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June 07, 2005

Talking the Talk vs. Walking the Walk

Via Planetizen News, here's an interesting sustainability ranking for 25 US cities.  The Northwest fares pretty well:  Portland ranks #2, and Seattle #4.  (The Bay Area beats the Northwest by a nose:  San Francisco and Berkeley, CA rank  #1 and #3, respectively.)

SustainabilecityrankI haven't had time to look through the methods thoroughly.  But my first impression is that it gives undue weight to intentions, and not enough to actual performance.  For example, Portland does exceptionally well in climate and energy policy, while New York City's rank on energy policy is only middling.  But this only measures what cities say about energy, not what they actually do.  In fact, at least in terms of transportation efficiency, Portland eats The Big Apple's dust:  New York has by far the most energy efficient transportation system in the country, largely because higher residential densities let many New Yorkers get around on public transit or on foot.  So even though Portland is doing a good job of talking the talk on energy efficiency, in New York City they're (literally) walking the walk. 

That's not to say that Portland's energy policy is irrelevant, or that rankings like these aren't a useful exercise.  Far from it.  Still, actions speak louder than words -- and any attempt to measure sustainability should look far more closely at what cities actually do than at what their leaders say.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Yes, they've strangely missed what seems to be at the very center of the urban sustainability challenge: how much people drive. Vehicle use is responsible for something like 32% of CO2 emmissions, and a huge contributor to climate change. It's a major contributor to high energy consumption, and all the nasty side effects that come with that. Vehicle miles travelled/person is a key indicator of the extent to which people live the sprawl lifestyle, which has all kinds of implications to the public health obesity epidemic, high costs of health care, not to mention wasteful use of land with low-density development. Cars are a significant source of air pollution, and water pollution (runoff, groundwater contamination, oil spills).

In Seattle, the disjunction between individual actions and collective action feels quite strange. We have excellent intentions, and do GREAT as sustainable consumers at the individual level: recycling, making green buildings, shopping responsibly, participating in community gardens. We do pretty poorly with the big systemic things we should be better at: like investing in transit instead of roads, and overcoming NIMBYism against densification, or having the guts to make driving less convenient than transit / biking / walking.

Posted by: cary | Jun 7, 2005 9:21:56 PM

They use "sprawl index" to rate the Land Use category, and they rate the Transportation on "Public transportation ridership percentage; walk to work percentage; bike to work percentage; carpool to work percentage".

And I disagree that "it gives undue weight to intentions"; the four categories (out of twelve) that might measure intentions (Planning, City Innovation, Energy/Climate, and Knowledge Base) all measure concrete things that shape the cities sustainability now and over the coming years. I find this much more enlightening than just a snapshot without context.

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Jun 8, 2005 12:15:31 AM


I think that's a fair critique of my post. I guess I was just sort of irked that New York -- which absolutely beats the pants off every other US city in petroleum consumption, and due to smaller residences does remarkably well on household energy consumption, given its climate -- got only middling marks for "energy policy". That seemed, well, odd.

Still, these sorts of rankings have their uses -- including helping to spur NYC govt. to work on its energy policy.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jun 8, 2005 12:50:39 PM

Does NYC have an intentional good energy policy, vs. a lot of inherited infrastructure from the previous era of expensive energy?

I have a friend there who is driven to frothing over how impossible he's found it to help push biodiesel; he thinks the particulate effects from the Staten Island Ferry alone would be worth the change, and that the ferry has already passed tests on biodiesel, but that some combination of kickbacks and institutional sloth prevent policy changes.

Posted by: clew | Jun 8, 2005 1:40:35 PM


Good points about New York, I think looking at NYC's strengths, other than tap water quality, it looks like much of it's sustainability rating is based on things that were already that way, but for other reasons. On the other hand, that same existing infrastructure handicaps NYC's ability to quickly improve it's biggest weaknesses (LEED, Air Quality, and Solid Waste).

Anyway, is New York an ideal? When people talk about high density development, and smarth growth, well NY is the extreme example. Is this where you see our cities head in the next 50 years? Berkeley and SF, both higher than NY on the list, have regulations against building up; is that a good or bad thing? Just some thoughts.

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Jun 8, 2005 2:08:43 PM

Holy cow. Did you really read all of those books you review on your blog? If so -- I'm jealous, and in awe.

Anyway, a response. Obviously, NYC inherited its advantages. And that, for me, is sort of the point: reality trumps intention. The reality is that, in terms of fossil fuels at least, NYC residents do really well; Portland residents, not so well.

