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Green Metropolis

To have any hope of containing global warming, we have to bring people and prosperity back to our cities.

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Green-collar stimulus packages and green jobs have become the new buzz words for turning the green movement into an economic generator. But there are more important reasons to turn the economy green: It could become a tool to save our cities, and begin chipping away at inner-city poverty.

To get there, here are four points to consider:

It was reported last week that worldwide carbon emissions have been rising at the rate of roughly 3.5 percent a year during the 2000s, compared to just 0.9 percent growth in the 1990s, despite the scientific consensus that we need to cut carbon emissions dramatically, as soon as possible, if we are to have any hope of containing the impact of global warming. We're accelerating a trend we should be reversing.

Second, there's the projected population growth of the United States during the next 40 years. The most recent U.S. Census estimates suggest that by 2050, we'll have 439 million people, up from 281 million in 2000 and a little more than 306 million today. Obviously those new people are going to have to live somewhere.

Third, consider that in 2006, the Richmond area had (according to County Business Pattern data) some 11,935 persons employed in manufacturing, down from 20,111 in 2000. Even before the recent downturn, this city had lost 40 percent of its jobs in traditionally the best-paid blue-collar sector. Petersburg experienced a 20-percent decline in its manufacturing jobs during this same period. These trends are not isolated local developments but part of a long-term national decline in manufacturing jobs.

The last point is that I live in Richmond in a house built in 1923. My wife and I have already spent a small fortune this winter on heating bills, even though we're often chilly at night on the main floor.

Clearly, getting a handle on carbon emissions will require drastic improvements in energy efficiency and the reduction of wasteful forms of consumption. But there's going to be absolutely no way to do that and accommodate the anticipated population growth by continuing our current development pattern of sprawling outward expansion at the same time that our older central city and suburban neighborhoods are neglected.

To have any hope of containing global warming, we have to bring people and prosperity back to our cities.

But it's going to be very difficult to do that unless we confront a painful reality: People who live in suburban communities report a higher quality of life than people who live in denser central cities. Decades after white flight, many people still aspire to escape cities as soon as they get the means to do so and there are many, many parents with children who simply would not dream of moving to the city to raise their children.

To make central cities more attractive, prosperous places, we must confront head-on the question of urban poverty and urban economic development. Environmentalism and just economic development must go hand-in-hand. That's the central message of Oakland activist Van Jones' terrific new book, “The Green Collar Economy,” the best primer to date on both the substance and the politics of a green-job strategy.

Unfortunately, improving urban quality of life often becomes a euphemism for trying to make poverty more invisible. We must instead become clear that the goal is to get rid of poverty, not get rid of poor people. Green jobs weatherizing homes and refurbishing buildings, and the job training that goes with such undertakings, can make an important contribution to that goal. To do it the right way, we must make sure that green jobs are also good jobs and that low- and middle-income residents here in Richmond have access to the new jobs that will be created.

Green jobs can improve urban quality of life and help fight sprawl by reducing poverty; they can do so another way as well: by helping cut the heating bill of my family and neighbors, as well as yours. An abundance of old houses is one of Richmond's strengths. They make for beautiful, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. But many of the older houses, including the one we bought 18 months ago, are terribly wasteful of energy. Programs to weatherize these houses would be a big boost to the quality of life in Richmond. In Milwaukee, for example, the city is launching a partnership with the local utility and private leaders to provide up-front financial assistance to pay for weatherization work, which is then paid back over time through reductions in household heating bills. There's no reason Richmond couldn't offer a similar program. 

Indeed, the next logical step in advancing green jobs here in Richmond is to take inventory of the opportunities to expand that sector, capitalizing on resources we already have as well as resources provided by the stimulus package. Going green must be embraced by our city government and must become a focal point of our future economic-development efforts. There are many examples around the country of municipalities creating green jobs through both public investments and incentives for private investments that local policymakers should study and draw on. Washington has established a Green Jobs Advisory Council, and Richmond, Calif., is working with local nonprofits to train workers to install solar panels.

In his book, Jones speculates that a “cooler president will make for a cooler planet.” I don't think there's any doubt that we have a cooler president, and the roughly $80 billion in support for green jobs and energy in the just-passed stimulus bill will help get the ball rolling in important ways. But whether that encouraging start translates into a cooler planet depends on what happens not only in Washington, but also on civic and political leaders in Richmond and other metropolitan areas making a serious long-term commitment to simultaneously green our cities, reduce our carbon footprint, and improve urban quality of life for everyone. S

Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and the author of two books on urban politics and policy: “Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era” and “Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life.”

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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