Building sustainable cities

Building sustainable cities

Envision the city of the future. Is it a “sustainable” community? The idea of sustainability has finally made its way eastward across the Atlantic and is gaining traction in the United States. Whether you count the number of dedicated Web pages, mayors’ mentions, or the amount of butt-time conference attendees are investing to learn about sustainability, it seems like the concept is cropping up – organically, of course – everywhere you look.
Are “cool communities” and sustainable communities the same thing? I’m not sure. So I’m listing my Cool Community mantras, and invite your feedback about how they stack up as tenets of “Sustainable Communities.”
1. Cities are for people (not cars). John Naisbitt (author of High Tech, High Touch) had it right: the more technology distances us (telecommuting, distance education, e-mail, videoconferencing), the more we crave human contact. Today, walkable communities, stroll districts, green transit, multi-modal transportation, urban density … all point in the direction of people-centered planning. Note: although all cities are for people, not all people are for cities. For the “no fences” cohort, rural rambling acreage is the it-thing. Rock on. I’ll come visit.
2. Cities are for all people. Cool communities have multiple places at the table for every flavor and color of folk. Black female mayors, Hispanic congressmen, young professionals, gay governors (well, almost.) For cities of the future, tolerance is passé; inclusion is critical. Young professionals are moving to cities where people “mix:” in clubs, at church, and in neighborhoods. In Paris, housing projects require a set-aside of several units only for artists.
Other cities require that 10 to 15 percent of all new residential buildings are affordable housing. Mixing doesn’t happen without intention. And when it happens, it can be magic. For more on my take on Inclusive Communities, read “From Tolerance to Inclusion” in Madison Magazine.
3. Healthy cities: At the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in January, Austin’s Mayor Will Wynn spent 11 minutes doing a seven-minute presentation on his community’s commitment to being a healthy city. Mayor Dave Cieslewicz (Madison, Wisconsin) and Mayor Tom Potter (Portland) are also embracing the “healthy” mantra. Former Mayor Jeremy Harris (Honolulu) is a marine biologist whose commitment to the environment includes the largest order of diesel-hydrogen buses for a U.S. city. Cool communities have more bike racks on the front of buses, more walking and biking trails within cities (not just outside them) and greater commitment to green/open spaces.

Reader responses

Molly Foley of the Illinois Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce responded to my question, “Are sustainable cities and cool communities the same?”

Molly: “I just returned from Ireland. The number of young people living there is growing, the number of new developments and construction for housing and business developments is amazing, the entire country is FOR people – bike lanes, bus lanes, people walking everywhere at all hours. Ireland has hiking/biking trailways connecting the entire country, internet cafes on EVERY other corner, light rail, passenger rail, and the entire inner city of Dublin is a stroll district. The country has become so much more diverse since I was there in 2000 & 1998. I have to say it puts a huge smile on my face when I speak to an Irishman of color.
“A big price tag comes with this. We know that cool communities score high in the seven indexes but I see this EU economy booming and the Cost of Lifestyle is huge!!!!! Yes, their cities are for people but is that enough to sustain the growth and generate further growth? I am not convinced cool communities are one in the same as sustainable cities. I hope I am wrong.”

On to the next tenets of sustainability:
4. The “poor” are part of the solution In “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” C.K. Prahalad makes a compelling case that our communities’ poor are not a blight to be ignored, but a market to be served. In other words, traditionally underserved populations are part of our economic prosperity, if we would just offer them the dignity, empowerment, and choice, not just products. Read more at the Economist.
5. Your history is your springboard Jane Jacobs once quipped, “New ideas require old buildings.” Sustainable communities protect and restore their historic buildings, and weave their community’s history into their destiny. Akron’s emerging polymer industry, for example is a nod to its rubber city past. And Charlotte’s history as a trading crossroads perfectly positions it as a 21st century banking burb.
More reader response from Diane Lee, Fargo, North Dakota:

“Sustainable cities and cool communities should be the same, thing, however I do not believe they are. The gap truly exists, especially in the area of inclusion and multiple places for “every flavor and color of folk.” Although many cities are trying to create walkable, inviting environments/places, they often lose sight of why they are doing it somewhere during the project. Many city leaders don’t reach out to understand the need for the developments, and lose sight of the people/generations they are trying to retain and attract. I do think that cool communities and sustainable communities are not the same, although they should be.”

Rebecca Ryan is founder and partner of Next Generation Consulting. She drinks coffee from a mug that says, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Next Generation Consulting is a thinkubator committed to building Next Generation Companies and Communities. Her columns address the work and life trends of today’s young, tech-savvy talent as well as the tools, tricks and tips for those daring hot companies they work with. Please e-mail topics, suggestions and feedback to Rebecca at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.