Focusing on the Basics of Life Will Save Us (And the Planet)

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Stopping climate change is NRDC's top priority. Almost all of our activities are focused on cutting the pollution that's harming our planet by deploying our mighty advocacy powers to stop big polluters and promote clean power options. And, we are making progress. Climate change isn't quite the taboo term it used to be thanks to the phenomenal progress the environmental movement has made over the past four decades.

But, as environmentalists, we often forget to bring our issues down to the ground level, making them understandable and engaging for everyone. At a time when we need more people to see the urgency of making changes that reverse the carbon pollution trajectory, we are in danger of losing their attention. That's why at Urban Solutions we are focusing on people and how the communities they live in can be part of the climate solution.

The stars are starting to align.

Cities are major contributors to carbon emissions. In the U.S. over 60% of emissions come from the buildings in which we live and work and the transportation systems that get us where we want to go. And, after decades of practice, we are starting to gather the building blocks for change. Regions that organize growth and reinvestment along high quality transit are on track to reduce transportation emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Cities that work with building owners to monitor energy use are seeing significant energy savings with very little investment. And, neighborhoods that have safe, walkable streets, options for getting around town, strong schools and access to healthy foods not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 30%, but also help people lead healthier lives.

So, we know that cities can be part of the climate solution.


Deploying effective building blocks is important right now. More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities and nearby suburbs, and urban living is incredibly popular among the fastest growing demographic groups - Millennials and retiring Baby Boomers. They are flocking to urban neighborhoods that let them get rid of their cars, walk to shops, bike to jobs and volunteer opportunities and enjoy the vibrancy that cities provide. We have the fortunate opportunity to harness market forces to build more sustainable cities.

But one of the biggest challenges cities face is inequality. Too many families are just scraping by. Jobs, education and health are often higher priorities for city dwellers than addressing climate change, which seems remote and overwhelming. That makes a lot of sense. As more people seek out the opportunities of urban life, those without many options are getting priced and pushed out. Suburban poverty is well-documented, and forcing working families to move farther away from city centers to neighborhoods where the price of entry into the job market is paying for maintaining and sitting in a car - the opposite of climate-friendly behavior.

That's why I believe that we aren't going to be able to make cities part of the climate solution unless we address inequality and access to opportunity at the same time.

Our Urban Solutions program is designed to address climate and equity simultaneously by piloting new strategies for the ways we build our cities and by scaling up best practices so that the pace of change is dramatically accelerated. As we offer solutions that make our cities greener, we are keeping people top of mind, working to address their everyday needs: lowering energy bills, reducing the incidence of flooded basements, improving access to healthier food, and making it cheaper and easier for everyone to get around.

Urban Solutions' strategic plan sets out a bold vision: strong, just and resilient communities that, as the name states, create solutions to climate change. We want to make cities a necessary part of the answer to climate change, while making the basics of life easier and less expensive.

We know that Urban Solutions doesn't have all the answers. We work in partnership with mayors, business and community leaders, advocates and others who share our sense of urgency and optimism.

I am honored to lead a fantastic group of experts including planners, analysts, scientists, engineers and policy folks who are working every day to bring bold ideas to a national scale. Our portfolio of 2015 projects incorporates national, regional and local partners to make sure our solutions are just that - real answers to complex problems. The four pillars of our strategy are:

Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Generation

Buildings generate more than half of the carbon pollution in cities. Urban Solutions is investing $20 million over three years on cutting energy use from existing buildings. Our City Energy Project (CEP) is a national initiative in partnership with the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT) to cut energy waste in large buildings by partnering with the mayors of 10 cities - work that cuts as much climate change pollution as generated by 1 million to 1.5 million vehicles every year. Perhaps more importantly, it is expected to lower energy bills by nearly $1 billion annually.

In addition, Energy Efficiency for All has a 12-state campaign to help families living in affordable multi-family housing benefit from the energy retrofits that are commonly offered to office buildings or high end apartment buildings. Not only do we aim to secure at least $80 million of new resources to reduce energy waste in existing affordable multifamily housing, we want to make sure residents are more comfortable in their homes, less prone to asthma and other health issues, and are more able to afford utility bills.

Transportation and Land Use

Transportation is one of the most important factors in creating strong and resilient communities. Our work has been groundbreaking in linking transportation and land use planning to fight the devastating effects of climate change. We will continue NRDC's extremely effective work in California to enact groundbreaking climate laws, require plans that show how each region will meet ambitious climate targets, secure funding to implement sustainable communities through cap and trade funds, and revamp state policy to create incentives for less driving.

Recently, we began focusing on the potential for shared-use mobility such as car-sharing and bike-sharing. We sponsored a Live.Ride.Share conference in Los Angeles that drew national attention to the idea of locally based transportation-sharing options that can reduce transportation costs, cut pollution, create jobs and revitalize communities while retaining local culture.

Our Green Neighborhoods team works directly with local leaders to design and implement the next generation of sustainable and inclusive neighborhoods, with Los Angeles' Little Tokyo being a prime example. We are turning our attention now to Watts, which this August marks the 50th anniversary of the Watts Uprising in South Central Los Angeles, marking a time that set the stage for national debates that continue to this day.

Storm Water and Urban Resilience

One of the most pressing challenges cities face is urban flooding and polluted run-off.

Urban Solutions is partnering with NRDC's Water program to help increase the use of private financing in green storm-water infrastructure. In Philadelphia, for example, places like the Greene Street Friends school playground and Cardone Industries have turned industrial landscapes into park-like areas with grassy fields, ponds and trees, with the enterprises and the city benefiting financially. The program, which involved support from NRDC's Urban Solutions and the Center for Market Innovation, reduces flooding and cuts government storm-water fees.

We are also working at the federal level on President Obama's order requiring federal agencies to build and assess projects based on a higher flood protection standard.

Food Equity and Efficiency

Access to healthy food options is a critical component to creating thriving communities. Our New York Team recently helped organize The Food + Enterprise conference in Brooklyn to bring together investors, foundations and food entrepreneurs to promote understanding and collaboration in developing better food systems that use locally grown products.


And, with all our work, 25 percent of our funding goes directly to local partners.

The basic ingredients of any healthy city are plentiful housing, good jobs, and accessible transportation for all citizens at every income level. NRDC's Urban Solutions program has taken a collaborative, people-first approach to fostering urban sustainability by helping to empower neighbors to restore and revitalize their own communities. These real solutions to the devastating effects of climate change and economic disparity are making a difference--right now--in our metropolitan areas, where we raise our families and live our daily lives.

We invite you to join us as we meet these needs together.