Building Sustainable Communities:
An Opportunity And A Vision
For A Future That Works

By Dennis Church

Keynote Speech: New Environmental
Strategies For Urban Prosperity Conference

Resource Renewal Institute

March 22, 1991

Impacts of the Environmental Crisis

Nearly twenty years ago, economist Robert Heilbroner wrote a book. It was called "An Inquiry Into The Human Prospect", and it began with the following words:

"There is a question in the air," Heilbroner wrote, "more sensed than seen, like the invisible approach of a distant storm, a question that I would hesitate to ask aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: 'Is there hope for man?'

"In another era such a question might have raised thoughts of man's ultimate salvation or damnation. But today the brooding doubts that it arouses have to do with life on earth, now, and in the relatively few generations that constitute the limit of our capacity to imagine the future."

Somber words. By now you've got it that I'm not going to begin my presentation to you with a joke.

Today, many resource economists and scientists fear that mankind may be consuming and destroying the living and non-living natural foundation upon which our lives depend. While I firmly believe that appocolyptic predictions are both inappropriate and unfounded, any rational person must acknowledge the tremendous risks involved in what we are doing to our one and only planet.

If we continue on our current path, a catastrophy of fearful dimensions may befall the human family. After all, natural history is filled with examples of species who -- as we have -- defeated their natural enemies, surged -- as we are -- in population, and then, having exhausted the resources upon which they depended -- as we are doing -- underwent a paroxysm of death. It is the moral and political duty of those of us in positions of responsibility today not to let this same fate befall the human family. But let's bring these global abstractions down to earth -- down to where we live. We're all here this weekend to hear about and talk about environmental management in California cities.

We have all heard a lot about threats to the future of the Earth's environment -- global warming, acid rain, ozone destruction, massive species extinctions, and so on. What many of us have begun to realize, however, is that rising oceans will not flood the "globe," but particular cities. Acid rain will not poision the land and water of an abstract world, but of individual communities.

So what will some of these global environmental problems mean for California's cities?

Let's start with global warming. The California Energy Commission has projected that temperatures in California could rise five degrees Fahrenheit or so, somewhere between fifty and eighty years from now. If the factors causing such a temperature rise are allowed to continue growing, effects on California cities will be dramatic. For example:

EPA projections range from a low of a two foot sea level rise in the next hundred years -- that's if we take strong measures to reduce greenhouse gases -- to a high of as much as 11 feet if we do nothing. It would be hard to overstate the potential impacts of that kind of sea level rise on California's cities.

-- The historical 100-year flood could happen every ten years, or even more often. Billions of additional flood protection dollars could be required.

-- A major part of our coastal wetlands would be lost -- wetlands now being protected at significant expense to California's cities -- with damaging impacts on the fisheries which contribute to our food supplies as well as on the economies of coastal communities.

-- Salt water intrusion could salinate currently fresh underground water supplies upon which many California communities depend.

-- The shoreline would retreat significantly. For example, for each inch of rise, the shore along the coast of San Francisco could retreat 15 to 30 feet, according the Army Corps of Engineers.

-- A one foot rise in sea levels would cause billions of dollars in damage to California beaches, harbors and recreational facilities, with major impacts on the economies of many California communities.

-- A three foot rise could triple the size of San Francisco Bay, forcing dyking to protect many communities. These dykes would cost billions, and even if we could afford to build and maintain them, do we really want to live below sea level in earthquake country? And yet, without dykes, at a 100-year high tide, land could be inundated as far east as Sacramento.

Other environmental problems can simularly be converted from global abstractions into descriptions of impacts on California's cities. For example, acid rain. From the national media, you'd think acid rain was an East Coast problem -- coal fired power plants in the mid-west turning Vermont's lakes to something resembling vinegar. But according to the Air Resources Board, rain with a pH only slightly less acidic than vinegar has been observed in Pasadena.

The Air Resources Board reports annual pH averages as low as 4.4 in California's highly urbanized areas, compared to from 4.1 to 4.5 for east coast cities. It seems that what others accomplish with their power plants we manage to accomplish with our cars.

