In the late 1970s/early 1980s, then-U.S. Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, coined the now-famous saying “all politics is local”. This holds particularly true in the United States where the federal system reserves to states and cities most authorities and decision-making powers, making America a “ground-up” society were local action and grass-roots enthusiasm leads the way.
Earlier this week Natalia and I hosted a breakfast for a group of mayors and city representatives from the U.S. National League of Cities to get a flavor of how they are developing and implementing environmentally sustainable solutions. The delegation – representing Baltimore, Maryland; Cleveland, Ohio; Dubuque, Iowa; and St Paul, Minnesota – also met with Swedish counterparts under the auspices of the Swedish American Green Alliance (SAGA) to exchange best practices on urban sustainability to make sure that local politics does not stay local, but that these great solutions spread internationally.
Each of these elected officials displayed an impressive breadth of knowledge and determination to implement effective sustainability programs in their respective cities, each with very distinct and individual challenges and opportunities. Natalia and I were so inspired by the level of commitment and imagination in the room. Whether it was tackling issues of transportation in Baltimore, spreading knowledge through early education on sustainability in Cleveland, or high-speed rail and an emphasis on public-private partnerships in St. Paul, each of these city representatives were finding creative solutions to make improve the quality of life for their citizens. By utilizing his years of experience at John Deere Co. and a dedication to improving the lives of his nine grandchildren, Mayor Boul of Dubuque, Iowa has helped make Dubuque one of the best small cities to raise a family, according to Forbes.
The delegation visited Hammarby Sjöstad together with Natalia. Hammarby has gone from being a former industrial site in the late 1980s to a sustainable neighborhood with cutting-edge holistic solutions that help its nearly 26,000 residents make significant energy savings while also saving money. The goal of the “Hammarby Model” is to integrate energy, water and waste to make the most efficient system possible. What was once a polluted area populated by squatters, has now become a coveted residential areas for young families and professionals due to its vast and family-friendly “green areas”, efficient garbage sorting system, district heating and goal of making it the first completely electric car area by 2020. Hammarby Sjostad has become a global example of sustainability, and has over 13,000 visitors per year. Our city representatives, along with Natalia, were able to place a peg on a map of the world for all visitors. The map depicted visitors from Canada to China, Norway to Saudi Arabia.
In a similar fashion, the U.S. cities we met have adopted a number of sustainable initiatives. Council member Kraft of Baltimore told us that a 2.25% tax increase on downtown parking has allowed the city to offer free public transport in the city center which has encouraged residents to leave their cars at home. Mayor Coleman of St Paul informed us about his city’s district heating grid which is run on biomass. Considering St Paul was one of the main destinations for Swedish emigrants in the late 19th century, it is not too surprising that it was two Swedes who constructed the city’s district heating system a couple of decades back
Both Natalia and I were pleased to see how Swedish and U.S. cities are uniting to take the lead in urban sustainability. This goes for both large and small cities. Dubuque, a town of 60 000, and its mayor, Roy Buol, has shown how a small city can serve as a small scale test pilot for bigger cities. As an example, Dubuque recently teamed up with IBM to launch a brand new smart metering system that will allow the town’s residents to keep a close eye on their energy and water consumption as part of Dubuque being IBM’s test bed for its “Smarter Cities” initiative. The overall goal is for this system to be spread around the United States and around the world.
All politics truly is local – sustainability is no exception.