Green Cities

What’s Stopping Green Cities?

The concept of “going green” has gained popularity over the last several years and is generally well received by the public, with 55 percent of US citizens claiming they have made changes in their lives to be more sustainable. If that is the case, why are we not seeing green cities in the United States? Many are trying, and a few have actually made strides, but legal and bureaucratic barriers at both the state and federal levels make municipal sustainability more difficult to get there.

  • Preemption

One of the greatest barriers to implementing green laws is preemption. Preemption is the legal power of the higher level of government to lessen or nullify laws at the lower levels. This power is used at both the federal and state level preventing cities from implementing certain environmental laws. 

For instance, states cannot impose additional restrictions on air pollution if they are stricter than those implemented by the federal Clean Air Act. This prevents cities from being able to effectively limit personal vehicle use with emission restrictions. 

At the state level, we’ve seen many cities’ environmental laws blocked, including fracking bans and renewable energy plans. Without change at the federal or state levels, cities may not even have the opportunity to implement green laws or plans, as they’re blocked before they can.

This even happens somewhat unintentionally with archaic laws. In 1914, California revamped their water right laws, allotting water rights to properties near water sources, and requiring permits otherwise. Water holdings before this change were protected, do not require a permit, and are maintained to this day. These pre 1914 holdings remain, unless they fail to use their full water allotment. This makes it extremely difficult to reduce water usage, unless the state was to drastically alter water rights laws. 

  • Lack of City Funds

Another issue preventing progress is funding. Many cities do not have the capital to start green programs. In fact, a majority of the United States’ largest cities are heavily in debt. In 2021, New York City, the most populated city in the US, had a municipal debt of $56,900 per taxpayer.

On top of the debt issue, many cities do not receive direct federal funding for their projects. Specifically in the case of public transportation and vehicle infrastructure, all federal funding is granted to the state, which then decides how funds are allocated. This makes it more difficult to direct funding to specific projects, if cities do not fundraise themselves. 

  • The City of San Diego

Despite these issues, there are still cities putting in the effort. Two good examples of this are San Diego, California and Portland, Oregon. San Diego released their Climate Action Plan in 2022 with some lofty goals. By 2035, they intend on having 100 percent renewable energy, a 50 percent share of walking, bicycling, and public transport in conveyance, and providing 35 percent urban canopy cover to name a few.

As of now, San Diego’s plan is mostly foundational, there are no concrete plans to enact these goals. They are mostly monitoring current trends and considering funding options. Only time will tell if they are capable of achieving these goals, but they definitely have a lot of work ahead of them.

  • The City of Portland

On the other hand, Portland has made substantial progress in being a green city, despite having less intense goals. For one, they have the goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy generated or purchased by 2030. They acknowledge they do not have the capacity to reach 100 percent generated on their own quickly enough and in the meantime hope to make up for the difference by purchasing energy credits. 

Portland has also been in the green city game longer than most. In 1974, Portland became the first city to deconstruct a major highway, Harbor Drive, to beautify the waterfront to the Willamette River. In addition, they have maintained one of the greatest bicycling rates in the US by adhering to a bicycling initiative started in the 1970s, providing greater infrastructure and protection to cyclists.

Developing green cities is difficult, but it’s not impossible. If nothing else, San Diego and Portland are examples of tangible efforts and enough people wanting to change for the better. In order to spread Green Cities and improve our way of life, we must encourage leaders to allow green cities to flourish by electing proponents of change at every level of government.