If you haven’t seen it yet, let me be the first to recommend NRDC’s new Smarter Cities site. It’s quite good. I’ve been a big fan of their writers, particularly Kaid Benfield, for a while, and so I’m really happy that they have set up a separate, land-use only blog: https://smartercities.nrdc.org/city-blog. Definitely read it. The quizzes are sadly a bit disappointing, but the actual content of the site is pretty interesting.
Using what appears to be a rigorous enough methodology, NRDC has given cities large and small rankings on a number of criteria, from air and water quality to transportation and green building. The West Coast comes out on top, with Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Oakland, and San Jose coming in as the top five greenest large cities, overall.
D.C. doesn’t do quite as well. We come in at 31st among cities larger than 250,000. That’s below Dallas (14th), Phoenix (17th), Fresno (25th) and Toledo (28th). D.C. ranks very well on transportation (4th, after San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles, largely on the strength of our walkability), but poorly enough on other issues, particularly water quality (61th out of 67), air quality (59th) and green building (57th).
I think that there are two lessons here. The first lesson is that the NRDC does need to rebalance its ranking system. Quality of life, which comes out to low poverty and lots of single-family houses, is weighted as much as transportation or energy use. I’m actually glad to see some recognition of equity concerns in the rating system, but that quality of life metric seems not to actually be measuring that at all – plus why is NRDC pushing single-family life on me? Similarly, green building should be considered less important than other factors as each green building is just a smaller scale change than, say, increased density or greater renewable energy use. So that’s one, relatively small point about how the national environmental movement sees green cities.
The second, and more important, is that D.C. really, really needs to be shifting away from its horrible coal power grid. When Phoenix of all places is ranking 21st to D.C.’s 89th in total carbon footprint in a recent Brookings report, exclusively because D.C. ranks dead last in residential emissions per capita, that’s very bad. If having a very, very good transit system and lots of walking and so on can’t even begin to overcome the effects of our residential electricity use (and D.C. doesn’t really even need home heating!), it makes any discussion of sustainable transportation sort of ridiculous. We could take half our cars off the road and, while that would do wonders for creating a more urbanist city, still be screwed environmentally. This obviously isn’t a call to ignore transportation, particularly because land use issues affect all segments of energy use, including residential electricity use, and because once we stop relying on coal transportation policy will matter so much more. But it is a reminder of just how bad coal is and how impotent environmentalism will be while we rely on it.