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What is a Sustainable City? Four Influential Green Mayors Discuss During the Festival of Ideas

Posted By Jessica Dailey On May 9, 2011 @ 7:00 pm In Architecture,Energy,Green Space,Politics | No Comments

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It’s a question we think about a lot here at Inhabitat: what is a sustainable city? Is it LEED certified [3] buildings? Efficient public transportation [4]? An abundance of green space [5]? This past Friday, we had the pleasure of attending The Sustainable City Mayoral Panel [6] during the Festival of Ideas [7], where four mayors from forward-thinking cities discussed these very ideas. The cities — Seattle [8]; Philadelphia [9]; Braddock [10], Pennsylvania; and Medellin [11], Colombia — could not be more different, but the overriding idea that a sustainable city is a healthy, vibrant city, was unanimously the same. The mayors (and former mayors) were each inspiring in their own way.

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John Fetterman – Mayor of Braddock, PA

Panel moderator Kurt Anderson described Fetterman as “a character out of fiction,” and indeed, standing 6’8″ tall and weighing 300 pounds, he certainly is. But he was also by far the most inspiring mayor on the panel. Fetterman landed in Braddock [10], a tiny former steel town just outside of Pittsburgh, to work with AmeriCorps [12], after receiving his masters in public policy from Harvard. He soon realized that the crumbling town needed a lot more than volunteers. Braddock has a population of 2200. Just 50 years ago, that number was 20,000.

Andrew Carnegie built the first bessemer process steel mill [13] in Braddock in 1873 and for nearly 100 years, the town thrived. Then the steel industry declined, and Braddock went with it. As Fetterman says, Braddock lost “90 percent of our population and 90 percent of our homes.” Crime rates soared and unemployment rose to 300 percent. Today, Braddock is the poorest community in Allegheny County.

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Since assuming office in 2005, Fetterman has thrust Braddock into the national spotlight [14] as a symbol of hope. He’s given the city the tag line “Reinvention is the only option,” and he has been working tirelessly to that end. With much of his own money [15], Fetterman has renovated decrepit buildings and lots and turned them into vibrant public spaces. A church is now the community center [16], abandoned lots are now organic gardens [17], and the largest unused space became Braddock’s first park. Art galleries [18] have opened, green businesses have moved in. On top of that, Braddock’s crime rate has decreased dramatically, with police calls dropping nearly 50 percent. The town hasn’t seen a homicide in more than three years. Fetterman is so completely dedicated to Braddock that he has the zip code tattooed on his left forearm, and the dates of murders that occurred while he’s been mayor on his right. For Fetterman, sustainability means making Braddock desirable once again.

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Sergio Fajardo – Former Mayor of Medellín, Colombia

Like Fetterman, Fajardo [19] never planned to run for Mayor. He was a mathematician who turned a civic movement into politics and transformed Medellín [11], once the murder capital of the world, into a tourist destination. He came to politics because he wanted to make “what was a privilege for me” — education, a job, safety — “should be a right for everyone else.” Like many other Colombian cities, Medellín was rife with corruption, inequality, and violence for decades. The valleys of the city, which is a mile high on a mountain, became filled with slums and poor communities.

Fajardo [20] gained the trust of Medellín’s citizens by walking everywhere and talking with the people. For Medellín, citizen participation has been crucial to its remaking and drive for sustainability. By being completely transparent with his administration’s politics, Fajardo was able to work with the people to increase public space, transform the transportation system, and build gorgeous public buildings.

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One of his crowning achievements was the construction of the España Library and plaza [21]. The stunning building is built on the edge of a cliff, in an area that was one of the poorest and least safe in Medellín. Fajardo said they built it there to bridge the divide between different parts of the community. Now, the library is perhaps the most well known symbol of Medellín’s rebirth, and the plaza is home to dozens of stands with local artisans selling their wares.

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Michael Nutter – Mayor of Philadelphia

While the sustainability plans for Braddock and Medellín are further removed from what we know here in New York City, Philadelphia’s plan is rather similar to our own. Last year, Mayor Nutter launched Greenworks Philadelphia [22], his plan to make Philly the greenest city in America (is that a challenge, Mr. Nutter? NYC will take it!). The plan set 15 targets for the city that involved reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, improving the quality of life, and creating jobs.

