Find the Money in Bright Green Cities

Here’s a quick note on what might be a great project for a group of young economists/ policy wonks.

It’s my considered opinion that bright green cities — cities that emphasize good urbanism, compact development, walkability, transit and bikes; green building and updated infrastructure; energy efficiency and climate adaptation — are likely to be substantially more competitive in the near future than cities that follow more conventional (by North American standards) paths of development.

There’s lots of splotchy cost/benefit analysis of various solutions spaces out there. I’ve seen various studies on:

  • The health care savings of improving walkability and reducing air pollution.
  • The increased attractiveness to investors (and perhaps even greater insurability) of cities which have strong climate adaptation/ruggedization programs.
  • The benefit to homeowners in property values for walkable neighborhoods and the presence of parks and street trees.
  • The savings possible when families can ditch one or more cars because of ready access by proximity.
  • The “placemaking dividend” reported in New York City and other places, where existing shops near new plazas, newly pedestrian-friendly streets and new transit stations see a noted increase in revenue.
  • The lower summer energy use made possible by maintaining a healthy urban forest and reducing the heat island effect (and with a recent study showing heat’s negative impact on worker productivity, reducing heat build-up might also mean productivity gains).
  • The costs avoided by cities when their updated energy infrastructure is able to avoid failures and blackouts; the costs avoided through energy-efficient cities’ reduced vulnerability to energy shocks or increases in pollution costs (e.g. a carbon tax); the costs avoided by reducing flood risk and combined sewer overflows though the use of things like green infrastructure and wetlands; the health care and lost productivity costs avoided by reducing the frequency with which drivers hit pedestrians through traffic calming; etc. etc.
  • The economic resilience created by higher degrees of social cohesion and nonprofit density in cities with active social realms.
  • The education performance gains in children who walk to school, and other gains tied to children growing and eating fresh vegetables and fewer missed days of school due to less incidence of asthma and fewer car accidents in less auto-dependent places.
  • The economic competitiveness gained by early investment in rapidly growing industries; the competitiveness gains from job density; the competitiveness gains through lower energy and resource costs.

And that’s just off the top of my head while jotting down a quick blog post…

But here’s what I haven’t seen: any ambitious effort to draw all of these cost/benefit analyses together and find out what the overall economic effect on a city of a bold move towards bright green policies might be. Is it true or not that addressing many of these solutions at once would actually improve the economy of that city? By how much? How quickly.

There are plenty of studies out there on various component parts of such a shift. Now, I’m sure some of these kinds of study are done with better data and more rigorous methodologies than others, and some of the findings (even of the best-executed studies) are likely more robust than others. Then, too, some of these studies are likely measuring the same effects in different ways.

Furthermore, in order to study many of these effects, you’d likely have to make some pretty big judgment calls and educated guesses about what rates of change are realistic/possible and the dynamics between the effects themselves.

Are there, for instance, positive feedback loops between the health benefits of walking/biking and the degree of sociability/sidewalk vitality good urbanism nurtures? My experiences and observations would lead me to assume so, as vital streets perhaps draw more people out of their homes, and healthier people are perhaps more likely to take longer and more frequent walks/ bike rides (and thus add to the sociability of the city). But I definitely don’t know that to be true. Point is, these are enmeshed systems, and it would take a systems view to find a true understanding of the interplay of these trends.

So, it would take a lot of digging, some clear thinking and some non-trivial model building to take a good stab at this, but, that said, there’s a small mountain of evidence already out there to sort through, evaluate and assess the connections between.

What’s more, I think answering to the questions “Would a bright green city be more or less economically competitive?” and “What strategy-sets best deliver both environmental benefits and economic performance at the city level?” would be both fascinating and truly useful. It might not be the kind of thing that makes an academic career, but it would certainly be the kind of thing that gets you some pretty great job offers in consulting, think tanks and government.

I hope some bright economists out there are up for challenge…

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