Remember that old real estate adage, location, location, location? There’s a parallel theme among green advocates: Local, local, local. They want more local food, local attention to water and wildlife, businesses that keep jobs in communities, mass transit that reaches neighborhoods, farms connected to cities, and so on.

Barbara Kessler

This is nothing new. We like our cities and somehow, they’ve gotten away from us, whether they’ve become a sprawling, sterile suburb or a congested, irritable metropolis. We yearn for something friendlier and more cohesive. We seek out “local flavor” when we vacation, surely a sign we want more when we’re at home.

Even Walmart, long villified for pushing local businesses out of town, has come around in its thinking, recently announcing an effort to stock more local food (hey, it can be cheaper too).

Lately, I’ve noticed how even this year’s candidates are trying to “out local” each other, whether they realize it or not.

Conservatives are sounding a familiar drumbeat about local control and not letting “Washington decide” everything. The Tea Partiers are clearly all about local control, of schools, businesses, and in some cases, taxes. In some races, where Tea Partiers are not just errant Republicans, but outright libertarians, they would wrest control of nearly everything except defense (and “border control” but I’m not going there today) from the federal government.

Neighborhood Aerial (Photo: B. Riley)

Green candidates, a tiny, tiny minority in the U.S., have long championed localism, and weirdly seem to meet the libertarians, at the far ends of the spectrum. Many greens are as deeply suspicious of global corporations as libertarians are of the state. Locavores want to shake off the shackles of industrialized food; they want farmers and consumers to come together at a micro-level, through farmers markets and CSA alliances, and without heavy federal interference.

That old mantra “Think Globally, Act Locally” applies to a lot of green activities, which are championed by cities and states tired of waiting for  Congress to take action.

Which brings us to the Democrats. They’re also for apple pie, I mean, local empowerment, though they’re a little fuzzier in messaging this. (Too much wonk-speak.)

Thursday, the Obama Administration sought to highlight its support for greening communities, an intrinsically local concept, with its Sustainable Communities program.

The program, managed by a partnership of the EPA, HUD and the DOT that was previously announced, aims to bring everyone together to envision and create more  sustainable cities. The federal agencies would join with local ones to build affordable housing, close to quality education and job centers, while protecting and preserving the natural environment and tying it all neatly together with greener transportation.

Picture bike paths, light rail, repurposed urban factories, recycling centers, corner stores, safe schools, green spaces to filter water and welcome picnics.

Having the three agencies involved from the git-go will allegedly trim expenses, avoid overlap and streamline the process, avoiding all that costly red tape we hear so much about.

Can it work? Time will tell, and people will gauge its success through their Republican, Democratic, Libertarian or Green filters.

The core idea, though, of applying federal expertise and direction to local efforts to remake cities should be alluring to anyone concerned about sprawl, pollution, failing urban schools, affordable housing and American job losses.

We need cities that are more tightly knit, but not congested with pollution; places where people and commerce and schools can thrive and are not divorced from clean air, water and food.

Now if you’re a conservative, you may say, the feds, they just won’t get it right. But if you’re OK with that federal control, perhaps even believe that these big agencies can bring some knowledge and economies of scale, you might be glad for this master plan. Cities, particularly members of the ICLEI group who’ve signed on to try to cool the planet, should be heartened by these developments. ICLEI believes cities, where two-thirds of the world population will be living by 2050, must take the lead in climate action because they are the de facto epicenters of the sustainability movement.

Over the next two weeks,  the Obama Administration will be announcing more specifics of its sustainable cities program, such as who will be getting pieces of the$409.5 million in federal investments in sustainable cities (yes, it’s election eve, time to hand out goodies).

Money will be devoted to:

  • Reclaiming brownfields (often, though not always a good idea) in 23 pilot project areas.
  • Grants for cities, tribes and regional groups to create plans to better “integrate” neighborhoods with businesses, education and other enterprises. To make them more walkable, for instance.
  • Transportation plans that “connect the dots” for cities trying to improve their competitiveness and sustainability.
  • Seven communities and one state will receive special technical help from the EPA in developing a sustainable model that addresses climate change adaptation, water improvements, green infrastructure, historic preservation and sustainable design.

Success, as we said, will rest with the details, coordination and execution of these federal/city collaborations.

American cities present a tall order. They need better jobs, successful schools, affordable housing (as a New York gubernatorial candidate has famously said, “rent’s too damn high”) and they must shun sprawl, innovate to reduce waste and curb emissions to keep citizens healthy, attract new businesses and mitigate climate change. They need to green up, quickly.

Local redevelopment. It should be something we can all agree upon.

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