Let’s start building more sustainable cities

Stephen Colbert did his civic duty when he declared his candidature for the US Presidency.  His tongue-in-cheek foray into politics was not taken too seriously given his comedic nature.   Apparently the polling numbers were quite high, which can be explained by the attraction of celebrity and his “truthiness”.  Other examples have been Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor and even Clint Eastwood who became mayor of Carmel, California for a time.

In the municipal elections taking place on May 12, 2008 in New Brunswick, you don’t have to be a superstar to take part.  But being a candidate is a tough act.  Those running have a belief that they possess a unique quality that is required by their fellow citizens – some might call this a really big ego.  Many good candidates will be publicly dumped on Election Day, humiliated for having lost in a popularity contest, the equivalent of not being picked for a team at school.

Yet we continue to have candidates, so the rewards must be of considerable significance to subject themselves to this process.  It can’t be money, as the salary of a councillor is fairly modest.  The real reward is contributing, and being a part of shaping public policy for the betterment of other citizens.

For many years, I’ve avoided the temptation to put my name in the ring for city council.  First, I’m not sure my ego is big enough, although being elected might augment its size.   It’s true that my average sized brain slipped past its peak effectiveness ten years ago.   Writing this column on energy and politics might be seen by the public as part of the necessary qualifications.

Many of you perceive that the world, as we have known it, is changing and not necessarily for the better.  The price of commodities such as oil, uranium, wheat, corn among others are rising rapidly, salaries are not keeping pace and we suspect that the economic system is a “ponzi” or pyramid scheme that requires constant growth.  Given a world with limited resources and 6.6 billion people means that a considerable adjustment will eventually happen.  The question is when and that time is not of our choosing.

The different levels of government each have a responsibility area.  The municipality is the closest to the average citizen and can play an important role in building a sustainable society.   Consider the city of Freiburg, Germany where cycling is part of the culture, where subdivisions are being designed on a sustainable basis, where building codes mandate a low level of energy use in the design stage.  Active and passive solar is part of the heating systems.

Here in Canada, some thought is being given to the eco-footprint of our cities and our personal lifestyles.  Firstly, if we’re using too many units of energy per person or per square kilometer, then we can work on bringing structural changes or efficiencies into play.  For example, some communities are encouraging people to forgo ownership of a car by better public transport and the use of car-shares, where groups “borrow” a car when they require one. Example – Zipcar operates in many US cities with 2500 cars, 90,000 registered drivers with one vehicle replacing 15 privately owned vehicles.  Other examples are Cooperative Carsharing of Edmonton, Autoshare of Toronto, CommunAuto of Montreal, among others.

Secondly, we have to look at the quality of energy that we are using.  For example, when cities mandate that electric power used within their boundaries is generated by sustainable means, a clear message is sent to other levels of government that action is required.  Too often, municipalities do not take a leadership role and assume that appropriate decisions will be made on their behalf.

There are two basic ways to proceed with saving energy, our planet and our own lives.  One is to let the individual make all the choices to conserve.  Human nature tends to let the decision go until it is too late.  General Motors will continue to market the Tahoe hybrid as the green car of the year.  Corporations just love to divide and conquer the consumer.

A different approach is to build a structure of society that permits and encourages good energy choices.  The use of building codes and zoning to encourage high density and low energy consumption, the design of a society around people’s needs and not the needs of cars would reduce consumption without difficulty by citizens.

We have tried the competitive society and it has led us to near disaster environmentally and in the use of resources to their depletion.  Should we wait until gas is $2, $3 or $4 a litre before we try a co-operative planned approach to city design.

There, I’ve convinced myself to run for councillor.  Now, I have until April 11 to find 10 people who won’t fall down laughing when I tell them what I’m doing.   Do I care whether I win or lose?  Yes, I want to win, but the possibility of losing won’t stop me from trying.

Can we transform our cities? Yes we can!  If you are reading this column, you may have the vision to lead your community or support someone who will.  Think about it.  Act. Let’s build a tidal wave of change that is an inspiration for other provinces.   Time is running out.