The Year of Living Courageously

It is precisely because 2017 was such a challenging year in our field that I feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum as we face the future of sustainable and resilient communities.
Urban balancing act

It is precisely because 2017 was such a challenging year in our field that I feel a sense of accomplishment and momentum as we face the future of sustainable and resilient communities.

In such dark times, it’s been said, there is no room for pessimism.

Certainly that is the attitude that many cities across the globe have taken in leading the way to a more sustainable future, especially in carrying forth the Paris climate agreement. When the Trump administration announced this year that it was retreating from the accord, we made our stance clear, calling the decision deeply misguided.

The list of actions by thousands of cities on behalf of the Paris goals and in the name of making our cities safer and stronger is long and impressive. As we’ve demonstrated this year, our alliance with these localities is fierce as they reach across national and international political boundaries to face new and sometimes deadly challenges from severe weather effects and short-sighted policies and practices.

Cities are at the crossroads of the past and the future: They are uniquely positioned to spur innovation in transportation, building, conserving and recycling resources, sustainability and land use, but they also face massive challenges from a lack of resiliency, growing populations, and social divisions spurred by systemic racial and class divisions in planning and community development.

Perhaps nowhere were these challenges more evident than in the flooding that plagued coastal cities during the 2017 Hurricane Season.

As I said when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in late August, our vulnerable coastlines are dotted with cities packed with people surrounded by concrete, turning hazards like Harvey into disasters because of what we build in their way and how we build it.

Supporters of Houston’s free-for-all planning structure claim their way keeps homes and property affordable, but the potential for flooding, property damage and personal injury hasn’t historically been part of their calculus, and it should be.

A big focus of NRDC’s work in communities this year was in addressing that underlying issue of resilience—advocating for cities and regions to utilize natural surfaces to capture and filter rainwater where it falls, add green space, reduce the reliance on cars, roads and highways, and protect residents of all neighborhoods equally.

Our efforts in 2017 have taken us to cities and regions across the United States and other parts of the world to move these issues forward and argue that sustainable development is critical for climate action. We have worked on behalf of green infrastructure, clean transportation, energy-efficiency in big buildings and low-income housing, green finance and new approaches in community revitalization, and a groundbreaking effort to establish a network of collaborative sites in incorporating health, resilience and equity in key infrastructure projects.

Below are some of the highlights from the past year.

Furthering Health and Equity in Communities

The latter accomplishment, the Strong, Prosperous, And Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC) is the culmination of years of my work in both the private and public sectors, and I’m proud that it was born at a time when it is needed most. Announced at a national event at the Schomburg Center in Harlem in March, SPARCC is the result of a commitment by like-minded but non-traditional partners, including, Enterprise Community Partners, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Low Income Investment Fund, in addition to NRDC, with funding support from the Ford Foundation, The JPB Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The California Endowment.

Its six localities—Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Memphis and the San Francisco Bay Area—are participants in a three-year, $90 million initiative that unlocks millions more in investment in revitalizing disinvested areas. The sites are now in the process of furthering systems change in transforming policies and institutions to hold up racial equity as a focal point in local decision-making on infrastructure investments.

It’s a complex effort, as you can imagine, and our SPARCC team has made dozens of presentations in conferences and webinars, and held meetings, both locally, with the sites, and nationally to help change public discourse, including with congressional leaders and staff. But what comes through is this simple concept—city and regional leaders must listen to the communities affected by transportation construction, water infrastructure, changing housing markets, land use rules and climate resiliency reinforcement.

The work, in fact, should spur us all to question the assumptions we make about many of our neighborhoods and communities, especially those struggling with disinvestment and poverty. As we said at the time SPARCC launched , the program illuminates the idea that the way we build infrastructure reflects our values as a society. SPARCC is about opening up opportunity so all communities can thrive and no one is restricted by the ZIP code in which he or she lives.

High Road Infrastructure

That theory—that there are better, more sustainable and more creative ways to construct the built environment—is at the heart of our concept called High Road Infrastructure, which began entering the city planning lexicon this year. NRDC explained the history of divisive planning, polluting transportation and water systems and short-sighted practices, and how to change them in a recently released video on the concept.

