5 Great Green Ways US Cities Are Leading by Example


Portland, Oregon streetcar photo: Russell Bernice

At TreeHugger we are always big fans of individual actions and DIYers, but sometimes if you do things on a bigger scale you just get so much more bang for your buck. The last couple of years, community groups, companies, and government agencies have all been putting forward initiatives to "go green". Some of these initiatives go back almost 30 years, proving you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Some use carrots and incent residents to go green by giving some green incentives. Other measures might seem more restrictive, banning guilty pleasures, but hey, they do it for our collective good:

1. Banning Plastic Bags


photo taken by Ron Prendergast of the Melbourne Zoo

Anyone who has witnessed the green movement's growth over the last several years will have also noticed the increase in cloth and canvas bags available at grocery stories and boutiques. Even handbag designers like Anya Hindmarch jumped on the reusable bag train with her signature "I'm not a plastic bag" canvas bag.

Plastic Bag Disposal Costs Taxpayers 17 Cents Per Bag
There is a sense of shame whenever one forgets a recyclable bag and has to opt for the plastic. And for good reason: plastic bags cause litter, clog recycling machines, take up landfill space and make marine mammals sick.

We often don't think of it, but plastic comes from petroleum, so reducing plastic bags, reduces the need for petroleum. Jared Blumenthal, Director of the San Francisco's Department of the Environment, states the stats: It takes 430,000 gallons of oil to manufacture 100 million bags.

Furthermore, although these bags appear to be "free" with a store purchase, the actual cost of the plastic bags is hidden. San Francisco officials estimated that each plastic bag costs taxpayers 17 cents to remove from streets, parks, gutters, storm drains, and the waste stream.

So when in 2007 San Francisco decided to go after the source and create an ordinance banning plastic bags in large markets and drug stores, it was a big deal. Large supermarkets and drug stores, like Walgreen's and Rite-Aide are now required to use compostable bags made of corn starch, biodegradable plastic, or recyclable paper sacks. As TH readers know, changing consumer behavior, especially when it involves convenience, should be considered a radical initiative in the U.S.

San Francisco Followed Examples Set in Europe, China, India, Australia
The ordinance, sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, was the first such law in any city in the United States, but not the first one in any municipality in the world. Markets in Florence, Italy, had been charging €0.10-0.20 per plastic bag for more than four years. Ireland, had already taxed plastic bags years earlier and levying bags has reduced the production of plastic bags in that country by 90%.

Other countries, including China, India, Australia, and several other countries in Europe, have also restricted the use of plastic bags. This international movement has gained traction with many cities on schedule to impose fees and bans on plastic bags.

Recently more cities in the U.S. have followed San Francisco's lead, including Oakland, Berkeley, Boston, Portland, and Los Angeles. The state of Hawaii's Legislature is considering banning the distribution of plastic shopping bags by retail stores and supermarkets.

Some cities opt instead to tax the bags, pouring back the money collected into conservation and recycling efforts. Other cities in the U.S., like Virginia Beach, have opted instead for plastic bag recycling programs. These efforts are often coordinated by the stores, who fear a ban would have a drastic impact on their business during a time of recession, and requires some retailers to collect and recycle plastic bags at their stores.

TH hopes the once ubiquitous plastic bag, along with that well-known phrase: "you want paper or plastic?", are on the way to becoming obsolete.

Plastic Bag Ban
TreeHugger Picks: Ban the Bag
Bag Ban Phase 2: All Retail Stores
UK Town Goes Plastic Bag Free
Ban Against Plastic Bags: Buenos Aires Province Joins
No Bag Ban in Sweden: Instead, More Recycling

2. Compost Pickup at your Doorstep


photo from tinyfarmblog.com

As TreeHugger readers know, composting was not just a fad in the 1960s, it remains an incredibly useful process by which micro-organisms decompose organic material producing a nutrient rich soil amendment for your plants. In some areas, food scraps account for nearly 33% of most people's trash. Instead of having organic material and food scraps (compost) being sent to landfills, it could be used beneficially.

San Francisco, Ottawa, Minnesota All Collect Compost
Some cities are capitalizing on that and have now gone beyond your garden variety residential recycling of plastics, aluminum and paper and have moved into the arena of curbside compost pickup. My friend Rai in San Francisco loves the convenience of the pickup, run by Sunset Scavenger. Currently, the compost is mixed with yard waste, but soon the program will also pick up kitchen garbage can-size compost bins.

