Beyond Growth: Sustainability And Economic Development
Imagine if the city of Detroit and its surrounding suburbs decided that two years from now they would only buy renewable green power energy for its citizens. What kind of innovations, policies and partnerships would have to develop to meet the region's deadline?
Sound crazy? Well, Portland Oregon just made such a choice and by creating new economic models, the city is on track to reach its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2010.
"Deadlines really help," says Tom Osdoba, coordinator for sustainable economic development in Portland. "Cities have the power to forge partnerships and enact change. They create scale in a way no one else can. The biggest challenge is getting the renewable energy companies to expand fast enough."
Osdoba explains that individually the public and private sector can't pull off these kinds of initiatives on their own and so they have to create new economic models. "Because local governments have lower costs of capital they can create scale along with the institutional frameworks that allow for different revenue models. They can spur the kind of development that a solely private or solely public initiative couldn't deliver fast enough or deep enough. Particularly in the energy sector."
Portland has quickly emerged as a green leader and along with Seattle and Chicago, is considered among the greenest cities in the world. The U.S. Green Building Council has certified 33 green buildings in Portland, more than any city on the planet. Seattle comes in a close second with 31 and Chicago has 27.
A good part of the city's success as a green leader is due to the city's Office of Sustainable Development.
"The office was created about 10 years ago," Osdoba explains, "by consolidating programs like recycling, waste prevention programs, and energy efficiency programs while creating a new green building program within the city's planning department. Those were the first pieces that came together and they bundled them together to elevate their importance as an office."
Eventually the office expanded and enhanced its focus by including food policy initiatives, business assistance programs, and expanded energy efficiency initiatives. Expanding incrementally over the years, the office saw sustainable economic development as the next step in its evolution. Enter Tom Osdoba, who before joining the office, was the founding principal of the environmental strategy firm E4 Partners and the sustainability manager for the city of Vancouver, B.C..
Invited as the keynote speaker at Wayne County Parks Department's all-day seminar, The Platinum Standard, Tom first chatted with metromode about eco-industrial development, creating incentives and partnerships for sustainable development and rethinking old economic models.metromode: Many cities have green initiatives but few have given it the focus and elevation Portland has. Isn't it pretty unique for a city to dedicate itself --financially and institutionally-- to the concept of sustainability? Tom Osdoba:
Portland is a bit unique in terms of its government structure - we have a commission structure where particular city council members run particular bureaus, they're the heads. This contributed to the formation of the office about 10 years ago and we've been fortunate to have leaders who have remained committed to its expansion.
We're at a critical point. The alignment & integration of programs has become very important.
Most cities have really struggled to effectively focus on a regional strategy --which I whole-heartedly agree with. Rather than having a whole bunch of cities competing amongst themselves within a region, cooperation and consolidation are being seen as the better choice. Re-establishing a foundation for a strong regional/bio-regional economy requires that we look at bread & butter stuff like energy and food.mode: Do you think bundling these strategies into an office of sustainability rather than an overall office of economic development undermines a city's ability to reach its goals?Osdoba:
Like any good economist I'll say it depends. It's a really good question. If you do that without attending to the organizational or institutional cultural aspects of the office I think you really have a recipe for trouble.
One of the things that makes this a great opportunity for Portland is that you have Portland's development commission as well as the state's economic and community development commission all pointing to sustainability as a top priority. So we've begun to see some of the necessary alignments to make it work. It's not a guarantee, however, because leadership, capacity building and discipline are so vitally important. But we have a willingness to collaborate, which is becoming the model for moving forward. I think the concept is there, now it's just a matter of executing on it, which means good leadership on the political level and staff that's willing to collaborate across departments in a meaningful way, which is an age-old problem.
