The Art of Building Green Cities
A conversation with Sadhu Johnston, former City Manager of Vancouver and Chief Environmental Officer of Chicago.
Governance Matters: You have helped two cities become global leaders in sustainability. How did you embark on a career path specialising in green city initiatives?
Sadhu Johnston: I grew up all over the world. I was born in England and raised in India. I have lived in Germany and England, before moving to the United States, and now I live in Canada. I moved a lot as a kid and I neither lived in communities that were traditional, nor did I have a traditional educational background.
When I was young, one of my jobs in the community was sorting material that came out of construction sites. So, I had that experience early on in life — being able to see how even little bits of pipe and two-by-four pieces of wood could be reused. That was how I started on a path of thinking differently about waste.
When I was in high school, I started a recycling programme. The headmaster of the school even dubbed me the “czar of recycling” for the school. And for my graduation project during my senior year, I worked with the local recycling facility, helping high-rise buildings start recycling programmes.
By the time I got to university, I remember the media portraying cities as the bad actors — as places that generate waste and as huge greenhouse gas emitters — after all, cities generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. It then occurred to me that we would not be able to address the climate crisis without tackling cities. This realisation sparked my interest in green cities and it has translated into my choice of careers. I have been working on climate issues in cities for almost 20 years now.
What, in your opinion, is the definition of a successful “green city”?
It probably differs depending on where you are in the world, but generally, I see a successful green city as one that is able to offer a high quality of life for its people with a light footprint on the planet — one that uses natural systems in a way that is beneficial for both nature and the community.
There are many ways that this can manifest: providing alternatives for people to get around without having to drive in a fossil fuel car, creating compact communities where people can walk and bike around for daily necessities, ensuring that there is agricultural land around the city where food can be grown so the food does not travel thousands of miles, or that the city features buildings that use renewable energy etc.
In Chicago, where I worked as the Chief Environmental Officer for the mayor’s office, there was a huge heatwave. Many cities, and Chicago is no exception, experience heat waves because there is so much asphalt and concrete that absorbs all the heat during the day when the sun’s out and then the heat is released at night. The mayor asked me to work on using natural systems to cool the city. Rather than installing massive air conditioners (they just produce more heat anyway), we started to look for more natural ways to cool the city such as planting trees and installing green roofs. To me, cities that make it a point to find solutions such as these are the cities that embody what a green city is all about.
An article published in the National Observer1 says you believed that managing a city is about designing change and setting an example. Can you explain more about that?
Before any government starts telling people what to do and creating laws, the government needs to first lead by example. If we are going to try and get people to use electric vehicles or to bike and walk to places, we need to first learn how to do this ourselves.
In Vancouver for example, we created a district energy system that was owned and operated by the city. We would take the heat from the sewage that was coming out of downtown and use it to heat other buildings. It was a system that was owned and operated by the city. Such approaches can then be developed into policy or mandates to get the private sector and homeowners to pursue similar strategies.
Another example from Vancouver: the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the city came from heating our buildings. So, as a city we started to look at how we could reduce this. We discovered a technology called a heat pump — where you can drill into the ground and use the ambient temperature of the Earth in the air. We installed a massive heat pump at City Hall as a trial to see if it would work in a larger building. Through that, we created policies and programmes in partnership with our local energy utilities to encourage homeowners and businesses to install similar technologies. This is what I mean by designing change.
What initiatives are you most proud of from your tenure?
Many environmentalists now — particularly in the context of a city — are thinking about how to reduce carbon emissions from cities. The Climate Action Plan that my team and I worked on in Chicago was one of the first initiatives that came out of a city in North America that thought about climate change, the impact that it would have in our community, and what needed to be done to adapt to that.
The question that we asked ourselves then was: what do we need to do to improve the conditions in our own community and be ready for the changes that were coming? So, we partnered with leading universities, where we evaluated what changes were going to come to the community, and then started to plan around that: for example, more extreme storms, more extreme rain, and more extreme summer heat.
In many ways, that action plan really was memorable for me because it was pioneering in terms of having an immediate response for any issue that could potentially arise while also factoring in long-term plans so that the city was ready for the changes that were coming. Ultimately, the people that tend to be the most negatively affected are often the most vulnerable, and so it is absolutely critical to plan ahead and protect them.
