Cities of Tomorrow

No Time to Waste: Diverse Problems, New Climate Solutions

From water conservation in Tucson to green roof initiatives in Chicago.

by Meg Charlton
Apr 25 2017, 6:00pm


This is Part Two in a multi-part series on the cities of tomorrow. Read Part One right now.

What makes a sustainable city? It's a complicated question because sustainability itself is difficult to define. By some metrics, New York is the greenest city in the country. By others, it's the most wasteful in the world. Does it mean lower consumption? Less carbon? More parks? Different cities answer this question in their own way, leading to very different models of what a sustainable city could be.

In the coming weeks, VICE Impact will be taking a closer look at the experiments unfolding in these cities — their successes, failures and contradictions alike. But to begin to answer that crucial question -- what makes a city sustainable -- we began with a survey of the biggest ideas and most urgent issues in environmental urban design today.


Further west, in Silicon Valley's home state, there are more immediate concerns. If carbon emissions continue at their current rate (and given the current administration's attitude toward the Paris Climate Agreement, that seems likely), the American Southwest has a 99 percent chance of entering a "searing megadrought" by 2050. While this event would be as catastrophic as it sounds, -- destroying arable land, raising temperatures to almost-unlivable levels, and possibly releasing ancient hemorrhagic fevers, just to name a few outcomes -- westerners are already facing a drier life on a daily basis.

California's five year drought, which officially ended this month, has received the most coverage. But with its complex system for moving water around the state, California actually faces a much less dire situation than that of its desert neighbors.

Dr. Susannah Eden of the University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center says that drought in her state is "an everyday reality."

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In the midst of such an arid region, Tucson has emerged as a conservation leader. Its "portfolio approach," according to Dr. Eden, combines multiple strategies from commercial water harvesting to underground water banking to encouraging the adoption of desert-friendly lawn landscaping. As a result, Tucson uses the same amount of water it did in 1985, despite adding more than 226,000 residents.

Urban Heat Islands

Extreme heat is not confined to the Southwest. The combined effects of heat-trapping asphalt, air conditioners pumping hot air, and cars spewing exhaust create what are known as "urban heat islands" or UHIs. In the supposed cool of the evening, the temperature disparity between a city center and the surrounding rural area can reach 22 degrees Fahrenheit. And the enormous temperature imbalance between urban areas and surrounding rural ones is guaranteed to grow worse as climate change brings higher summer temperatures and more extreme swings in weather.

Chicago has experienced this phenomenon at a terrible cost. A 1995 heat wave left 700 people dead in just five days, and spurred a concerted effort by the city to improve their response to heat emergencies. They turned to green roofing, which utilizes vegetation to absorb or deflect heat, reducing the UHI effect. The mechanism intuitively familiar to anyone who has stood in the sweltering heat of an asphalt road in summer and then stepped onto the cool of a grassy lawn.

In 2001, Mayor Daley installed the city's first green roof on the top of city hall, and since city incentives have helped cover over 5.5 million square feet of Chicago's roof tops with vegetation and turned Chicago into an internationally recognized model for green roofing. These green roofs are having a positive effect on UHI, but these and other urban green spaces also protect Chicago from another consequence of climate change: increased stormwater runoff.

As precipitation rises in the Midwest, rain sweeps up oil, garbage, and any other pollutants in its way as it flows into sewer systems. The overwhelmed systems then pump this dirty water directly into lakes and rivers. As part of Chicago's superior stormwater infrastructure system, the green roofs, work in two ways. First, they capture water before it even touches the sewer system. Second, they absorb those pollutants from the runoff.

Environmental Gentrification

Chicago's green roofs can also tell another, less positive story of inequality. Sustainability projects, like increased tree cover or expanded transport links make cities both greener and more liveable. But as these projects proliferate, they increase property values, and attract more real estate investment which can ultimately drive out poor and working class residents.

Los Angeles provides a particularly stark example. There, light rail has been seen for decades as infrastructure for the well-off at the expense of the most vulnerable, who overwhelmingly ride the bus. (In fact the issue came to a head in the mid-90s, when the LA Bus Rider's Union when took the city to court and won) This perception was validated when maps tracked the creep of gentrification right along the new train corridor.

When people are pushed out of their neighborhoods, farther away from jobs, they still have to get to work. And a lot of times, they often end up driving, which increases carbon emissions. Dr. Hillary Angelo of UC Santa Cruz studies this phenomenon, and says that it often has its own negative environmental effects. "Inequality and climate change," Dr. Angelo says, "are the two major crises of our era. And they converge and are interlinked in these kinds of urban sustainability projects."

One possible solution is the idea of "green enough." This means creating a small, non-tourist-centered parklet instead of something like, say, New York City's High Line, which draws more than 5 million visitors -- most of them, tourists -- per year. These are the types of solutions that engage communities to find solutions that keep residents in their homes and neighborhoods, and yield solutions that don't split social injustice and environmentalism into separate issues.

Measuring Success

Like most local issues, how cities choose to tackle sustainability --or not -- comes down to money and politics. Corinne Kisner of the National Association of City Transportation Officials knows that investing in sustainability can be a tough sell for cash-strapped cities, especially when the impacts are farther in the future than an election cycle. But she says that necessity can force a politician's hand. "Cities that face a crisis are motivated," she said -- an observation born out in both Chicago and Tucson.

Dr. Eden sees it differently for Tucson where, in her view, inertia loom large. "Habits are hard to break," she says. "Especially when the changes asked for require investments of money and energy."

Dr. Angelo brought it all into context with a funny story.

She explained that UC Santa Cruz wanted to reduce its carbon footprint and cut down on commutes into campus. They raised prices on parking to discourage students from driving. And it seemed at first to work. People weren't driving around campus as much. By the intended metric, they had succeeded. But they soon realized students were simply parking and then taking Uber or Lyft to get around between buildings. They'd implemented a well intentioned policy, but didn't get the committed behavior change needed to make it truly effective.

Each of these experiments -- from smart stoplights to rain vats -- define sustainability by their own metrics. But above all they require change, however small. All require the active participation of their citizens in order to be successful. And all require a real commitment to real shifts in how cities work -- not just hopping in a Lyft when we can't take our car.