Our work on infrastructure became especially pertinent this year as the Trump administration touted a big infusion of infrastructure investment with few details on how to accomplish it. A more detailed plan may come in January and we urge the new administration to address the nation’s dire infrastructure problems with infrastructure that works for America, not just Wall Street or President Trump’s corporate cronies. We see infrastructure as a key environmental issue and doing it with resiliency, sustainability and equity in mind not only enhances our efforts to clean the air, improve water quality and boost health, it improves opportunity for all Americans. In a poll we conducted this year, Americans supported those ideas, saying they are in favor of infrastructure spending but oppose many parts of Trump’s plan.

We agree with Mr. Trump that infrastructure can be an indicator of our progress and stature as a nation, including our shared values, and right now, a lot of it is failing, literally.

Green Financing for Clean Energy

Some communities may think proactive approaches in revitalization are too expensive or restrictive, but in reality they attract business and investment, and the benefits can be enhanced even further with green financing options.

NRDC has been working to promote green financing as a solution to expanding clean energy projects around the world. This includes making forays into Latin America with a conference we helped organize in Mexico City on the green investment bank model. We also led the 2017 Green Bank Congress as part of Climate Week NYC, convening over 160 global leaders in green finance on ways to attract private capital to clean energy and emerging markets.

Energy Efficiency for Low-Income Families

NRDC’s Energy Efficiency for All project is helping to share the economic benefits of clean energy with those who need it most. By making large, multi-family housing more energy-efficient, low-income families across the country live in energy-efficient homes that are healthier and have lower energy bills. With one in six American households residing in apartments or condominiums, this work of improving the many that are not energy-efficient is more important than ever.

Working alongside its national network of energy, health and housing practitioners representing 21 states and the District of Columbia, EEFA has helped secure hundreds of millions in funding to further its important mission. A selection of highlights include:

EEFA partners worked with the Community Preservation Corporation in New York and other stakeholders to develop the first-ever mortgage-lender guide to incorporating energy and water efficiency into the standard underwriting process for affordable multifamily housing, helping to more easily facilitate efficiency upgrades in affordable housing. And through a network of community development financial institutions and other lenders, EEFA is helping to share these best practices with lenders across the country.

EEFA partners also published a Chicago Market Characterization study that included a guide for other cities to conduct similar analyses of their multifamily housing markets, and a fact sheet summarizing the work.

Our EEFA team has met with leaders on Capitol Hill in helping to form a coalition response to potentially damaging changes in federal policy on affordable housing and support the Clean Power Plan and helped develop the Renters Week of Action in September.

EEFA partners contributed to a groundbreaking report in California that uncovered the barriers that prevent low-income and disadvantaged communities from receiving the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

In one example of EEFA’s work, partners demonstrated to state leaders in Virginia that high electricity bills for customers—despite relatively low electric rates—were caused by Dominion Virginia Power’s continuing rate increases to cover new fossil-fuel generation, leaving on the table untapped energy efficiency potential. The Virginia Poverty Law Center is now a member of the VA coalition and set to play a bigger role in promoting a “remedial education” report for policymakers and the public about utility bills versus rates.

Making City Skylines More Efficient

Created by NRDC and our partner, the Institute for Market Transformation, the City Energy Project is helping 20 U.S. cities reduce their carbon footprint by cutting carbon pollution from their largest source—buildings. The past year saw a lot of progress from participating cities, all of which have also pledged to do their part to keep the promise of the Paris Climate agreement.

We saw many of the City Energy Project cities rank in the top tier of the City Energy Efficiency Scorecard released this year by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). Many moved up the ladder with the help of CEP’s work to mitigate waste in the massive amount of energy used in large buildings in America’s cities, often representing 75 percent of energy consumed.

Near the end of the year, CEP and St. Louis were awarded a 2017 Outstanding Local Government Achievement Award for Exemplary Public/Private or Public/Non-Profit Collaboration from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. In St. Louis, buildings are the source of 77 percent of citywide greenhouse gas emissions and the city’s work to correct that has helped it carve out a leadership position on efficiency in the Midwest.