What does this mean for California's cities? According the the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, acid rain and dry deposition causes millions of dollars of damage to our cities -- to buildings, bridges, painted surfaces, and other elements of our "built environment." Some coastal communities are also affected by acid fog -- formed by acid precursors reacting with coastal fog. In the South Coast Air Basin, acid fog much more acidic than vinegar has been reported.

The above should be sufficient to make the point. Damage to the global environment is not an abstraction. Global warming and acid rain are good examples because they are usually discussed as global abstractions. We all know that air pollution, water pollution, toxic contamination, excessive landfilling of solid wastes, and other environmental problems have major local impacts on California cities. Overall, environmental problems are damaging the economies and quality of life in California's cities here and now -- and if we don't change our ways, they will impose much larger costs on our communities in the forseeable future.

So what does this all mean? Reasoned analysis supports neither optimistic nor pessimistic predictions about our environmental future. We have, as I will outline in a minute, a number of very effective solutions available. Our fate will be decided by our ability to implement these solutions. It is clear that we are at an historic juncture. We do confront a future that could go either way. We have -- in short -- arrived at our species' ecological moment of truth. Our natural enemies, mostly diseases, have been, for practical purposes, defeated. Our numbers are growing exponentially. Our consumption of non-renewable resources and the related damage we are doing to natural systems are growing even faster. Will we go the way of most previous species who have arrived at this point? Or will we, being uniquely self-conscious, foresee what lies at the end of our current path and choose to change before nature does it for us -- but much less gently?

Solutions Are Available

So what are the solutions? How do we change? What do we change to? If the central problem is that we are consuming and destroying the natural resource foundation of our communities, the solution is to build sustainable communities. William Ruckelshaus, former EPA Administrator and now CEO of the solid waste giant Browning Ferris Industries, defines the concept this way:

"Sustainability is the nascent doctrine that economic growth and development must take place and be maintained over time, within the limits set by ecology in the broadest sense -- by the interrelations of human beings and their works, the biosphere and the physical and chemical laws that govern it. . . . We need to face up to the fact," Ruckelshaus continues, "that something enormous may be happening to our world. Our species may be pushing up against some immovable limits on the combustion of fossil fuels and damage to ecosystems . . . ."

A more common definition of a sustainable community -- simpler and more understandable -- is that the way it meets the needs of the present generation does not compromise -- and indeed supports -- the ability to meet the needs of future generations.

Building sustainable communities means striking a unique bargain with nature -- a pact of coexistence and co-evolution. It means recognizing that our future health, safety and prosperity are utterly dependent on the continued health of the living Earth.

If building sustainable communities is the solution on a conceptual level, the solution on a practical level involves making literally hundreds of changes in how we do business -- changes in technology, technique, and behavior. Even a cursory review of products, practices and techniques available today, and of research and development work currently underway, provides abundant reason for hope about the future.

Solutions Yield Powerful and Positive Benefits

For California, transportation efficiency is the backbone of efforts to reduce air pollution, acid rain, and greenhouse gas emissions -- as well as to reduce the rate at which we are depleting non-renewable stocks of fossil fuels.

We usually think of increasing auto fuel efficiency as something to be decided between the automakers and the federal regulators -- such as they may be. We forget that fuel economy is a function of the vehicle plus how it is driven plus how it is maintained plus the nature of the roadway system it is driven on, and that all these pluses are things local governments can influence significantly. The difference in fuel use between a roadway system with a smooth road surface and freeflow conditions and fuel use on a roadway system with a rough road surface and congested conditions can easily be fifty percent or more.

Overall, it would not be unreasonable to aim to double vehicle fuel efficiency -- that is, miles per gallon -- over the next couple of decades -- and local government has a very significant role to play in achieving this objective.

On top of this, however, local governments should develop programs and policies aimed at doubling the number of people traveling by foot, bike and transit and they should develop other programs and policies aimed at doubling the number of cars with two or more occupants.

And still more. Local governments can, by balancing the number of jobs and the number of housing units, by bringing jobs and housing much closer together, and by encouraging mixed uses, significantly shorten the average trip length.

All of these programs and policies combined are clearly capable of cutting per capita auto fuel use over the next couple of decades to a fraction of what it is today. Without even getting into alternative or "clean" fuels, this could make a major impact on air pollution, acid rain and greenhouse gas emissions.

