Ecofriendly is good business

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/FILE
Chicago, despite bike-unfriendly weather, was rated one of the US’s most bike-friendly cities.

Who’s the greenest of them all? Is it Chicago’s Richard Daley, the cycling mayor whose City Hall roof is festooned with flowers, wild onions, and beehives? Or New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who turned over two traffic lanes on Broadway, in the heart of Manhattan, to pedestrians and cyclists? Or perhaps it’s San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who planted an organic garden in front of City Hall?

Mayor Daley doesn’t mince words: He wants Chicago to be the greenest city in the United States. Mayor Bloomberg aims to “create the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city.” Mayor Newsom goes even further: His “San Francisco of the future” will be “a place where words like ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ are meaningless, because it will simply be understood that any action includes best practices for the environment.”

The race is on to be the country’s greenest city, and it’s much more than a beauty contest. Huge pots of federal money are at stake for public transit and pedestrian-friendly downtowns. And the winners also attract waves of young professionals – the coveted “creative class” – and the businesses that employ them.

College grads are picking where they want to live before they pick an employer, according to a 2006 study commissioned by CEOs For Cities, a Chicago-based nonprofit. Professionals in the 25-to-34 age group said they wanted cities with walkable downtowns that offered direct contact with a vibrant urban environment.

“I want to be able to stumble onto the fun,” says one study participant.

“Younger folks are looking for cities where they can lead an active life,” says Tom Radulovich of the San Francisco nonprofit Livable City. “The suburban notion of ‘drive to the gym’ doesn’t work for them. They want to be able to walk out their front door and shoot hoops in the neighborhood park, or find nearby trails and bike paths to jog or cycle.”

Chicago, of all places, is emerging as one of the leading green cities. Even with bike-unfriendly weather much of the year Chicago is rated one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country by the League of American Bicyclists. Earlier this year the city snared $153 million in federal money for a program to beef up public transit and cut downtown gridlock. (New York City lost its bid for that same money when a similar program was rejected by the state legislature. Both San Francisco and Seattle received grants.)

After waiting two years for a prototype green building to be approved by his building department, Mayor Daley crafted a law to fast-track the permit process for energy-efficient buildings. The 220-square-mile city currently boasts no fewer than 555 parks. New York’s green program aims to have every city resident live within a 10-minute walk of a neighborhood park by 2030. Chicago is close to reaching that goal already.

Leading green cities in other parts of the world have been pulled along by strong, charismatic leaders: Ken Livingstone in London, Enrique Penalosa in Bogotá, Colombia. In the US, there’s more input from advocacy groups, such as the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and

Transportation Alternatives in New York. They’re staffed by 20- and 30-somethings who articulate the desires of those who aim to stumble onto
the fun.

“We’ve helped bring green city ideas into the mainstream political conversation,” says Margo O’Hara, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Land Bicycle Federation, a leading bicycling advocacy group.

They’ve been joined by unlikely allies: CEOs from J.P. Morgan and Time-Warner, as well as 50 other major New York companies that are actively involved in the Partnership for NYC, a business group pushing Bloomberg’s green-city program.

The more successful green mayors – Daley in Chicago, Bloomberg in New York, and, in the 1970s, Neil Goldschmidt in Portland, Ore. – have forged working alliances among environmentalists and business leaders. Portland, with a big head start, still leads in a number of areas, although it’s looking over its shoulder at Chicago.

Green-city advocates in New York and Chicago like to cite cold, hard figures – the billions in lost productivity that traffic gridlock costs, for example. But in the Northwest, in Portland and Seattle, people talk of an “environmental ethic.”

“Out here, this whole ‘green city’ thing is much more than a trend,” says Portland urban planning consultant Abe Farkas. “It’s woven into the entire urban fabric.”

You can plug in your electric car at one of Portland’s free recharging facilities, or toss your recyclable coffee cup into one of the numerous bins throughout the city.

Each city puts its own stamp on the push to be greener: New York, run by CEO-in-chief Michael Bloomberg, has no fewer than 127 green initiatives in the implementation pipeline, the progress of each one tracked at least once each year.

San Francisco, despite a notoriously green citizenry, surprisingly lags. It doesn’t help that Mayor Newsom (right-of-center, by San Francisco standards) has a contentious relationship with the more progressive Board of Super­­visors. Its business community has been lukewarm toward the kind of green initiatives that have taken off in other cities.

So Newsom has had to settle for symbolic gestures: planting that organic garden near City Hall and issuing a stream of press releases that call for one green initiative after another.

“If press releases could save the environment, we’d be in great shape by now,” says Mr. Radulovich of Livable City.

Still, no one’s a loser in this green competition. San Franciscans can cycle on car-free streets in Golden Gate Park on weekends, and the city boasts a spacious waterfront promenade and a bike-friendly boulevard that have replaced earthquake-crumpled freeways.

Shades of green

Population (2007):
1. New York, 8.2 million
2. Chicago, 2.8 million
3. San Francisco, 744,000
4. Seattle, 582,000
5. Portland, Ore., 537,000

Miles of bike lanes:
1. Portland, Ore., 432.7
2. New York, 360
3. Chicago, 112.5
4. Seattle, 80
5. San Francisco, 45
Acres of parkland per 1,000 residents:
1. Portland, Ore., 25
2. Seattle, 10.4
3. San Francisco, 7.2
4. New York, 4.6
5. Chicago, 4.2
Recycling rates:
(Percent recycled out of all materials generated, according to each city’s recycling supervisors; does not include private collection centers)
1. San Francisco, 51 percent
2. Portland, Ore., 48 percent
3. Seattle, 48 percent
4. Chicago, 17.66 percent
5. New York, 17.5 percent

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