- Cities can play a critical role in advancing U.S. recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting green and equitable infrastructure projects, according to a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
- The "Coming Back Stronger" report says if cities invest in clean infrastructure policies across six sectors — access and mobility, buildings, power, broadband internet, water and natural green space — they can prepare infrastructure for the future and be better positioned to fight the effects of climate change.
- The report also calls for more support from the federal government, not just in terms of direct financial investment from Congress but also through the sharing of subject-matter expertise and by instituting national standards around building codes and renewable energy portfolios.
As cities look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and see an opportunity to shape what many have termed the "new normal" of a post-pandemic world, RMI and Bloomberg Philanthropies said investing in these six areas of infrastructure could make a significant impact.
Some of those investments include reclaiming the space originally reserved for cars for alternative modes of transportation; undertaking a national effort to fit new and existing buildings with more energy efficient features; decarbonizing the power grid; and expanding broadband access and providing clean drinking water, among others.
Rather than addressing each sector individually, the report urges city leaders to address them holistically through a comprehensive planning policy that takes into account land-use and other factors, as the interactions between those six sectors can be tremendous. The report notes that a number of cities have already started to address some of those sectors through local-level innovations.
"Putting the right housing policies in place has the effect of reducing transportation emissions," said Rushad Nanavatty, RMI senior principal and a report co-author. "Putting in building codes that then lead to real interactivity between buildings in the grid helps eliminate power sector emissions, making better use of natural systems has the effect of radically reducing energy consumption associated with cooling, and the requirements to build out gray or human-made infrastructure."
The definition of infrastructure is broad, Nanavatty said. It includes natural systems like parkland, trees and other green areas that provide an alternative to human-made infrastructure to enhance the well-being of residents. "In many ways, natural systems and policies manifest themselves in a variety of different ways in cities, underpinning the human-made infrastructure that in turn underpins the economy that cities host, shape and grow," Nanavatty said.
In terms of a comprehensive approach to land-use planning to support all six of those sectors, the report reserves special praise for Portland, OR. The city has tapped land-use to address challenges related to mobility, energy, housing, natural systems and resilience. Portland can offer "very profound lessons" for other cities in taking this approach, which has included banning exclusionary zoning earlier this year, Nanavatty said.
Cities have taken a crucial leadership role in the last four years when it comes to fighting the effects of climate change, but this will continue as cities are "closer to the action" than any other level of government and are the most responsible for direct service provision to residents, he said.
Cities have also shown higher levels of ambition and innovation in their policymaking than those in the upper echelons of government, as policies are often born on the city level and then taken up at the state or federal level, Nanavatty said. He drew a parallel to the ban on smoking indoors, which began in cities, and said the recent trend of banning natural gas in new buildings could make a similar move upwards.
With the federal government likely to be more engaged on the issue of climate change under President-elect Joe Biden, Nanavatty said the relationship between cities and the administration will be "night and day" compared to the last four years under President Trump. Indeed, in a recent address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM), Biden pledged to forge strong partnerships between all levels of government.
Even without extra financial help from Congress, Nanavatty said cities will have a "much more expansive and robust toolkit" from the information-sharing and standards-setting likely to come from the new administration.
But while cities continue to count the economic costs from the pandemic and call for help from Congress, Nanavatty said federal investment has been effective in creating jobs and infrastructure when funneled through cities, including through the New Deal in the 1930s and the stimulus package after the 2008 financial crash. USCM has been among those to call for extra funding help for local governments.
"That becomes even more important in today's context, when so many cities, especially ones that are more reliant on sales and income taxes, have been so hard hit by this pandemic," he said. "You have a whole raft of essential services being pretty severely compromised, and also the fact that even under more normal circumstances, cities would have been really be effective conduits for this funding, that makes a really compelling argument for directing more economic recovery dollars to them as well."