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Greening the Capitol: Mayor Gray's Visionary Sustainability Plan

J. Mijin Cha

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, cities generate up 60 percent of all emissions. This number rises to 80 percent when including the indirect emissions of city dwellers (although the per capita carbon footprint is often lower in cities than in rural areas due to denser living conditions and more availability of public transportation).

Recognizing the role that cities can play in the fight against climate change, mayors around the world are taking action, often above and beyond what the state or country is doing. For example, over 1,000 U.S. mayors have signed onto a Climate Protection Agreement to meet Kyoto Protocol emissions reduction targets on their own; nearly 300 European cities have pledged to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2020; and The World Mayors Council on Climate Change has over 60 members from local governments working to reduce greenhouse gases.

This week, Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray raised the bar when he unveiled “A Vision for a Sustainable D.C.” The plan is an ambitious initiative to transform D.C. into “the healthiest, greenest, most livable city” in the country by 2032. The plan was developed after seven months of community outreach and engagement and focuses on three broad goals:

  • Broaden and diversify the District’s economy and the range of available employment and business opportunities for residents;
  • Reduce disparities related to income, health, employment and education across the city; and
  • Ensure a high quality of life and a clean environment for our residents, workers, and visitors.

Within the three broad goals, there are 11 specific areas in which the Mayor wants to make significant progress, including cutting by 50 percent the city’s obesity rate, citywide energy consumption, and unemployment. It also aims to increase the use of renewable energy by 50 percent and bring locally grown food within a quarter mile of 75 percent of the population. The vision also aims to triple the number of green businesses, make 75 percent of all trips through walking, biking, or transit, and achieve zero waste by consuming less and recycling whatever is consumed.

Needless to say, these are not only extremely ambitious goals but if implemented actually will make the city one of the healthiest, most sustainable in the country. But more than that, the Mayor’s plan is introduced by a preamble that broadens the definition of sustainability to include more than just environmental issues:

Sustainability means balancing the demands of economic development, environmental protection, and community equity across our city. Ultimately, sustainability means good things for your health, your community, and your wallet.

This messaging is particularly exciting because it helps to alleviate some of the difficulties of climate messaging. Instead of only focusing on the impacts of a changing environment in a natural resource or biodiversity capacity, the broader sustainability message helps bring home why and how environmental issues impact almost every part of our lives, from our health to our economy.

As the preamble points out, sustainability means helping household budgets by decreasing transportation, energy and food costs through better public transit systems, using less energy, and making good, healthy food more easily accessible. It also means better health for you and your family because the air quality inside and outside your home is better and access to healthy foods and walking more decreases obesity rates.

The Mayor offers short-term, medium-term, and long-term actions to meet his goal. It is comprehensive, bold, and visionary. I really recommend taking the time to read the whole plan. It is a welcome antidote to the constant anti-climate cacophony and continual inaction.