The final piece of the equation is that we need the business community to sincerely embrace this as an opportunity that's mutually exclusive to traditional economic development.
mode: Obviously Portland sees itself as a leader in this movement and you're coming out to export some of the city's ideas. What are lessons has it learned that its hoping to pass on or common wisdom is it hoping to rewrite?Osdoba:
Well, I wouldn't say we have a singular lesson to impart but rather individual examples to offer up. Portland doesn't have a strong leadership structure within its city government and so no one
leader can exert a lot of political influence. As a result change takes time and the city has invested a lot over 15 years in terms of capacity building information, voluntary programs and incentives. It's been a very incremental and gradual approach, but the city's steady commitment has yielded interesting results. In contrast a city like Chicago has a really strong mayor who decided that sustainability was going to be one of his top priorities, that he was going to make Chicago the greenest city in the U.S.. So it's a radically different structure of government with a radically different nature of leadership. When you think about it, despite our different methods, cities are becoming laboratories for developing policies and programs. I think we have to recognize that and learn from each other -- not just what works but why it works and how do we replicate successful programs in our context.
mode: These are really long term investment strategies. When you have a state like Michigan, which is struggling under a damaged economy, how do get past the reluctance to try something new and encourage both the public and private sector to invest in something that's going to require a bit of evolution?Osdoba:
Great question. I would say there are three approaches to that. One of the key approaches is recognizing the power of gain theory and creating a context in which people feel they have more to lose by not participating than they have to gain. Sort of buy them into a sense of ownership within this process.
The second is recognition of hard realities: that a lot of the economic problems we're going through are structural. Economic development strategies aren't going to touch those in any way, shape or form in the short term. You end up doing a lot of damage if you prevent structural problems in the economy from working themselves out. You can't make massive investments in new opportunities if you're trying to hold onto systems that structurally aren't going to last. I'm not an expert on SE Michigan but, in a general, structural issues in an economic development strategy can't deal with the short term.
Finally I think we underestimate the multiplier benefits of our local economy with regard to bread & butter stuff. A good example of this is food. Everybody is embracing organic products, which is not only more profitable for farmers but people are buying it because it tastes better and is healthier which means they're starting to connect with where their food is coming from. But what we're also realizing, through the research that has been done, is that the economic impacts of buying food within our region can produce a multiplier that's at least double what it is for food shipped in from somewhere else. And if you can double your multiplier by doing next to nothing except promoting different consumption patterns and creating incentives around that, you can bring some real meaningful benefits in the short term not the least of which is increasing tax revenue, which allows you reinvest in other things.
mode: Are there real world examples to support the concept that a major initiative in sustainable practices and eco-industrial development will help cities economically? Are there municipalities who have seen dividends from their investment or are we too early in the process?
Osdoba: In eco-industrial development we've seen far fewer successes than efforts. They're not failures, not because its too early but because there hasn't been enough follow through. But there are some examples of it working. The Triangle J region in North Carolina has seen some successes. The Golden Horseshoe area in Ontario, the Halifax region and Nova Scotia have really made some major investments and so we should start seeing evidence of how these systems can be beneficial.
We have the staff know-how and logistical confidence to pull these things off but need a fairly significant decade of political leadership at the local level. We need leaders to say these are investments in our economy and if we're the first ones in other people will bring their investment dollars to the table as well. Because they're not going to come first. We have to go first because we're the city, we're the community and we know how we want things to work in the future.
We've gone from single buildings to multiple buildings in the same area to entire green neighborhoods in both development and design. So, I think we're reaching a new level of maturity and understanding. But it can't just be another incremental change that inches along. We need to start taking some really big steps. We're at a really interesting moment where there's a potential for us to enter a golden age of eco-industrial development.
Jeff Meyers is the managing editor of metromode and a film critic for Detroit's alternative weekly The Metro Times.
Portland, Oregon at night (istock photo)
Tom Osboda (photograph for metromode by Marvin Shaouni)
Portland buildingsn (istock photo)
Chicago skyline at night (photo by Brian Kelly)
Portland buildings (istock photo)