Atlanta, Seattle Named First Winners in American Cities Climate Challenge

Atlanta, a city with deep-green ambitions, has been selected to receive $2.5 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help curb emissions in the transport and building sectors. (Photo: dolbex/Flickr)

At first thought, Atlanta and Seattle don't have that much in common aside from high sushi prices, nightmarish congestion and the fact that they're both home to two of America's most beloved beverages: Coca-Cola and Starbucks coffee. Seattle is more densely populated, more liberal and much more dreary than Atlanta (or anywhere) in terms of weather. And although Atlanta is a fast-rising tech hub — and potential home of Amazon HQ2 — it still doesn't hold a candle to Seattle on that front.

Despite their differences, both cities are local-level trailblazers in the fight against climate change, an attribute that hasn't gone unnoticed by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Atlanta and Seattle were recently named the first winners in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' American Cities Climate Challenge, a $70 million initiative that aims to help cities curb greenhouse gas emissions, boost climate resiliency and implement forward-thinking environmental policies. As recipients of the Climate Challenge, Atlanta and Seattle will enter a two-year "acceleration program" and be provided with "powerful new resources and access to cutting-edge support to help meet or beat the cities' near-term carbon reduction goals" with a focus on the transportation and building sectors, which account for up to 90 percent of emissions in cities.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) will play a significant role in delivering on-the-ground support and direction.

In addition to technical assistance, Atlanta and Seattle will receive $2.5 million in funding that will enable them to evolve into greener, cleaner cities.

Although Atlanta and Seattle are the first "winners" out of the gate, 18 more yet-to-be-announced "Leadership Cities" will participate in the Climate Challenge.

When the challenge launched the application process in June, it was only open to America's 100 most populous cities. (Seattle currently ranks 18th and Atlanta ranks 38th.) Among these cities, their respective mayors were required to have signed the We Are Still In declaration, which promises to uphold the goals of the Paris Accord. In August 2017, the Trump administration announced its formal intention to withdraw the United States from the landmark climate agreement. This was met with widespread dismay and near-immediate calls to action on the state and local levels.

Traffic jam in downtown Seattle
Although public transit options in Seattle have improved in recent years, horrific congestion is still a defining feature of the Emerald City, one that it shares with Atlanta. (Photo: SounderBruce/Flickr)

To date, 3,540 counties, states, colleges and universities, faith groups, healthcare organizations, cultural institutions, businesses, tribes and a slew of towns big and small — 245 in total — have signaled that they are "still in." Based on this criteria alone, roughly 40 of the 100 most populous U.S. cities were not eligible to apply to the Climate Challenge including Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, Las Vegas and Fort Worth. The mayors of some other large cities like Buffalo, Boise and Memphis have agreed to similar pledges upholding the emissions-reducing goals of the Paris Accord.

Per the NRDC, Atlanta, Seattle and the remaining 18 cities selected to participate in the Climate Challenge have the potential to deliver 20 percent of the remaining Paris Agreement by eliminating 200 million megatons of carbon pollution by 2025 — the equivalent of shuttering 48 coal-fired power plants.

"Cities are helping to keep America moving forward on climate change despite the lack of leadership from Washington, and this challenge was designed to help innovative mayors reach their goals," says billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose newest title is United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action (and, apparently, potential 2020 presidential candidate.) "We were looking for cities with ambitious and realistic plans to cut emissions in ways that improve people's lives, and mayors committed to getting the job done. Each of these winning cities brings those ingredients to the table — and we're looking forward to working with them and seeing what they can accomplish."

MARTA subway in Atlanta
Work on Atlanta's MARTA system commenced in the early 1970s using federal funds originally meant to build a subway in ... Seattle. (Photo: brandon walker/Flickr)

Atlanta zeroes in on pedestrian accessibility, EV infrastructure

So how do Atlanta and Seattle plan on rising to the occasion now that they've secured support from Bloomberg?

As Bloomberg Philanthropies notes, Atlanta was the first city in the Southeast to implement a building energy-use benchmarking system and will work alongside the Climate Challenge team "to put even more ambitious plans into action and ensure that all climate change interventions promote the values of One Atlanta, an affordable, resilient, and equitable Atlanta for all residents."

