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Philadelphia's Nutter: cities must institutionalize sustainability

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Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter on Thursday urged his peers in other cities to drive change at the national level by taking charge on sustainability issues at the local level.

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter on Thursday urged his peers in other cities to drive change at the national level by taking charge on sustainability issues at the local level.

Speaking during a panel discussion at the United Nations Environmental Programme's Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative Symposium at the University of Pennsylvania, Nutter outlined his efforts to make Philadelphia the "number one green city" during his first four years in office through 150 initiatives under the "GreenWorks Philadelphia" program.

The panel also included former Toronto mayor David Miller, Sao Paulo municipal secretary Elton Santa Fé Zacarias and Madrid housing agency representative Catalina de Miguel Garcia. It was moderated by former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell.

"I want to encourage all of my fellow mayors in the United States and around the world: everyone should set a goal to be the number one green city," Nutter said. "If we strive for this goal, everyone will win."

The key is "infusing" such policies in all departments and at all levels of city government.

Among the highlights in Philly:

  • When Nutter took office in 2008, recycling was at six percent; now it's 20 percent.
  • When he took office, the city was paying companies $35 per ton to take its recycling; now through the RecycleBank program, recyclers pay the city $65 a ton for it, helping divert it from landfills (that cost $68 per ton). "We're recycling so much now that the companies have had to hire more people to take care of our recycling. That is putting Philadelphians to work," he said.
  • The city put in more bike lanes and racks. The city's central district sits between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers; the dedication of a traffic lane to bikes in both directions helps cyclists get across the city. "Philadelphia per capita has more people who bicycle to work than any other big city in the nation," he said.
  • The city replaced the lights in 85,000 traffic signals with LED bulbs, saving it a million dollars in energy costs.
  • The city deployed solar-powered trash compacters -- "Big Bellys" -- for street refuse. Traditional cans had to be emptied 17 times a week; the solar compacters require attention only five times a week. "Saving us time, but more importantly saving us money," he said.
  • Philadelphia's "Green City, Clean Waters" program seeks to manage stormwater through surface treatments, rather than new underground infrastructure. "Most cities are digging up their towns and putting in pipes and tunnels and retention basins and spending billions of dollars. We're going a very different route," he said. "We'd rather spend $2 billion over 20 years doing it this way rather than $25 billion over 10 years to dig up the whole town."
  • The city now charges for water based on the property's square footage, rather than just meter use. "We're going after those who have large impervious surface areas and actually charging them more for sewer management," he said. "If you have a large building -- lots of surface area -- and a huge parking lot of asphalt, you're going to pay a lot more...we're actually charging people for the fact that their overflow costs us money."
  • The city also deployed its first porous street, which mitigates stormwater runoff. "We're looking to utilize that kind of surface across many of our streets in Philadelphia," he said. "It's a wonderful technology."

It's not about greenwashing, either -- this is serious work being done, Nutter said.

"We're series about sustainability. We're serious about sustainability costs. We're serious about putting people to work," he said. "It's not about being number one. It's about doing what's right for our city."

The green economy is really about jobs, Nutter said, and as "incubators of innovation," cities have to "get things done on the ground" in a way that Congressional representatives cannot. "They don't run rec centers," he said.

"We don't have a lot of time for debate or discussion which often is endless," Nutter said. "When you work in local government, you either picked up trash or you didn't. We get judged daily."

The key for mayors is to decide what path to pursue and then methodically explain to the public the value of that path -- whether in terms of jobs, or savings, or livability. Repetition penetrates the dullest of minds, Nutter said.

"No one wakes up and says, I want to be an environmentalist," he said. "But some…ultimately want a better environment for their children. Part of the problem is about communication."

On the macro level, cities can change national policy if they work together, he said.

"This is not a fad. This is the new reality of where we are," Nutter said. "Sustainability is going to be here for a long, long period of time."

The best strategy? Institutionalize it. During the race for mayor of Philadelphia four years ago, the environmental movement began to grow to the point where it impacted the race, Nutter said.

"Ultimately, every candidate turned green," he said. "Every mayoral candidate had to have a position on a whole series of issues related to the environment and sustainability. It changed a lot of the dynamics of the race that year."

Now, Nutter occasionally fields complaints that he speaks too much about recycling compared to other issues. But he pushes back, he said.

"I think a lot of people do get it," he said. "The big lesson here is: figure out how to make it relevant to the citizens. Citizens ask every day: what does this matter to me? How does this improve my life? What will it do for my child in school?

"I can honestly say that I'm saving money, putting people to work and delivering a high quality of service at a very low cost. What they want is no cost. It really is about communication and laying it out in a way that people can understand.

"If you can do that, you can build a constituency. You will institutionalize [it]. It's how you make sustainability sustainable in government. You can't think about running a city in four, eight, 12-year chunks of time. The city was here a long time before I got here; it's going to be here a long time after I'm gone."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure