Environmental Issues in Cities

From New York to Shanghai, cities across the globe are swelling, compounding social and environmental sustainability challenges.

Meanwhile, cities are on the frontlines of the climate change fight — although they generate 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, city dwellers have smaller carbon footprints than national averages, according to the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In addition to climate change concerns, cities face challenges with communicating urgent but less visible sustainability problems to stakeholders, modernizing water and transportation infrastructure, improving urban design and feeding growing populations.

"Our cities are up against an awful a lot of challenges, " said Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University and founder of sustainability forum Planet Forward, at the 2016 Planet Forward Summit on Sustainable Cities last week in Washington, D.C.

If we are going to do the the things we need to do without melting the planet, we are going to need a lot of good stories.

"If we are going to do the the things we need to do without melting the planet, we are going to need a lot of good stories."

At the summit, business, government and nonprofit leaders shared their respective tales of dealing with today’s social and environmental challenges to build the sustainable cities of tomorrow.

1. Communicating ‘invisible’ problems

The challenge

The United States historically has shown a willingness to act to take on visible environmental problems — such as smog, which led to many of the air quality laws of the 1970s — but many problems cities currently face aren’t as easy to see.

"For 45 years we have done a great job at nationally reducing pollution in a way that has significantly improved health for everybody in this country, " said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "The challenges today are not a question of if we have the the opportunity to make progress on these issues but how do we act when we can’t see the problems?"

Climate change, for example, is a more pervasive problem that can’t always be directly observed. In a similar vein, many water quality issues afflicting municipalities are less visible to stakeholders.

The solution

A lack of accurate information about sustainability issues is one of the biggest impediments to action, McCarthy said. Case and point: the narrative that environmental and economic health are mutually exclusive.

"Information and transparency are the biggest drivers of change, " McCarthy said. "Information allows people to act."

Using facts to convince stakeholders to view sustainability measures as investments rather than costs is critical, McCarthy said. Pointing to the clean up of the Boston Harbor, she said that without this action Boston likely would not be the thriving place it is today.

"The environment opens up opportunities, and you have to look at it as an integrated thought process, " McCarthy said. “That’s what sustainability is."

2. Financing modern water infrastructure

Water is something many in the United States consider to be a fundamental human right — or a public good that everyone should have access to regardless of the cost.

"While it’s a right, that doesn’t mean it’s free, " said Royce Francis, assistant professor of engineering and applied science at George Washington University, discussing the need for new investments in water infrastructure. "It’s a human right if we’re willing to help each other get access."

The United States experiences hundreds of water main breaks a day.

Struggling cities such as Flint, Michigan, highlight the need for public investment in water infrastructure. The United States experiences hundreds of water main breaks a day, and has received a D rating from national rating systems.

There are two primary routes cities can take to solve their water infrastructure crises — increase water rates or court private investment.

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