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Cities and Counties Must Be Good Stewards of the Environment

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
July 11, 2022

Evidence of global warming continues to mount almost daily. Record high temperatures are occurring during all seasons. Having lived in the Phoenix area, I was particularly struck by the extreme heat during the summer of 2021. The 53 days of highs of at least 110 degrees broke the previous record by 20 days. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, our planet is two degrees warmer now than it was before the beginning of the century. There has also been a significant increase in other extreme weather events such as the number of intense hurricanes. There were more named storms in 2020 than any previous year on record.   

The effects of global warming pose a huge threat to cities, especially along coasts. In a study of the effects of global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that the earth had already heated up one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) and that based on current trends there will be at least another 1.5 Celsius increase (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) sometime between 2030 and 2052. Based on this increase, the projected impact on U.S. coastal cities is indicative of a tremendous impact. In the top twenty cities affected, the amount of residential development at risk ranged from a high of 85.2 percent for Miami Beach, Florida to 26.6 percent for Norfolk, Virginia. This is merely one dimension of the impacts of global warming. 

While many critical steps must be taken at the national and international levels, local governments can and must do their part. They can make a very significant difference in combating this crisis. In my book, A Guidebook for City and County Managers (James M. Bourey, Routledge, January 2022, pp.53-7), a chapter is devoted to environmental stewardship. This column includes the principal concepts of that chapter.

Before getting into specific strategies for cities and counties to address this problem, I want to introduce an important general concept for readers to consider. This concept was described eloquently in the book Cradle to Cradle Remaking the Way Things Are Made (Braungart, Michael and McDonough, William, North Point Press, 2002). In their book,  McDonough and Braungart posit that products should be designed such that the materials used can be reused when the useful life of the product is met. Moreover, materials should be avoided which cannot biodegrade. If manufacturers were required to only use products that could be recycled or reused, it would make a huge difference in what must go in a landfill. Implementing this concept in a meaningful way would have a large positive impact on global warming. While cities and counties do not generally manufacture products, all production does occur in some locality. Although cities and counties cannot simply impose rules that would result in industries moving to another location, they can develop programs that will encourage manufacturers to take into consideration the life cycle of the products they produce.  

In my book I outline the steps for cities and counties to take to address global warming:

  • Instituting programs to reduce or at least slow the increase in automobile travel by enhancing public transportation options, and promoting mixed use development and more concentrated land use patterns
  • Preserving the natural environment and expanding green space throughout the community which will decrease the heat islands that intense urbanization creates
  • Encouraging alternate fuel automobiles through providing charging stations and transitioning city and county fleets to electric vehicles
  • Promoting the development and use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power through the development of incentives and adopting more permissive land use controls
  • Conserving energy by retrofitting existing buildings and requiring energy efficiencies in new structures. In a significant number of instances, the retrofit can be paid for from the energy savings. 
  • Banning plastic bag use and encouraging customers to use their own reusable bags by charging for bags provided by the store
  • Better managing the waste stream including enhanced recycling and use of composting which could include strategies such as charging customers for the volume of trash collected and use of advanced technologies at landfills including the use of anaerobic digesters which dramatically reduce the production of methane gas.
  • Planting trees and other vegetation which will not only serve to reduce carbon dioxide levels but also enhance the quality of the community
  • Adopting other strategies to reduce air quality pollutants such as emission standards for local industries above those required by the state or federal government
  • Adopting practices when holding events that minimize the negative environmental effects such as requiring recycling and composting and promoting transit for travel to and from the event site
  • Lobby the state and federal government for instituting measures that directly address global warming and enhance environmental quality

While countries throughout the world must take action to address the global warming crisis, there is a lot that cities and counties can and must do. The actions described in this article are not only feasible but are also essential to save our planet from an ever-deepening crisis.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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