In March 2009, Ottawa, Canada will begin collecting residents' organic food waste in curbside composting bins. The program is expected to compost about 100,000 tons a year of kitchen scraps and other organic material that now goes to landfill sites. Separating this waste will extend the lifespan of the city's landfills. Startup costs for the program will be $16.8 million, the city said, and it will cost $13 million a year to operate, which works out to $34 per household per year.

The state of Minnesota passed a new state composting law this past fall. The law allows organic waste to be picked up at the curb by recycling companies. From there, recyclers look to bacteria to digest the waste into not only fertilizers and soil conditioners, but also methane/natural gas.

Not All City Compost Programs Succeed
Many other cities have drop-off compost programs. Though, as an urban dweller, it can definitely be a pain in the ass to haul one's own food scraps to the closest drop-off center or community garden. In other towns and cities that have implemented pilot curbside composting programs, initial lack of interest or knowledge killed the budding programs. Initially, some people just couldn't seem to get past the "ick" or "smell" factor. Most communities who started food scrap collection already had a yard waste collection program, so adding the material would didn't add substantial cost. Still, in other cities, even if it was more expensive, allowing pick-up in front of homes in residential neighborhoods would help the practice spread by word of mouth.

Build Your Own Compost Tumbler
Backyard box, indoor bin, or can of worms?
Compost: How to make it, bins, piles and more!

3. Lessons from Las Vegas? Cities Pay for Xeriscaping


photo from sprouting off blog

Xeriscaping is a method of water-conserving landscaping created by the Denver Water Department in 1978 which eliminates the need for some fertilizers and pesticides. Denver Water went on to plant the nation's first demonstration garden in 1982.

The concept of xeriscaping--which incidentally, is just a combination of the Greek word for 'dry' with 'landscaping'-- caught on in U.S. during the 1980s and is now popular in other Southern and Western cities, such as: Las Vegas, Austin, Albuquerque, and Atlanta. In these cities, landscape watering and other outdoor uses guzzle 50-70% of water used. In Las Vegas, that rate can soar to 90% during the city's scorching summers.

Denver Water claims Xeriscape is a set of seven simple principles for conserving water through simple but smarter landscaping practices. Those principles are: Planning and designing, limiting turf areas, selecting and zoning plants appropriately, improving the soil, using mulches, irrigating efficiently, and performing appropriate maintenance.

At its heart, Xeriscape helps homeowners, businesses, and landscapers select and maintain vegetation that is suited to the local soil and climate. Efficient irrigation, such as watering at night instead of during the heat of the day and using properly designed hoses and sprinklers, are crucial Xeriscape concepts. The most efficient watering system is drip irrigation because no water is lost through evaporation.

More homeowners, policy experts say, would change their gardening practices if they knew that doing so would cut their water bills significantly. Las Vegas is actually paying its residents $1 for every square foot of grass they replace with drought tolerant plantings. Under the Southern Nevada Water Authority's Water Smart Landscapes program, property owners can qualify for rebates by converting at least 400 square feet of their lawns to Xeriscapes, which when fully mature must cover at least 50% of their yard, with a maximum rebate of $50,000. Water authority officials say the program is very popular.

Similar programs are popping up in coastal California. East Bay Municipal Utility District, which serves parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, estimates that it has saved 860,000 gallons of water a day with a program that reviews commercial and industrial outdoor water use and partially reimburses companies for changing their landscaping to drought-tolerant plantings and upgrading their irrigation systems. Denver Water also provides incentives to companies that develop ways of improving landscape irrigation efficiency.

Recognizing that municipal water authorities lack the funds to study the outcomes of Xeriscape programs, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Reclamation launched a National Xeriscape Demonstration Program in partnership with Austin, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver, and Fargo. Program officials analyzed how much water Xeriscape landscaping saves on an annual and seasonal basis and the costs of implementing and retrofitting such landscaping.

