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May 182009
 

By Harriet Blake

America’s urban centers are becoming ever greener, with the National League of Cities holding its first ever Green Cities Conference last month. While many cities have recently taken up environmental causes, some have been carrying the banner for years.

Seattle, home to such earlier innovations as the ’60s Space Needle, Microsoft, and grunge rock, is one such green leader.

In 2008, Seattle was anointed the nation’s leader in LEED-certified buildings by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), culminating an eight-year-old sustainable building policy calling for city-funded projects to be LEED-qualified at the silver level.

Seattle also can boast about its:

  • Impressive bike trails system with about 30 trails and 20 bike lanes, making bike commuting commonplace in Seattle, home to the Cascade Bicycle Club, which claims to be the nation’s largest bicycle club
  • Community-based home energy efficiency program, called SWITCH, that started last year and has sent neighbors door-to-door with thousands of CFL light bulbs.
  • Climate initiative, begun in 2005, which sets city targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who was elected in 2002, is a strong advocate for environmental stewardship. He introduced the city’s Climate Protection Initiative after the federal government chose to not participate in the Kyoto Protocol target for reducing climate pollution. That target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

“I felt there was an opportunity for us to take action at a local level,” said Nickels in a recent interview.

The mayor says his “aha” moment came in 2004-05. “We had a very warm winter that year, and there wasn’t much snow in the mountains. That impacted our water supply and our power, since we rely mostly on hydroelectric power. It occurred to me that global warming affects every corner of the globe, including ours.

“This is something we urgently need to address for our future, and our children’s,” he says.

In 2006, Mayor Nickels asked other mayors to join him in the US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Beginning with nine mayors, the group now numbers 910. These mayors represent more than 82 million people from all 50 states and are a “real political force that will continue to impact national policy,” he says.

Seattle CAN

Seattle Climate Action Now, or Seattle CAN, also began about this time. The city-led program partners with local businesses and organizations to provide residents with the tools needed at home and work to put an end to global warming. The Seattle CAN website helps citizens calculate their carbon footprint with a link to ZeroFootprint Seattle. Here residents can sign in and learn steps to reduce their family’s carbon footprint.

The site provides commonsense advice, such as driving less; replacing incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones; turning off and unplugging computers and cellphone chargers; changing furnace and air-conditioning filters regularly; installing weather stripping anywhere there is a draft; turning down the thermostat at night and when away from home; insulating the attic; running the dishwasher only when full; installing water-saving devices such as low-flow shower heads; and reducing the size of trash by recycling and buying less stuff.

There’s also an events calendar for climate-related events like Seattle’s Celebrate Summer Streets festivals.

A recent poll shows that three out of every four Seattle residents are taking actions to lessen their carbon footprint, says the mayor (center of photo at green event this year).

“With our ‘Climate Action Now’ campaign, Seattle is making great progress engaging and motivating our residents and business to fight global warming,” Nickels says. “Last year, we distributed more than 10,000 home energy kits to our residents. Our electric utility was successful in distributing more than 1.4 million compact fluorescent bulbs to Seattle homes and businesses.”