Find Yourself a City to Live In

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Walking the walk in Cambridge

Could energy-efficient American cities be a key weapon in the battle against climate change?

In a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece, Douglas Foy (former secretary of the Office of Commonwealth
Development and president of DIF Enterprises) and Robert Healy (city
manager of Cambridge, Mass.) argue that they must be exactly that. Writing that "[m]any of the world’s most difficult environmental challenges can be addressed and solved by cities," they briefly outline Cambridge’s aggressive new strategy to be part of that solution:

[C]ities are inherently the "greenest" of all places. They are much more efficient in their use of energy, water and land than suburbs. They provide transportation services in a remarkably equitable and democratic fashion.

Cities help to save natural areas and open space by relieving growth pressures on the countryside. And cities will be the pivotal players in fashioning solutions to the growing problem of climate change….

In order to address the challenge of climate change, it is imperative that we make both buildings and transportation vastly more energy efficient. And cities are the place to start. In a way, cities are the Saudi Arabia of energy efficiency — vast mines of potential energy savings that dwarf most of the supply options our country possesses.

It is with that efficiency goal in mind that the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Kendall Foundation have developed for Cambridge the most aggressive energy efficiency program ever deployed in a city in the United States.

The outlines of the program were announced on March 29. It will involve the investment of nearly $100 million, largely raised from private capital sources, in buildings of all types throughout the city.

We will invest in energy efficiency measures in homes, condos, apartments, offices, hotels, institutions, hospitals, factories and schools. We will measure and verify the savings and document the carbon dioxide reductions and other environmental gains. And all of this will be done with the energy savings paying for the cost of the program, without the need for any government subsidies.

By mining Cambridge’s efficiency opportunities, the city will become more competitive, save money, add hundreds of quality jobs, help build an efficiency industry that can produce a model that can be replicated in cities all over the United States and add its weight to a solution for global climate change.

Photo: allanpatrick via Flickr

  • AD

    Fantastic article, and a great counterpoint to all the negativity in the press coverage of the recent study of New York City’s carbon emissions. It was widely reported that New York City produces 1% of the entire nation’s carbon emissions, implying that that’s a lot. What wasn’t reported, was that New York City has 2.8% of the nation’s population.

    As usual, putting the focus on overall emissions masks the reality of per capita savings.

  • Anne

    a program targeting energy efficiency in EXISTING buildings is desperately needed here in NYC, and represents some very low-hanging fruit in the effort to lower emissions. think of hundreds of overheated apartment buildings with their windows open all winter, and imagine the potential benefits.

    “University, commercial, and even residential buildings will receive energy audits over the next five years to pinpoint energy inefficiencies. Property owners will then be offered low- or zero-interest loans to undertake remediation efforts ranging from replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents to installing insulated roofs and more efficient heating and cooling systems.”

    we need exactly this kind of initiative here in NYC. both the state programs (through NYSERDA) and the utility company deals are poorly promoted and lack the level of follow-through and funding necessary to make real, massive progress.

  • Astute Blancoponte

    The trick is making cities livable so that people want to live in them. The thing about dense human settlements is that even a relatively small proportion of driving can have big negative quality of life impacts.

  • It is good to invest in energy efficiency for buildings. But they should also be investing in more energy efficient forms of transportation. There is no mention of transportation at all in this program.

  • Charlie D.

    Even though the article does not mention transportation, Cambridge is one of the most forward-thinking cities in the Boston area when it comes to discouraging automobile use. In addition to the subway line that is within walking distance of most neighborhoods and bus service that serves the entire city, Cambridge strives to make their roads as pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly as possible. Most main roads in the city have bike lanes or wide outside lanes. Traffic calming measures such as raised crosswalks and speed tables have been installed in pedestrian-heavy locations. Unlike the City of Boston, Cambridge has very active pedestrian and bicycle committees within city government. The city clearly realizes the importance of reducing automobile dependence by encouraging other modes of transportation.

  • d

    The other trick is making cities affordable. Cambridge is to Boston what Park Slope or Riverdale is to Manhattan.

    If the people who provide vital services to Cambridge–such as firemen, teachers, policemen, and nurses–can not afford to live there, they will continue to rely on automobiles to get to their jobs, and that will require continued infrastructure to support their commutes. Any environmental improvements in the city will be negated by environmental degradation in the suburbs.

    Affordable, mixed-income housing should not be seen as simply a social benefit, but also as an environmental one. If 100 Cambridge public school teachers could walk to work instead of driving in from Medford, Somerville, and other less affluent towns, that might have more of a benefit to the environment than one school built with green technology.

  • Charlie D.

    Mixed income housing is good, but it does not address the underlying issue: there is a pent up demand for “livable” communities. If more cities were like Cambridge, Cambridge wouldn’t be as expensive. It’s the same general problem that new “smart growth” projects have. Because there is such a demand for them, developers can charge high prices that most people cannot afford.

    Communities that are pedestrian-, bicyclist-, and transit-friendly should not be the exception; they should be the norm. There should be enough of them that the majority of people can afford to live in them.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with your general point about people walking to work, D. (12:56 PM). I don’t know much about Cambridge, and maybe what you say is true there. But it has limited application here in New York.

    Over on Uncivilservants.org, a similar argument is often given that firefighters, teachers, police officers and nurses can’t afford to live in the city. But that’s nonsense: more than a fifth of New Yorkers are below the poverty level; how can they afford to live here? It’s true that gentrification is driving up rents all over the city and forcing poor people out, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon.

    The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of places in New York that are affordable on a civil servant’s salary. Ten years ago there were many more. Why did so many civil servants move to the suburbs, then? Two reasons: the “American Dream” of a detached house with a yard and a garage, and white flight. A lot of these civil servants didn’t want to raise a family in an apartment, and they didn’t want their kids going to school with black and Puerto Rican kids. We have mixed-income housing here, and a lot of people didn’t want it.

    I said above that I don’t know Cambridge very well, but on my last visit (back in 1995) I distinctly remember some areas around Central Square that seemed pretty low-rent to me. Was I imagining it, or was there some other reason the nurses and firefighters couldn’t live there?

    Finally, you didn’t mention one notable strategy for creating and preserving mixed-income housing: rent control.

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