At the same time, Chicago received  national recognition this year from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its Energy Benchmarking Ordinance. Its commercial building challenge program, Retrofit Chicago, of which NRDC was a founding partner, also won an award from c40. Mayor Rahm Emanuel hosted international mayors for the North American Climate Summit where City Energy Project sponsored a breakout conversation with mayors on energy and climate.

Only three years after making energy use in buildings transparent for potential tenants and buyers, Chicago saw a 4 percent reduction in energy use, leading to an estimated savings of $11.6 million per year.

CEP cities as diverse as Reno and Des Moines launched challenge programs in 2017 to recognize innovative and ambitious projects to reduce energy use in buildings. Providence made it possible for commercial buildings to access PACE financing, and San Jose hosted a series of meetings with multifamily building owners to identify opportunities to deliver more energy efficiency to that sector. Such actions not only cut costs but they create jobs, improve community health and spur local economies.

Cleaner Transportation

Two days before the Trump administration came into office, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) finalized a rule to require all regions and states to benchmark their carbon pollution from transportation, set targets to reduce emissions, and report back regularly on progress towards meeting their targets. As transportation is now the leading source of US carbon pollution, it was a groundbreaking development, and one we led a coalition of advocates to create and bring to fruition. When the Trump Administration announced it would indefinitely delay the greenhouse gas portion of the rule in May, we sued, forcing the administration to back down, and to put the rule back into effect, where it now remains.

The Trump Administration is now running at the rule again, this time through a more formal notice and comment process. As 2017 came to a close, we helped push through close to 30,000 public comments to defend and protect the rule and we are awaiting what will happen next in our call for the Department of Transportation to follow the law and protect the environment.

In California, where transportation contributes close to 40% of the state’s carbon footprint, we successfully secured close to $1 billion dollars a year in permanent funding for transit, safe walking and cycling infrastructure. We also joined a coalition of partners in passing a historic package of bills designed to tackle the state’s affordable housing crisis and reduce sprawl and long, carbon-spewing commutes. Our advocacy also resulted in the launching of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s BlueLA Electric Car Sharing Program to bring 200 electric carshare vehicles and 200 electric vehicle charging stations to lower-income neighborhoods.

And in the international realm, we helped surface an idea that has worked in other countries to reduce traffic, improve quality of life and revitalize city centers—congestion pricing or, as we call it, “go zones” for urban mobility. Los Angeles, where residents lose an average of more than 100 hours a year to traffic, is one of several US cities exploring this commonsense, supply-and-demand system for taming the scourge of traffic. We are also urging Governor Cuomo to move ahead with the Move New York Fair plan for congestion pricing in New York City.

We also joined other leaders in sustainable transportation in issuing 10 Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities to help guide urban decision-makers and stakeholders.

Helping Cities Waste Less Food

The buzz you heard recently about the massive amount of food wasted in this country and what we waste that can be recovered came from a series of groundbreaking reports NRDC published from research in three cities—Denver, Nashville and New York. Among other things, the reports found that more than two-thirds of all food discarded in people’s homes in the three major cities was potentially edible, and up to 68 million additional meals annually could potentially be donated to people in need in those cities. We also developed a series of case studies highlighting efforts to waste less food from a range of stakeholders, including non-profits, businesses, cities, and states.

This research will help these cities and others waste less food and reduce the massive resources lost along with it, from climate pollution to water. It will also help them increase donation of surplus food from grocery stores and restaurants to people in need.

Why It Matters

All of this vital work accomplished in policy meetings, coalition conferences, the halls of Congress, in state houses, city buildings, NRDC offices and in neighborhoods across the country means little if its effect on real people fails to be realized.

We got a glimpse of that effect when EEFA this year documented how residents in one New York City building felt about the energy efficiency upgrades they received. As one resident put it, “I don’t think you can ever overestimate the joy of hot water until you have none.”

We’ll bring more of those stories forth in 2018 because they are why we’re here.

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