Over the next two years, the city plans to expand its existing electric vehicle-charging infrastructure via its new EV Readiness Ordinance, ensure that its existing building stock is efficient and up-to-code and further execute its Complete Streets initiative by coordinating traffic signals and installing — and repairing — sidewalks to allow for greater, safer pedestrian access particularly in underserved neighborhoods.

As previously reported, Atlanta is one of a handful of American cities that has been slapped with class-action lawsuits for ADA violations relating to sidewalks that are in extreme disrepair are or lacking accessibility features as required by federal law.

"Air pollution, droughts and adverse impacts of extreme weather are undeniable challenges that too often severely impact our most vulnerable residents — children and the elderly," says Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. "I am thrilled that Atlanta has the opportunity to take part in the American Cities Climate Challenge."

Seattle skyline as seen from Elliot Bay
Even famously progressive cities like Seattle can use a helping hand in implementing aggressive emissions-reduction measures. (Photo: TravelingOtter/Flickr)

Yes, the Emerald City could be much greener

Some 2,000-plus miles from Atlanta in Seattle, the plan of attack is markedly different. The emphasis, however, remains on squashing emissions stemming from buildings and transportation.

By 2020, the city plans to expand financing and incentives for building efficiency, launch a green jobs creation pilot program with the cooperation of local colleges, further explore and potentially implement a congestion pricing plan based on studies conducted by the Seattle Department of Transportation and create new programs that reward Seattleites who bike, walk or take public transportation.

(An interesting side note on public transit in Seattle: While things are improving in this car-centric, geographically challenging city with the addition of the Link light rail system, a modernized streetcar network and expanded bus service, Seattle had the chance to have a rapid transit system — a proper subway — in the early '70s but blew it. Fearing the so-called Forward Thrust plan would be too expensive and lead to unchecked growth, voters rejected the regional bonds needed to secure a $900 million federal infrastructure package that would have been used to build a subway system. Those funds instead went to Atlanta and were used to create MARTA, the rapid transit system. Today, it's the eighth largest rapid transit system in the U.S.)

"Seattle has suffered from both increasingly destructive wildfires and extreme rainstorms. Tackling climate action isn't just about investing in the future — it's about protecting our communities right now," says Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who was joined by Bloomberg for the big announcement. "In Seattle, we're excited to be part of the solution, pioneering innovative policies that will both reduce our carbon footprint and benefit our city."

Traffic jam on the 520 Bridge in Seattle
With help from the American Cities Climate Challenge, Seattle will further explore the possibility of congestion pricing to help alleviate gridlock. (Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr)

Some Seattle residents, however, question their new-ish mayor's commitment to seeing these initiatives through. Drew Johnson of public transit advocacy group Seattle Subway points out that Durkan has put the kibosh on completing the city's downtown streetcar line and reduced or delayed the number of dedicated bike lanes due to mounting costs.

"It takes real commitment to push forward with real projects that are going to affect the environment," Johnson tells local CBS affiliate KIRO 7. "Blocking these kinds of projects does not show a willingness to have followed through on those platitudes."

Others, such as the Stranger's Greg Scruggs, believe that Durkan does deserve "some credit for landing an award worth $2.5 million to help the Emerald City stay green" despite her perceived shortcomings on the public transit front.

He writes:

So what does Seattle get out of the deal? A dedicated paid staffer who can craft climate-specific policies, free training on climate plan implementation for top city brass, and "citizen engagement support" — that's a fuzzy one which could mean we all get free Nests but probably just means some eco-friendly swag bags at next year's West Seattle Summer Fest. Still, if it all works out, the extra money and staff from Uncle Mike will help reduce emissions from buildings and transportation, the city's two biggest sources of greenhouse gases.

Congrats to Atlanta and Seattle for being the first of 20 American cities to join the American Cities Climate Challenge. Now that we've had a taste of what these first two cities plan to do with their Bloomberg-ian boosts, it will be curious to see how winners plan on following suite.