In terms of our communities' energy use in buildings, again, the potential is amazing. Through the proper use of passive solar techniques and conservation oriented building standards in new construction, we can cut energy use for building heating and cooling to a fraction of what a conventional new structure uses today. And the potential for energy efficiency improvements in lighting, refrigeration and other applications is equally startling -- a doubling, trippling or more in energy efficiency.

Beyond energy as such, we see similarly amazing opportunities. By using xeriscape design standards and drip irrigation systems, we can cut our urban outdoor water use to a fraction of today's levels. Ultra low-flow toilets and other water efficient fixtures and appliances can reduce indoor uses dramatically as well. Overall, our per capita urban water requirements can certainly be cut in half without any loss of amenity -- and perhaps by more.

In the area of solid waste, we will live to witness nothing less than a revolution. The 50 percent by the year 2000 requirement of AB 939 will take us to the threshold. Over that threshold, the very concept of waste will become obsolete. Future generations will find the term waste management an oxymoron -- they will think that any management worthy of the name management will of necessity regard these materials not as wastes at all -- but as resources. Where today we seperate recycleables from wastes, in the future, communities will turn this upside down and seperate a small fraction of wastes from a much larger quantity of reuseables and recycleables.

Let me pause for a moment in this litany of opportunity to comment on the interconnection between things. Any time we conserve any natural resource, we will tend to conserve all natural resources. Energy conservation and recycling both save water. Water conservation and recycling both save energy. For example, recycling a single aluminum can saves the energy equivalent of about half that can full of gasoline -- or, again in energy terms, recycling a six-pack saves about the energy released by two sticks of dynamite. And beyond this, any time we conserve any natural resource we will also tend to reduce our generation of the pollutants which are slowly poisoning our air, our water, and our land.

Without going further in outlining opportunities to protect our environment, I think it is clear that the opportunities are enormous. In fact, we are facing a very stark contrast. On the one side is great risk and danger for future generations and for the Earth. On the other side is great potential to not only solve these problems but to chart a path to a truly sustainable future -- to a future that works for the entire human family.

A Critical Role for Cities

So just what should be the role of cities in realizing this potential? Certainly all levels of government, all non-governmental institutions, and all individuals have important roles to play in meeting the challenge of creating a sustainable future. Cities, however, are in a pivotal position to lead this effort. As the level of government nearest the people, cities are the first place to look for those many environmental solutions that require an organized and collective response -- for which individual action is not enough.

On the other hand, higher levels of government often will be rigid, bureaucratic and overly regulatory in their approach to solving problems. Not that cities are always flexible and non-bureaucratic, but cities do have a greater ability to tailor their programs and policies to account for local conditions. They can more easily promote a less compartmentalized approach to analyzing and implementing environmental policies and programs. They can more easily consider the economic, social, and fiscal implications of our environmental decisions. Local governments, because they are closest to the community, can also more easily facilitate the public participation and foster the consensual support essential to the success of many environmental programs.

Cities have many existing roles and responsibilities which must be carried out in an environmentally responsible fashion. It is cities that plan land use and transportation systems, manage solid and liquid waste, often manage water and energy utilities, administer building codes, build and maintain infrastructure, and more. In other words, cities' traditional roles and responsibilities are absolutely at the center of what needs to be done to sieze the opportunities described earlier.

In addition to the traditional responsibilities of cities, there are many other environmentally needed functions local governments are well positioned to carry out. Strategies of resource conservation, resource recovery, and alternative energy development are inherently decentralized. They are precisely those energy and resource strategies with the greatest need for a strong local government role.

Impact on Traditional Responsibilities

But it is only natural to ask, won't taking on ambitious environmental objectives compete with and dilute cities' ability to carry out their traditional responsibilities? In fact, I believe that playing a natural resource conservation and environmental protection role aggressively and well will actually help cities carry out their traditional responsibilities more effectively. Protecting public health and safety, promoting prosperity, and ensuring a high quality of life will only be possible if we make our communities much more resource efficient and much less polluting.

Conserving natural resources saves money, and this money will act to stimulate a local economy just a much as a new factory with a multi-million dollar payroll. This economic stimulus will translate into an expanded tax base, and applying resource conservation strategies directly in local government operations can save large amounts of money as well.

