Sustainable Cities Summit tackles the challenges of urban sustainability

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said, "The challenges today are not a question of if we have the the opportunity to make progress on these issues but how do we act when we can’t see the problems?” (Photo: GWU)

Effective storytelling rests at the nexus of innovations seeking to address the urgent social and environmental sustainability challenges facing cities across the globe. This was the overarching theme of the 2016 Planet Forward Summit on Sustainable Cities, held April 21-22, in Washington, D.C.

“Our cities are up against an awful a lot of challenges,” said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs and founder of Planet Forward, in his opening remarks. “If we are going to do the things we need to do without melting the planet, we are going to need a lot of good stories.”

In the fight against climate change, cities represent the greatest challenge and opportunity — while they generate a vast majority (70 percent) of global greenhouse gas emissions, those who live in them actually have smaller carbon footprints than the national averages. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and by 2050 this is expected to reach 66 percent, according to the United Nations.

To put this in perspective, between today and 2050, another 2.5 billion people will be added to urban populations — with close to 90 percent of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.

From New York to Shanghai, cities are swelling across the globe, and exacerbating social and environmental sustainability challenges — including energy, water and air quality concerns, as well as municipal waste and social equity problems.

Saving water in a parched world

“We often think about a carbon footprint, but we don’t think about a water footprint,” said Sesno during the Summit.

In the United States, water is something many take for granted and most consider to be a fundamental human right — or a public good that everyone should have access to regardless of the cost.

“While it’s a right, that doesn’t mean it’s free,” said Dr. Royce Francis, discussing the need for new investments in water infrastructure. “It’s a human right if we’re willing to help each other get access.”

Struggling cities such as Flint, Michigan, highlight the need for public investment in water infrastructure. The United States averages seven water main breaks a day, and has received a “D” rating from national rating systems.

“I pay three times more for internet than water,” said David Farnham, a Ph.D. student at Columbia University, pointing out how cheap most water rates are. “We need to think about replacing pipes, not only for quantity issues but for quality issues.”

But increasing water rates is not a politically popular move — even to pay for new and improved infrastructure. Private investors may be able to step in in lieu of raising water rates, but in order for this to be economically feasible thousands of smaller projects across the country need to be bundled.

Communicating ‘invisible’ problems

While the United States historically has shown a willingness to act to rectify visible environmental problems — such as smog, which led to many of the air quality laws of the 1970s — many of the problems cities currently face aren’t so easy to see.

“For 45 years we have done a great job at nationally reducing pollution in a way that has significantly improved health for everybody in this country,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “The challenges today are not a question of if we have the the opportunity to make progress on these issues but how do we act when we can’t see the problems?”

Climate change, for example, is a more pervasive problem that can’t always be directly observed. Likewise, many of the water quality issues afflicting municipalities aren’t easy to detect with the naked eye.

For cities in particular, the environment is a pillar of a growing economy, McCarthy said. Pointing to the clean up of the Boston Harbor, she said that without this action Boston likely would not be the thriving place it is today.

“The environment opens up opportunities, and you have to look at it as an integrated thought process,” McCarthy said. “That’s what sustainability is.”

“We’ve got to get the politics out of it and give the people what they want — a world that is sustainable and where mayors can be the leaders of sustainability action.”

Getting around the cities of tomorrow

“The transportation grid we build today is our quality of life tomorrow,” said Megan Smith, director of Climate and Energy Initiatives at the Office of King County, Washington.

If this is the case, many cities are facing decreased quality of life down the road, considering crumbling transportation infrastructure.

While the 20th century transportation grid was designed around the automobile, 21st century cities must embrace an integrated approach to public transportation. Uber’s Colin Tooze concurred, saying technology and innovation can help move people around more efficiently, and in fewer cars. In many cities across the country, people may take several forms of transportation, including light rail, buses and cars, among others, to get from Point A to Point B.

However, reduced faith in public projects has turned citizens off from supporting new public transportation projects, which cost money.

“It takes time to build up public confidence in elected officials to support projects,” said Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Alabama. Battle managed to secure funds for 13 miles of new light rail in his city — only after years of fighting to win the public’s support.

Urban ag can help feed us

With billions of more mouths to feed, urban agriculture may move to the mainstream in the cities of tomorrow.

“We will need combination of food growing in urban and rural areas to meet food demands,” said Che Axum, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture & Gardening Education at the University of the District of Columbia.

Meanwhile, climate change may actually decrease the nutrition of common crops. We’ll need to employ more carbon intensive farming techniques — meaning growing more food in less space.

“We need to double the amount of food we produce, but we don’t have a lot of resources,” said Chris Policinski, president and CEO of Land O’Lakes. “We need high tech, low tech solutions.”

While large farmers tend to be more tech driven, Policinski said small farmers should become the “incubators of innovation.”

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.