Chicago City Hall Green Roof, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from CHRISTOPHER MACSURAK’s photostream

For those who care about the environment, it can be easy to become disheartened. The subject was never brought up in any of the presidential debates last year. In an attempt at “evenhandedness” the media gives time to those who deny that humans play a role in climate change, or that climate change even exists. At the same time that the arctic experienced record glacial melting, precious little is being done on a national level to combat global warming. Yet, there is cause for hope. But to find it, one needs to look to local governments instead of the federal government. As Jay Walljasper points out in his article Mayors Take Over the World, “local officials, especially mayors, play a bigger role in shaping the world’s future than at any point in history.”

Mayors (and local legislative bodies) are on the frontline of democracy. They can enact change far more readily than those on a national level where you need agreement from hundreds rather than a dozens. In writing about a new breed of mayors around the world, Walljasper gives the example of Mayor Myung-bak Lee:

Mayor Myung-bak Lee turned Seoul into a model of livability with creative moves like replacing an elevated highway with a riverfront park that winds four miles through the city centre. In honouring him with an award for sustainable policies, U.S. green groups Environmental Defense and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy declared, “Mayor Lee belongs to a new generation of bold mayors and governors around the world who are tackling seemingly intractable problems like traffic gridlock and air pollution—and winning.” Lee is now president of South Korea.

On the American front, Moyers & Company took a look at 12 Cities Leading the Way in Sustainability. Those cities include Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Eugene, New York City, Salt Lake City, Grand Rapids, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. A common thread in many of these cities’ plans involved setting and meeting goals to reduce carbon emissions and to increase recycling and decrease trash output.

Some of the measures taken involve transportation. Minneapolis, for example now has 160 miles of bikeways (85 miles of which don’t run alongside a road). Salt Lake City installed solar-powered parking meters throughout their downtown. Philadelphia has installed 85,000 LED traffic signals. Los Angeles has reduced truck emissions at the Port of Los Angeles by 80 percent.


Green shared lane, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from Steven Vance’s photostream


Solar Parking Meters, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from PilotGirl’s photostream

A key component in these cities’ plans include expanding green spaces. Over ten percent of Austin is now parkland. The latest PlaNYC seeks to ensure that all New Yorkers live within a ten-minute walk of a park. Philadelphia plans to plant 65,000 trees by 2015. And then there’s Chicago’s green roofs. From the PBS NewsHour:

Chicago already has 359 green roofs covering almost 5.5 million square feet — that’s more than any other city in North America. But city planners are pushing for even more.

Chicago has mandated that all new buildings that require any public funds must be “LEED” Certified — designed with energy efficiency in mind — and that usually includes a green roof. Any project with a green roof in its plan gets a faster permitting process. That combined with energy savings is the kind of green that incentivizes developers.


IMGP4698, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mindfrieze’s photostream

Green roofs not only help keep a city cooler, they assist in coping with stormwater runoff. Chicago is also adding permeable or reflective pavement and making other efforts to green their infrastructure. Many Pittsburghers recognize the wisdom — and cost savings to be had — in having a green plan to fix our sewer system and stormwater problems. You can learn more about what Chicago is doing in that direction in the video below.