In addition, reducing pollution and toxic releases avoids damaging productive natural and manmade systems. Natural systems -- forests, fisheries, and farmlands -- make vital contributions to ensuring that goods and services are available in adequate supply and at affordable prices. Manmade systems -- the so-called "built environment" -- are likewise protected by reducing pollution and toxic releases.

And, of course, people are protected as well. The most important threats to public health and safety today are no longer vector borne diseases such as diptheria, dysentery and tuberculous. Instead, they are cancer, heart disease, emphysema, accidents, and the like, and these have lifestyle and environmental causes. Protecting public health and safety involves preventive efforts that parallel and reinforce environmental objectives.

Basic Changes in the Role &
Concept of Local Government

As much as protecting the environment may help carry out cities' traditional roles, we are still talking here about major changes in how cities see themselves and what they do. Change is a funny process. It moves along quietly and almost invisibly, until one day you suddenly notice that things are different. We all see the world with the aid of what I think of as "mental maps." By this I mean simply those recalled patterns which give shape and definition to the world around us. These mental maps change in spasms. They help us make sense of the world for a time, but gradually more and more tidbits of observation just don't fit. After a while, the amount of observation that doesn't fit gets too great, and a spasm of change occurs. We throw out the old maps and create new ones which make much better sense of the world.

The role and concept of local government is now on the brink of such a revolution. Its getting close to time to totally rewrite the textbook about leading and managing local governments. The old and the new can of course be characterized in many ways, but I think of this change as a shift from the "sit down, be quiet, and we'll take care of it" school of local government to the "stand up, get involved, and work with us" school of government.

This change has several dimensions.

From a local government perspective, such things as the regional transportation network and the regional housing supply constitute "commons." Local governments have no incentive to hold down imbalanced job growth or accept affordable housing unless their neighboring communities do likewise. Voluntary unilateral restraint or acceptance of responsibility achieves no benefit -- job growth in neighboring communities still congests the shared roadway system and drives up the cost of housing throughout the region -- but it does leave the party practicing restraint in a weaker fiscal position than they would otherwise have been. Just as with the shepherds and their herds, the only solution is to make and enforce rules governing access to and use of the "commons."

Public Expectations & Responses

So, if local government is changing, what do citizens want and expect from it? As local government officials, environmental program development presents you with both leadership opportunities and leadership challenges.

The opportunities are many and impressive. Polls indicate that citizens want government to do more to protect the environment. Many of the environmental programs and services you may offer will be greatly appreciated by your citizens across the board -- not just by the young, the affluent, or those with a liberal political persuasion.

Because many environmental programs benefit the entire community, and because protecting the environment can be good for local prosperity, the issue need not be politically divisive.

Edith Weiner, a corporate management consultant, says, and I quote, "Environmentalism will be the next major political idea, just as conservatism and liberalism have been in the past." This, at first blush, is a puzzling statement. Upon reflection, however, it suggests a powerful concept. Liberalism and conservatism are, in the main, sets of concepts about how the relations between people should be managed -- between the rich and the poor, between the powerful and the weak. Liberalism and conservatism involve concepts about how to approach solving problems and meeting needs between people -- big government versus private enterprise, regulation versus the free market.

Without suggesting that these issues and conflicts will go away, it is possible to see that the disputes between people -- between classes and nations -- may be fading in importance relative to another dispute which is gaining in importance -- that between the human species as a whole and the rest of the living biosphere. Liberalism and conservatism will be relevant to a discussion of tactics -- but not to what we should fundamentally be trying to accomplish. Protecting the environment is not a partisan or ideological issue and must not be allowed to become one.

But in spite of the many win-win opportunities, in spite of the polls showing a public mandate to protect the environment, in spite of new and exciting opportunities to create broad environmental coalitions, the task of leading cities to act effectively to protect our Earth will not be a cakewalk. Meeting these challenges will require true leadership. One has to believe that the vast majority of the community -- at some level -- wants to, as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame would have said, "live long and prosper." But sometimes this belief requires considerable faith. Short-term considerations clearly often dominate the human agenda at all levels. The task of leadership is thus to inspire the community not to selflessness, but rather to a better, fuller, deeper -- and above all, longer-term -- understanding of our common self-interest.