Greener Gardening
Xeriscape, the Art of Water Conserving Landscaping
SafeLawns: Urging Americans to Green Up their Lawns

4. Incentivizing Green Infrastructure & Managing Stormwater Runoff


photo from dawneday's green roof flick page

The city of Minneapolis provides a model for using alternate sustainable water management straegies. And now other cities, like Philadelphia and New York, are attempting to emulate and mimic Minneapolis' plan to improve water supply quality and quantity.

When there is an abundance of impervious surfaces in urban areas, the negative outcome is that the majority of stormwater runs off to the sewer system, and then to either wastewater treatment plants or to waterways. Best Management Practices (BMPs) need to be initiated to manage the runoff in a more sustainable manner. BMPs would create pervious surfaces, allowing runoff to filter through vegetation and a more natural system. Examples of positive outcomes would be: Green roof gardens, the reuse of greywater, and underground stormwater capture chambers.

Minneapolis initiated a good model by separating water delivery and waste water treatment charges as part of their Minneapolis Storm and Surface Water Management Program.

How are they doing it?
Stormwater utility fees, which are based on property size and land use, can be reduced by improving the quality of the runoff and reducing the quantity that is sent to the sewer. People wishing to reduce their fees can improve the environment by, for example, installing rain barrels or cisterns and planting roofs with vegetation, tree boxes, and/or rain gardens.

Property owners are motivated to use runoff water as a resource rather than as a waste product. Separating charges and offering the financial incentive of a reduction in stormwater charges gives the public a greater incentive to become involved in stormwater management issues. These measures also encourage wider use of stormwater BMPs by using runoff as a resource in many innovative green endeavors.

The Philadelphia Water Department is considering separating their water charges to promote stormwater BMPs. And as mentioned in TH last February, New York City created green stormwater infrastructure legislation by focusing the city on devising a "sustainable stormwater plan". The sustainable stormwater management plan was adopted in December 2008.

According to Teresa Crimmens, Ecology Director of the Bronx River Alliance: "This type of greening, which is endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a cost-effective tool for reducing urban water pollution, and is already being implemented in dozens of cities around the globe, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, Portland, and Seattle in the U.S." Crimmens believes that the law's passage "shows the City of New York's commitment to make the water cleaner by making the city greener."

5. Using Smart Growth and Transit Oriented Development to Minimize Driving

photo from Nasa.gov Portland's Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) Decades ago, while my mom was still pushing my stroller around outdoor LA malls, Portland city's planners began to develop measures to protect their city's open space for years to come. These measures, which still far exceed the efforts of most US cities are the reason Portland has been able to retain its status as Sustainlanes' #1 Sustainable City for multiple years and are why, now in our new century, Portland continues to be a leader in smart growth.

Sprawling commercial and residential development is a big problem. By building livable, walkable communities where people can live near where they work, smart growth measures reduce the need of residents to drive. During the 1970's, Portland developed comprehensive land use policies. As a result, today light rail ripples out from Portland's downtown center. Then in 1993, Portland pledged to cut its carbon emissions 10%, to dip below 1990 levels, by 2010.

Portland has also been successful at pushing new development in existing developed areas and keeping open space areas protected. Compact regional development and expanded transportation options have both helped Portland succeed in these efforts. New development is directed toward areas where public transportation already exits. Portland is fortunate in that the regional metro government also runs the regional rail system, aligning both of their goals.

This is not to say that Portland's smart growth has proceeded without a hitch. From 1980 to 1990, immediately after Portland had established it's urban growth boundary, Portland's population grew by 146,000 and as a result, Portland's urbanized area grew another 39 square miles. And since the eighties, many Portland residents have grown to resent the congestion and rising housing prices that accompanied Portland's protection of its open space.

However, in the words of Gerald O'Hara: "it's the land, Katie Scarlett." And Portland has consistently been counted as one of America's greenest cities, if not the very greenest one. It's commitment to managing it's growth has led to a city that is good for biking and perhaps even better for walking.

So what do TreeHugger readers from Portland think? What are some of the pros and cons you see in your city's green efforts?

Smart Growth
Streetcars Back on Rails in America
Walk Score Ranks The Top 10 Most Walkable Cities in the U.S.
America's 50 Greenest Cities: Popular Science Ranks 'Em

5 Great Green Ways US Cities Are Leading by Example
At TreeHugger we are always big fans of individual actions and DIYers, but sometimes if you do things on a bigger scale you just get so much more bang for your buck. The last couple of years, community

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