earth Day because I recall all the exciting activities taking place in cities to find scalable solutions to some of our most pressing problems of today. I know that I have a very real personal responsibility to protect the natural resources around me. However, reading the sustainability missions of cities across the country is an affirmation of what I know to be true; the collective—that is, cities—in fact holds the key to protecting our environment.
About the author: Raksha Vasudevan is the Senior Sustainability Associate at NLC. Through the Sustainable Cities Institute, her work focuses on sharing innovative solutions to city sustainability challenges, from climate change and resilience to buildings and energy efficiency. Follow Raksha on Twitter at @RakshaAmbika and the Sustainable Cities Institute at @SustCitiesInst.