The Impending Flood of Mandates

Institutions, of course, are slow to change, and local government is certainly no exception. All of the problems, all of the threats, all of the opportunities, and all of the public expectations have naturally, in our democratic system, lead to a flood of environmental mandates on local government from higher levels of government.

These include state and federal air quality requirements and related judicial decisions, water quality requirements -- most recently, to reduce pollution in storm water runoff, congestion management requirements, solid waste reduction requirements, and on and on and on.

As a practical matter, these requirements are going to keep coming and get ever more demanding. Leaders who want to preserve local flexibility need to get, as the saying goes, "ahead of the curve" and create environmental programs before legislation requiring these programs is converted into the detailed do's and don'ts of regulations. In this way, they will have the best chance of influencing the character and approach to implementation of the legislation.

On a more philosophical level, whenever you order anyone to do anything, it has a tendency to interfere with their understanding that what you are ordering them to do is in fact in their own interest. As a personal observation, it has been fascinating to me to watch persons I know in local government -- persons who for years pursued environmental objectives solely because it was the right thing to do -- fall under the pervue of regulatory requirements. Attitudes change. Under the assault of rigid and sometimes unreasonable regulations, and subject to the personal power and sometimes whim of the all too human regulators, support transmutes into resistance.

Too often environmental advocates -- people who are systems oriented in their view of the natural world -- become linear, compartmentalized and even authoritarian as they approach the process of political and social change.

There outta be a law, or at least a regulation, that before anyone assumes power as a regulator, they should first have to have extensive experience on the receiving end of regulation. While local government leaders would be out of sequence on this requirement, their current experience on the receiving end of regulation could help them learn to apply regulatory tools in local government in a more discriminating, more thoughtful and ultimately more effective manner.

In general, I would say that regulation should be a last resort unless, as will happen, you have a "tragedy of the commons" type of situation in which the to-be regulated community identifies the regulation as serving its own best interests. Industries, for example, will sometimes actually seek regulation as the only way to protect the credibility of the whole industry -- which credibility is after all a commons -- from damage by an unprincipled few. The solar energy industry a few years ago was a good example of this. Industries will sometimes also seek regulation as a way of ensuring uniformity -- a level playing field -- so that the costs of environmental protection will be born equally by everyone in an industry and not, when passed through in product prices, result in loss of market share.

Outside of these special circumstances, however, regulation should be employed for the most important objectives, and it should be employed only where other less heavy-handed approaches won't work.

There are lots of reasons for this approach -- but perhaps most important, regulations are going to be absolutely essential in solving some of our most critical environmental problems. If government is not judicious and restrained in using its regulatory powers, it risks stimulating a rebellion not unlike that against taxes.

Americans are in full revolt against taxes because they have lost faith in the fairness, efficiency, and priorities of government taxing and spending. People resent government's seeming propensity to issue ever more -- and more intrusive -- rules and regulations.

Environmental advocates in government, and environmental organizations whose role it is to push government to do more to protect the environment, must never forget that we govern with the consent of the governed. If we precipitate a broadly based revolt, our ability to use regulations to attack critically important environmental problems will be greatly reduced -- just as today local government's power to tax has been substantially constrained.

The Movement to Regional Government

I'd like to double back to a subject I touched on briefly earlier, and that's the growing movement for regional government. When you step back from it far enough to see the pattern, this movement is simply a part of the millenia-long movement toward the rule of law.

At its root, it's a question of anarchy versus order. The old adage that "your rights end where my nose begins" is the guiding principle. As local communities within regions have grown right up to each other's urbanized borders, it has been harder and harder to do anything "big" without encountering your neighbor's "nose." With the advent of highly subsidized auto transportation after World War II, the potential impacts of one adjacent community upon another have been intensified greatly. And with the perverse incentives created by our post-Proposition 13 tax structure, it is now more than ever in a community's narrow self-interest to greedily seek advantage from -- and transfer burdens and responsibilities onto -- its neighbors.

The movement to regional government represents many things. It is a grass-roots effort to address quality of life and environmental problems. It is a corporate effort to solve critical mobility and housing affordability problems which threaten profitability in current locations. It is a local government attempt to control the shape of the outcome by getting in front of the parade and leading it. It is an effort to avoid a "tragedy of the commons." It is a classic case of state government regulation. But it is, most of all, simply essential to the future well-being of most of the urbanized regions of California.

