What Does Every Great City Have in Common? Efficiency

August 18, 2014 | Jessica Lawrence

If you’re looking for a change of scenery and are considering moving to a city, chances are your first thought is to scan the web to learn about different cities and what other people think about them. As you leisurely (or frantically) peruse opinion pieces, “Best Of’s”, “Top Ten” lists, and trusted blogs, chances are you’ll quickly discover that most of the list-makers are increasingly environmentally conscious and are working towards a more sustainable future.

There are many ideas out there about what a sustainable city looks like. IBM would like you to live in a Smarter City, where everything is connected through the power of the internet to make libraries, transportation, and city services, well, smarter.  Vancouver has aspirations to become the World’s Greenest City – by 2020 – with targets ranging from air quality to percentage of trips completed on foot. And as you look further you may uncover a number of Emerald Cites, C40 Cities, and City Energy Project cities.

Although the ideas and initiatives to make cities cleaner, healthier, and more sustainable are myriad, a careful analysis of the best cities reveals a few striking similarities—many of  them based on an underlying push towards efficiency in various forms.

Efficiency is a great thing. It can be used to describe how much money you save on your utility bill or how a package gets from Santa Monica to Washington, DC in just a few days. It can be used to describe the route you take from home to work, the amount of water you save in a load of laundry, the Uber that just picked you up while you checked your email, or a subway train that arrives every 3 minutes. And, it can be the underpinnings of an environmentally conscious city — one that uses its resources wisely and makes decisions that reduce pollution (aka inefficiency) in the forms of vehicle exhaust, trash, and electricity usage, among other resources.

It turns out that a city with strong sustainability or green goals talks a lot about efficiency. It asks its citizens and businesses to contribute by taking their bicycles instead of their cars to work, keeping the mechanical systems in their houses or business properties properly tuned, and reusing their canvas bags at the grocery store, (lest you get the guilt-inducing look from the grocery store clerk when s/he asks you if you need non-reusable bags today). These are all examples of how efficiency is the underlying mechanism by which waste is reduced. 

At IMT, we’re all about helping people reduce waste. We look for the barriers to maximum efficiency and figure out ways to break through them. Through our research, best practice sharing, and collaboration, we’re creating new levels of energy use transparency, finding new tools to help finance improvements, and setting higher standards for economically and environmentally healthy cities.

Like many of America’s top cities, IMT believes that efficiency is a key ingredient to creating a healthier, more sustainable place to live. One of the most effective ways to make significant improvements is to increase the energy efficiency of the buildings that surround us – which reduces pollution and increases savings on utility bills. The buildings we inhabit and work in are a big part of any city’s environment, and we use a significant amount of energy to keep them running day and night. In 2013, 40 percent of total U.S. energy was consumed in buildings–that’s why IMT works with cities across the country to help them figure out how to incorporate energy efficiency in buildings into their sustainability roadmaps.

We work with cities large and small, and as a partner with the Natural Resources Defense Council on the City Energy Project, IMT is working with 10 cities across the country that have ambitious sustainability goals and are ready to tackle the important challenge of buildings and the resources we consume through them.

“Hold on just a minute!” you say, “I want to live in a place where the sidewalks are paved with red bricks, and the tree leaves get all over the place. I want to live where there are traffic circles (supposedly efficient, but as far as I can tell the jury’s still out) and the streets follow Olmstead’s path. Efficiency is great and all, but I’ll take a beautiful city over an efficient one any day.” IMT thinks that’s a false argument, since we know that green can also be beautiful and energy efficiency and aesthetics can go hand in hand. Which brings up an interesting point–Can all sustainability or green goals be reduced to efficiency? Perhaps not–and perhaps they shouldn’t be. But it sure seems like a good place to start.

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Jessica Lawrence

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