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The Suburban Ripple Effect of Sustainable Cities

The Suburban Ripple Effect of Sustainable Cities
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Last year, the town of Chelsea, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb of about 40,000 people, was looking to spend some of its federal stimulus money on a pretty big procurement for a community of its size: 60 LED streetlights. The technology, while widely used now in home and office buildings, has yet to appear (and save energy) on many city streets, and Chelsea was planning a pilot project.

"The difficulty for a small community like Chelsea is that our procurement officer is also the deputy city manger who’s also worried about contract negotiations and day-to-day operations," says Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash. "We don’t have the resources to go out and necessarily search high and low for the best prices, or to look for partnerships around us."

Just how big is the city staff of Chelsea, Massachusetts?

"You’re talking to him," Ash jokes over the phone. Seriously, though, it’s him and three other people: a building manager, a director of the department of public works, and the finance guy. In the realm of sustainability, this means smaller suburbs and outlying towns like Chelsea are among the least well positioned to tackle energy-efficiency initiatives, especially those on the leading edge of technology.

A couple of miles to the south, however, Boston has been rolling out its own LED infrastructure. And it has 64,000 streetlights. Ash and Jim Hunt, the chief of environment and energy for the city of Boston, got to talking about this at a conference last year, and Boston invited Chelsea to buy into its contract. Chelsea got not 60 streetlights, but 100. The pilot was a hit. And now the city council has approved $750,000 to buy 1,600 new lights to cover the entire community.

"Cities by nature are natural aggregators," Hunt says. "We aggregate people, we aggregate demand, and if you can harness that in a coordinated way, you can help build markets."

Much has been said about how cities must lead on sustainability and climate change when national governments have not. But they also must do so from the other direction, because smaller communities and the suburbs around them don’t have that capacity, either.

In Boston, decisions on everything from street lighting to energy retrofits to recycling have rippled far beyond the city’s borders. This happens – and is happening in metros everywhere – because big cities can afford someone with Jim Hunt’s title, because they have the buying power to create demand and lower prices for new technology, and because when cities change, markets change with them. In the world of sustainability, cities have tens of thousands of streetlights, recycling bins, power customers, transit riders, office buildings and homeowners on which everyone else can ride, too.

By the end of this year, Boston will have installed 23,000 LED streetlights (with an annual energy savings to the city so far of $2.8 million). It has also spent $2.5 million distributing massive, 64-gallon recycling bins throughout the city to convert residents to single-stream recycling. When Boston made that decision, its recycling provider, Casella Recycling, invested $6 million to upgrade its facility to convert to single-stream materials as well (National Geographic has a nice video of how the high-tech facility now sorts through Boston’s single-stream mess here).

That pricey investment would have made no sense if a small suburb wanted to remodel its recycling program. But because a city of 600,000 people did, other communities in the area now can, as well.

"We move the market," Hunt says.

Just think of how much Chicago can move a market, or L.A., or New York City.

"We’re all stretched for time to do everything we need to do," says Ash, who recognizes that Chelsea simply can't tackle many of the sustainability initiatives it would like to on its own. "It's an important thing, but it’s also important we worry about schools and pave our roads and things like that. So we’re all looking for somebody to come in and take a lead."

Top image: Mastering_Microstock /Shutterstock.com

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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