Within a contiguous urbanized area, residents select homes and take jobs pretty much without regard for political jurisdiction. At the core of meeting the environmental challenge is the imperative to create an environmentally benign and resource and economically efficient land use and transportation pattern. This means balancing jobs and housing, bringing jobs and housing much closer together, building mass transit systems and concentrating high density mixed uses around transit stations, and containing outward urban sprawl.

It will take some form of regional government to create and enforce rules allocating various resources held in common in a way that will result in this essential land use and transportation pattern. In the face of the pressures created by highly subsidized auto transportation, and in the face of tax incentives which push hard in exactly the opposite direction, it's impossible to realistically envision creating an environmentally benign land use and transportation pattern without effective regional government.

Changes in Values

Finally, at the risk of truly going too far, I'd like to talk for a bit about values. As community and opinion leaders, it's part of our job to encourage the development of values which will support the movement to build sustainable communities. Specifically, I'd identify three values as critical.

First. That people living today have an obligation to pass the earth, air, water, and living biosphere along intact to future generations. An editorial in the conservative British publication, The Economist, recognized this emergent value clearly. They wrote -- and I quote -- "(The leaders of the major world powers) are responding to an extraordinary shift in public opinion, apparent all over the world . . . . Many people see the environment as an issue of social morality; of each generation's responsibility for leaving its children a better world."

Second. That the human species is part of nature and must, for moral as well as practical reasons, abstain from destroying the myriad life forms with which we share this planet. We human beings are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we have an absolute moral obligation to it. The majestic unfolding of life on Earth must not be aborted by the folly of man. Our most unforgivable arrogance is to assume that we represent the apogee of the evolution of life -- or even of our own species. What if, in the larger scheme, our current civilizations are nearer to the beginning of things? Who are we to put an end to history?

Third. That it is both immoral and impractical to leave part of the human family to die. Protecting the environment depends upon the sustainable development of the entire human family. A single unnecessary death is a tragedy, a million -- as the saying goes -- is a statistic. This psychological insight explains how we can ask if an environmental catastrophe might be coming in a world in which, as we speak, 40,000 children a day die of malnutrition and malnutrition induced disease. In a real way, the environmental catastrophe is upon us already, and we are looking right past it. Will we see it and care when not 40 but 400,000 children are dying unnecessarily every day? What will it take to wake us up? I cannot resist saying that if I were a God looking down from the heavens, I would say to the human race, "You should be ashamed for letting your children starve."

It Can Be Done

In subsequent presentations, you will hear more about how local governments really can have a major impact on the fate of the Earth. You will hear about practical ways to pay for significant environmental programs, about how these programs and policies can be sold to the others whose support you'll need, and about how these efforts can be managed to produce solid and clearcut results.

The bottom line, however, is simple. A broad-based and aggressive environmental program can succeed in communities with normal populations -- that is, not elite communities. They can succeed in communities that are experiencing chronic fiscal distress (layoffs, hiring freezes, and budget cutbacks). And they can succeed in communities lacking in the crises often associated with such efforts -- energy shortages, droughts, landfill closures, and toxic contamination emergencies.


Having seen clearly what is at stake, it is difficult to deny the urgent need for action. Many have expressed this eloquently. I'll quote from a 1989 issue of Time Magazine devoted to our endangered Earth. While written well before the Gulf War, it takes on even more power given the events of recent months.

"Taking effective action to halt the massive injury to the Earth's environment will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation and sacrifice unknown except in wartime. Yet humanity is in a war right now, and it is not too Draconian to call it a war for survival.

"(We are) at a crucial turning point: the actions of those now living will determine the future, and possibly the very survival, of the species. . . . We must . . . do a thousand things differently. . . . We owe this not only to ourselves and our children but also to the unborn generations who will one day inherit the Earth.

"Now, more than ever, the world needs leaders who can inspire their fellow citizens with a fiery sense of mission, not a nationalistic or military campaign but a universal crusade to save the planet. Unless mankind embraces that cause totally, and without delay, it may have no alternative to the bang of nuclear holocaust or the whimper of slow extinction."

I believe deeply that cities can make a major contribution to saving our endangered Earth -- if the persons who lead them have the vision and the will.


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