Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper



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US cities to try 'smart growth'
to conform to Kyoto Protocol

By Brian Baker

16 March 2006: More than 210 US mayors have signed up to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ initiative on taking local responsibility for carbon emissions in the absence of support for Kyoto from the current US federal government. Attention now turns to what they are doing to meet the challenge with limited powers and resources. Denver mayor John Hickenlooper told City Mayors at the recent 2006 New Partners for Smart Growth conference, held in his city: “In the US our federal government has shown no inclination to address this issue. As cities we are going to conform to the Kyoto protocol. Instead of top down in terms of our climate we perhaps need to tackle it from the bottom up.”

The mayor was an early signatory to the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, endorsed in June 2005 by the US Conference of Mayors, which committed signatories to meet or beat Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities and to press state and federal governments to act similarly.   

One measure of success will be seen in the pace at which jurisdictions change their policies towards smart growth and densification and green building. Because much of this requires regional co-operation, it will constitute a key test for those cities signed up to the carbon reduction initiative.

Hickenlooper told 1,000 delegates: “The collaboration of urban and suburban entities is crucial and the most crucial ingredient of all is passion. We want our sustainability policies to be socially just and to include all neighborhoods.”

Regional co-operation will be critical to effective carbon emission measures by the cities. Yet regional institutions are notoriously weak in the US. But some have overcome this to an extent through co-operation and initiative.

He added: “Just before my inauguration l had all the other leaders to a cocktail party at my house and told them that antagonism was over. We went on to set a tone in the first weeks that showed that we were committed to all the jurisdictions in the region working together.”

This mindset was critical to the successful light rail ballot initiative in the Denver Metropolitan Region in November 2004. And it brought forward a positive response from the residents, who backed by a three to two majority a special sales tax to help fund a comprehensive 12-year building program. This will deliver a quantum leap in sustainable mobility across the region with 200 miles of lines within a reasonable time period of less than 10 years.

Several similar ballots have failed across the US recently. One of the Denver metro cities is Littleton and its Vice Mayor, Pat Cronenberger, told some of the 1,200 delegates at the conference:  “We were politically successful because the plan process was a listening one. Consensus and coalition building were key. There were over 40 entities backing the Fast Tracks plan by the time of the ballot. One, the non-government Transit Alliance, was able to stimulate 14,000 volunteer petition collectors and we secured 65,000 signatories in 35 days.”

 Nonetheless, according to Jonathon Miller, author and Vice President of CMAC Institutional Advisers “the elephant in the room is the lack of regional planning throughout this country,” adding: “The single biggest factor for change would be braver state and regional leadership.”

Hickenlooper points to the benefits of resource-friendly policies for cities which range from Denver saving $800,000 a year through use of low energy lighting in traffic signals to the 50 new urban villages which will be built around the new light rail stations in the next 10 years, accommodating much of the projected population growth and containing pollution.

The smart growth conference this year revealed rising levels of interest from leaders of cities of all sizes, much of it spurred by raised levels of dissatisfaction with the quality of life in sprawling low-density areas. Many cities are especially striving to engage with energy efficiency driven both by resource anxieties and concerns about living costs for the low and moderate income households essential to service sector-led local economies.

Scottsdale, Arizona, is a leader in green building programs for homeowners and has now taken a bold forward movement in relation to its own building procurement.

Scottsdale Mayor, Mary Manross, observed: “Last year l persuaded the council to be a first in the country and to commit to all new and renovated city buildings being designed and constructed to the US Green Building Council’s gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standard. Eventually, l would like to see our whole development community adopt LEED certification for all buildings as a matter of course and to give Scottsdale an edge both environmentally and economically.”

The first gold standard building, a Seniors Centre, opened late last year. And Scottsdale is partnering with neighbouring city Tempe on a LEED gold standard compliant new transportation center.

Its residential buildings program evolved from a 1998 citizens initiative and is now certificating 35% of new homes to its green building standard which measures a check list of mandatory and optional elements from site selection to kitchen floors. Energy efficiency and other life cycle costs score highest.

Sustainable Buildings Manager, Anthony Floyd, said: “We are updating the requirements this year. Our homebuilders have become quite energy efficient so we will raise the bar on that. I expect that this voluntary program will evolve into a mandatory system.”

He continued: “Some of the energy efficiency requirements have already become part of the building code. This will quite soon become the standard way of doing business. Wastefulness will have to go.” 

 Support both for high environmental standards and for environmental preservation areas has done no harm to the mayor’s political career. She was re-elected by a two to one majority in the 2004 election after narrowly missing an outright majority on the first ballot.

Unusually for the US, the city manager in Ventura, California, is a former mayor. Rick Cole, who joined Ventura in 2004 from Azusa, California, was mayor of Pasadena, near Los Angeles, in the 1990s.

Cole has used this varied experience to drive through a radical smart growth city plan in Ventura. He told delegates at the smart growth conference: “Although Ventura has adopted a far-reaching city plan it took seven years to get there.

 “In the final two months before conclusion l talked face to face with 1,600 people. At the adoption meeting people who never agree with one another were all in favor. They agreed because we had found enlightened self-interest and we had brought people along by listening to them.”

The Ventura plan replaces a 1980 one, and puts resource management at the core of all activities and policies. The council has also approved a package of ordnance changes to make the plan implementation a daily reality.

Ventura Mayor, Carl Morehouse, insists: “I have made it a priority for 2006 that we progress on three tasks key to the new general plan policies in housing, transportation and public safety. We have to create mixed income housing at higher densities and to press ahead with provision of alternatives to the automobile.”

With health professionals making up 15% of the conference delegates and a leading private health care company, Kaiser Permanente, the main sponsor, the significance of smart growth land-use patterns to exercise and well being is now recognized across the country. Both recent and current leading officials at the Atlanta-based Federal Centers for Disease Control were keynote speakers in Denver.           

The closing speaker was Dr Richard Jackson, now Professor of Environmental Health at the University of California.

He warned: “Climate change makes you more nervous the more you study it. We have to turn down all the dials on the production of the elements causing it and turn up photosynthesis. Partnership between the health and the development communities has to be about very early contact and messages. Should the space around schools be used to grow healthy food? All children should have the right to walk or ride to school. We won’t turn down obesity without a tax on high fructose sugar.” 

The new Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at CDC, Dr Howard Frumkin, told delegates of the need to go beyond obesity and physical activity. “If we can reduce car miles we can support better air quality, protect scarce water and enhance social capital. Suburbs have seemed to be cool. We have to recapture that for the urban dimension.”


Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels


Introducing Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels
Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels was elected in 2001. Since then he has taken a lead on US mayors’ efforts to commit cities to fighting global warming and has committed his administration to outlawing discrimination against same-sex couples. Re-elected in 2005, he and the city council have been entangled in the monorail controversy, which saw millions of dollars spent on a failed scheme.

Greg Nickels was born in Chicago in 1955. His family moved to Seattle in 1961 and he was schooled at Seattle Prep, then attending the University of Washington. Nickels began his political career in 1979 as an adviser to city councillor Norm Rice, who went on to become the city’s first and only Afro-American mayor in 1989. Nickels himself secured election to the King County Council in 1987 and was re-elected on three subsequent occasions. More