Perhaps NYC would be a greener place, or set itself on a more sustainable trajectory, if it adopted some of Portland's energy policies. Perhaps. But Portland could *definitely* do better than it does now if it looked to NYC's dense, lively urban neighborhoods as a model. Not that Portland needs to become NYC -- but the anti-density sentiment & zoning rules that seems so prevalent in the Pacific NW are arguably more harmful to sustainability than the environmentally conscious Northwest ethic is helpful.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jun 8, 2005 8:44:34 PM

I agree with Clew. Of what use are rankings like Planetizen's? They stoke civic pride at being near the top of the sustainability pack (providing incentive to try to stay there), or they might motivate improvement. The important feedback to send with these rankings is about the recent movement a city has accomplished, rather than the endowment of sustainable features its modern-day citizens have inherited. Since we're trying to affect the decisions a city and its citizens are making, it makes sense to look at the impact of new housing, transportation, etc. at the margin, rather than averaged over the entire stock of urban infrastructure. That's more than mere intention: it's action.

I'm perplexed by something else you said, Clark, about the prevalence of anti-density sentiment and zoning rules in the Pacific Northwest. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Oregon's urban growth boundaries and Washington's Growth Management Act are among the more vigorous tools current employed on a statewide level to reduce sprawl. No?

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman | Jun 8, 2005 10:13:20 PM

But why is NY the way it is? If I had to guess, I would say that it's because of a unique set of circumstances, including geography, time (ie: it was there first), location, necessity, etc. etc. In other words, NY is the way it is because it could be, and then it *had* to be. Most other cities could be that way (well, could grow in that direction), but don't have to; look at California's central valley which will soon be one giant, sprawling city from Fresno to Stockton along Highway 99. Since most cities have few natural limits to sprawl, they must rely on planning instead.

Just for fun, I plugged the numbers for the top 9 cities into a spreadsheet, and rated them without the hypotheticals; the result? Not that different. New York and Oakland jump higher, and Seattle, Santa Monica, and Chicago fall.

Here's the new order:

SF, Portland, Berkeley, New York, Seattle, Austin, Oakland, Santa Monica, Chicago

Anyway, I thought Portland (even Oregon as a whole) had pretty enlightened growth/land use/zoning laws. Also, if SF is #2 in Transportation in this country, then we are seriously hurting! (How can SF and NY be tied in that category???)

p.s. - I live just outside of Oakland, CA.

Posted by: colorless green ideas | Jun 8, 2005 11:24:02 PM

Seth and Colorless -

Ok, ok. I'm beginning to think that I shot my mouth off too soon. Especially given Eric's post on Portland's attainment of Kyoto goals, which is impressive. (see http://cascadiascorecard.typepad.com/blog/2005/06/capping_carbon.html)

But a couple of comments. First, on Portland's progressive land use laws: We did a study last fall on urban density in 15 US metro areas. Portland did ok -- it ranked 6th of the 15, behind Las Vegas, Denver, Salt Lake City, and a few other arid western cities. This was a surprise to us -- but also a powerful reminder to me that accidents of history and quirks of geography (ie, being surrounded by desert or other undevelopable land) can be far more powerful than good intentions in creating a sustainable place.

That said, Vancouver, BC's policy environment (limited urban highways, good protections for ag land, promotion of density and transit) has made that city far more compact than any of the US cities we've looked at. So policy matters. And despite a natural environment that is conducive to sprawl, Portland did a good job of limiting the loss of rural land to develoment over the 1990s. Which, obviously, is reason to cheer, and also to believe that policy does matter.

That said, it's after 30 years of growth management, Portland is still just beginning to approach the residential densities that are common in many other western cities.

Now, clearly, there's more to curbing sprawl than simply promoting residential density. And Portland's planning laws have helped the city in lots of other ways. Among them, Portland and its suburbs bucked the national trend over the 1990s by growing more economically integrated, with less separation of haves and have-nots -- in part because the metro government encouraged apartments in suburban centers.

In sum, I think that Portland's land use laws are certainly setting the city on a more sustainable trajectory than other similarly sized cities in the US. But the city's current state (rather than its trajectory) falls far, far short of NYC.

On anti-density sentiment: It's probably less prevalent here than in other parts of the country. But it's prevalent enough -- see, eg., recent op eds against higher density near Seattle's downtown; community opposition to 6-story buildings on Broadway--a busy commercial street in a neighborhood that's adjacent to the largest US urban center within 800 miles; Portland voter's approval in 2002 for a measure to "prohibit increased density in existing neighborhoods..." (see http://www.metro-region.org/article.cfm?ArticleID=2935).

There are other examples, of course--these are off the top of my head. Now, I don't think these things, by themselves, prove that northwesterners are intensely opposed to density--just that the goal of creating compact residential neighborhoods is perhaps less widely shared than I'd like. And, of course, there are countervailing examples as well, including Washington and Oregon's (somewhat besieged) growth managment laws -- which, as tepid as they may be compared with, say, BC's policies, are probably about as good as you'll find in the US.

So that's that. I'll concede everyone's points and duck out of the thread now...

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Jun 9, 2005 10:49:10 AM