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Four of Five Cities Call Sustainability a ‘Top Priority’

livingcitiesLiving Cities has released its Green Cities report that provides an assessment of how cities in the United States are trying to limit their carbon footprint, and identifies areas where environmental efforts lag. The report shows that cities have not waited for federal or state governments to initiate green policies that help combat climate change.

“The Green Survey: What America’s Biggest Cities Are Doing About Climate Change” focuses on three areas where significant headway is being made: building energy retrofits, green workforce development and transit-oriented development. Survey findings are based on interviews with environmental officials at 40 of the country’s largest cities.

Urban areas account for approximately 75 percent of all energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in the world, with more than half of that coming from buildings, says Ben Hecht, president & CEO, at Living Cities.

Living Cities, a collaboration of 21 of the world’s leading foundations and financial institutions, works to connect low-income people and under-invested urban communities to the economic mainstream.

Hecht says the emerging green economy provides unprecedented opportunities from lowering energy and transportation costs to creating jobs with meaningful career ladders. He believes that cities are “gateways” that will connect people and places to these opportunities.

Key survey findings show that America’s cities are working to lower their carbon footprint with more than half of big cities either currently creating a sustainability plan or have finished one within the past year. Four in five big cities report that sustainability is among their top five priorities. In addition, more than two-thirds of cities report that state or federal governments have little or no impact on their work.

As an example, San Francisco launched a first-ever city-based carbon offset program in 2007 that funds local green activities such as energy efficiency projects and solar panel installations for low-income housing, as well as biodiesel conversion programs that support the conversion of waste into fuel. Most recently, San Francisco announced it is using Cisco’s EcoMap Web platform to track carbon emissions.

In 2008, about 30 cities including New York, Las Vegas, Denver, West Palm Beach, St. Paul, and New Orleans, agreed to disclose their carbon emissions, in an effort to find ways to curb emissions blamed for climate change.

The survey also reveals that more than three-quarters of big cities have, or will soon have, detailed plans on how they will reduce greenhouse gases. Nearly all call for an emissions cut of between 10 and 20 percent in the next five to 10 years.

Key sustainability efforts focus on green buildings, energy and water conservation, recycling, and greening their vehicle fleets. When asked which parts of their sustainability agenda were furthest along, the report indicates that four in 10 of the big cities say that their efforts on encouraging and mandating green building are among their most advanced, around three in 10 reported advancements in energy conservation, and about one-fourth of cities report success in recycling, water conservation and greening their vehicle fleets.

The survey also reveals that cities are implementing a variety of programs to reduce greenhouse gases. The typical big city has between three and 10 staff members focused on climate change with sustainability budgets ranging from $75,000 to $15 million. Most cities reported budgets from $150,000 to $500,000.

According to the survey, a key focus area for virtually all cities is expanding public transit due to rising energy costs. About 25 to 50 percent of those surveyed report that they are investing in one or more of four central strategies to boost mass transit. These include building new light rail, streetcar or subway lines; expanding local bus systems; encouraging walking and cycling, and subsidizing public transportation for city employees.

Green buildings are also on the rise. About two-thirds of cities mandate the U.S. Building Council’s LEED silver standards for new city-owned or city-funded construction. About one in four cities have green building mandates that go beyond city buildings and apply to private construction. Nearly half of cities have programs subsidizing insulation, energy-efficient appliances and weatherization.

Attracting green collar jobs and industries to their cities is also a priority at nearly all cities surveyed. Other findings indicate that about one in three cities have partnered with area colleges and created training programs on green jobs. About one in six report they have programs that place trainees in green jobs.

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