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The Best Green Ideas of 2012

As we look back on the year that was, let’s honor some of the outstanding issues and accomplishments for community sustainability that came to light. In many cases, naming a particular item one of the best of 2012 may be a bit (not completely) arbitrary: by definition, sustainability is seldom a single “event” that occurs wholly within one calendar year. But, in each of these cases, something caught my attention this year.

Mine is a very personal list. Yours may differ, which is part of the fun. Let’s get to it.

Best community sustainability issue that reached critical mass this year: water. Maybe it’s that I work for NRDC, whose water team has become invested in community solutions in a big way. My colleagues published the second edition of our major green infrastructure report, Rooftops to Rivers, late last year, celebrating the efforts of cities across the country in solving serious runoff pollution problems with smart landscaping, green roofs, permeable paving and related approaches that also make dense neighborhoods healthier and more beautiful. This year, they followed up with another (and seriously wonky) report detailing how local and state governments can potentially stimulate billions of dollars in private investment in these solutions. And, as the year drew to a close, superstorm Sandy had demonstrated with terrible ferocity the importance of urban water management to a resilient future.

But, beyond NRDC’s work or individual storm events, a lot of good things happened in 2012 to mark significant progress in using soft approaches to cleaner watersheds. In particular, the federal EPA approved Philadelphia’s plan to deploy the most comprehensive green infrastructure program found in any American city; New York City announced that it, too, was embarking on a major green infrastructure program to reduce runoff and resulting sewage overflows; Washington, D.C., proposed a comprehensive zoning update that will include, among other things, green infrastructure requirements for new construction, and settled a lawsuit by agreeing to tighter deadlines for waterway cleanup.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jerry Wong

Meanwhile, the city of Chicago announced a program of small grants to help individual homeowners adopt “backyard” projects such as plantings and rain barrels that help clean the watershed; and, in Seattle, long a leader in these issues, Washington State University and the non-profit Stewardship Partners are working to install 12,000 rain gardens in Puget Sound communities by 2016. If you’re working on city sustainability and aren’t including clean water solutions in your portfolio, you’re not just overlooking a critical set of concerns but also missing a lot of creativity and excitement.

Best regional plans for thoughtful land use and transportation investment: the Southern California and Sacramento Sustainable Communities Strategies. The best work to emerge so far from the implementation of California’s SB 375, the state’s landmark smart growth legislation, these two plans tackle climate change by placing a majority of new homes and jobs in transit-accessible locations, reducing traffic and related carbon emissions, preserving single-family neighborhoods, and saving hundreds of square miles of farmland and open space. Now the plans must be carried out, of course, but the law’s mix of carrots and sticks makes me hopeful.

Best provocative new book: The Space Between. This one was a very tough call, given The Walkable City, Jeff Speck’s definitive work on how to shape cities that put people, not cars, first, and Chuck Marohn’s burning fiscal indictment of sprawl, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns. But my nod goes to Eric Jacobsen’s Christian case for cities, The Space Between, because of its freshness.

Best expansion of the green city vocabulary: Walk Appeal. This one comes from Steve Mouzon, who also gave us the apt phrase “original green” to describe buildings and communities that respond to environmental issues naturally rather than with technological add-ons. “Walk appeal” describes the extent to which a street or community induces us to use our feet simply because it’s enjoyable. (Honorable mention: Scott Doyon’s “pub shed.”)
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