Philadelphia has seen a lot of success in the past year, with the implementation of hybrid buses, construction of new bike lanes, and upgraded recycling programs. They enacted a new law that requires all new buildings or renovations to be a minimum of LEED Silver. Plus, the city has big plans for the next couple years. By 2015, Mayor Nutter hopes to transform 500 acres of underused land into parks and public green space [5].

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One of Mayor Nutter’s most ambitious projects is the redevelopment of the Philadelphia Navy Yard [23]. Much like New York’s waterfront, Philly’s waterfront was once a thriving shipping industry, but fell into decline as shipping methods changed. In 2004, Robert A.M Stern Architects [24] unveiled the Master Plan for the complete renovation [25] of the 1200 acre area. Already, a tremendous amount of development has taken place, with a clean tech research center [26] moving in and dozens of restaurants and retail shops setting up in the eco-friendly buildings [27]. The shipyard [28] is being upgraded to accommodate today’s ships and cruise liners, and preservation of the historic core [29] is underway.

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Greg Nickels – Former Mayor of Seattle

During his time in office, Nickels became known as America’s green mayor. His plans for Seattle were the impetus for cities across the nation to set green goals and become more sustainable. In 2005, Nickels announced a plan for Seattle to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to meet or beat the levels outlined in the Kyoto protocols [30], which the United States does not follow, but the rest of the world does.

Nickels’ “aha” moment came in the winter of 2004-05 when Seattle experienced a particularly mild winter. Cascade mountain snow is Seattle’s natural reservoir and such little snow fell that year that the entire ski season was canceled. Without a “snowpack,” Seattle would have no water — the city was directly experiencing the effect of a warmer climate, and Nickels knew something had to be done.

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The sustainable agenda included energy-efficient public transportation, include electric streetcars [31], changing the building code to allow for high density in Seattle’s downtown, and creating green jobs. Seattle has since reduced emissions by 60 percent, far surpassing its goals.

+ Inhabitat’s Festival of Ideas Coverage [7]


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[1] Share on Tumblr: http://www.tumblr.com/share

[2] Email: mailto:?subject=http://inhabitat.com/nyc/what-is-a-sustainable-city-four-influential-green-mayors-discuss-during-the-festival-of-ideas/

[3] LEED certified: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/tag/leed

[4] transportation: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/transportation-2/

[5] green space: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/green-space/

[6] The Sustainable City Mayoral Panel: http://www.festivalofideasnyc.com/program#event-1815

[7] Festival of Ideas: http://inhabitat.com/nyc/tag/festival-of-ideas

[8] Seattle: http://inhabitat.com/tag/seattle

[9] Philadelphia: http://inhabitat.com/tag/philadelphia

[10] Braddock: http://www.15104.cc/

[11] Medellin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medell%C3%ADn

[12] AmeriCorps: http://www.americorps.gov/

[13] the first bessemer process steel mill: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braddock,_Pennsylvania#History

[14] the national spotlight: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/01/us/01braddock.html

[15] much of his own money: http://braddockredux.org/

[16] community center: http://braddockredux.org/?page_id=486

[17] organic gardens: http://www.growpittsburgh.org/growpittsburgh/Projects/BraddockFarms

[18] Art galleries: http://braddockredux.org/?page_id=27

[19] Fajardo: http://www.sergiofajardo.com/

[20] Fajardo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergio_Fajardo

[21] España Library and plaza: http://www.archdaily.com/2565/espana-library-giancarlo-mazzanti/

[22] Greenworks Philadelphia: http://www.phila.gov/green/greenworks/message-from-the-mayor.html

[23] Philadelphia Navy Yard: http://www.navyyard.org/

[24] Robert A.M Stern Architects: http://www.ramsa.com/projects-search/planning/philadelphia.html

[25] Master Plan for the complete renovation: http://www.navyyard.org/master-plan

[26] research center: http://www.navyyard.org/master-plan/research-park

[27] eco-friendly buildings: http://www.navyyard.org/master-plan/corporate-center

[28] shipyard: http://www.navyyard.org/master-plan/shipyard

[29] historic core: http://www.navyyard.org/master-plan/historic-core

[30] Kyoto protocols: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyoto_protocols

[31] electric streetcars: http://inhabitat.com/transportation-tuesday-seattles-sexy-new-streetcar/

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