This was almost 20 years ago, so in many ways, Chicago was really a pioneer in terms of climate-change-related adaptation and resilience planning. It was a challenge because there were some who questioned why we were focusing on climate change when it was unlikely to happen in our lifetime or others who did not consider it a real problem. But maybe because we had experienced the heatwave, Mayor Daley, the mayor at the time, was aware that climate change was real and it had to be taken seriously.
To him, it was important that we were future-proofing the city, which includes thinking about the type of trees planted, changing the way we build roads, sidewalks, and buildings, all the way to how to deal with rising sea levels to avoid flooding.
When you look at good governance and what makes things work, you really need a political leader who is able to drive an agenda and who will empower their staff to be informed and take action. That was what we saw in Chicago then. The funny thing is some of the naysayers actually contacted me recently and said that they were wrong then — climate change is absolutely a critical issue now.
The perception is that sustainability initiatives require a lot of upfront investment, and can take years — decades, even — to pay off, which in turn can lead to green initiatives facing two powerful headwinds: political systems that often prioritise short-term results over long-term thinking; and public finances that have been historically strained by COVID-19. Is it harder today for a city to become “greener” than it was five years ago? Are you optimistic for the future of green cities?
Many cities have been working to reshape the public realm by providing more space for walking, biking, and gathering, which have often been very challenging and controversial. COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of outdoor spaces, so cities have been able to make considerable strides in providing them creatively. In those ways, COVID-19 has supported a shift to greener communities, but in other ways, COVID-19 has exacerbated constrained financial resources as funds are needed to address COVID-19 challenges, such as increased sanitation.
While climate change, housing prices, and other issues continue to challenge the quality of life in our cities, overall, I am optimistic for the future of greening our cities as people see the benefits of addressing these issues head on. Thankfully, city leaders are increasingly recognising that the liveability of cities in the future will depend on proactively tackling climate change and adopting resilience approaches.
You mentioned using climate policy as a tool to address equity. Can you give us an example of how that works?
Think about the concept of transit. Many policies have been introduced to encourage people not to use private cars — such as imposing congestion charges, and reallocating road space for bus lanes and bike lanes. Yet because of rising costs of living, many less-affluent people have to live further out of town. These people often rely on being able to drive to work, especially if there is limited access to transit. In such cases, climate policies can end up affecting people disproportionately.
Or, for example, many cities are trying to shift the communities to electric vehicles. Policies to incentivise the use of electric vehicles such as free parking or free charging may inadvertently only benefit the more affluent who can afford to buy electric vehicles, as those vehicles are more expensive. Are we disadvantaging those who cannot afford an electric vehicle to park in the city? We must guard against the law of unintended consequences.
Can you share lessons or advice to city managers or environmental officers looking to “green” their cities?
It is important that the people working within government are informed and connected to their peers. When I was in Chicago, I was in a senior leadership position within the organisation, but I did not know anyone else in a similar position as me. I did not have any peers to connect with. It is different now; there are many more environment specialists working for cities. Connect with your peers to share stories and knowhow. Building a community of peers is absolutely critical.
Also, look to address challenges in your own community. For instance, I spoke about with the heatwave in Chicago — it was important that we were addressing a problem rather than just trying to address climate change. It is hard to think about climate change until you think about how it affects your own community because climate change as a concept can be quite ephemeral.
Finally, I would recommend taking an equity-first perspective. How do I pursue energy efficiency programmes in a way that can be also be used to address equity? Proactively addressing climate policy and equity together is important, and something that is currently missing in this space.
What are some concrete steps that city governments can take to tackle a global, complex issue like climate change?
Climate change cannot be addressed successfully without cities at the table. Cities are placed on the lowest rung of the ladder when it comes to power and government, but more than half the world’s population live in cities. And so, when major floods or heat waves occur, cities are where people are affected, not to mention that is also where most carbon emissions are produced. We will not succeed in addressing climate issues if city authorities are not fully empowered and are not at the table addressing climate change.
Also, cities have a lot of tools to tackle the issue of climate change. Development that happens in cities often falls under the remit of city governments. Cities are able to reallocate road space and are in a position to make it more convenient to travel without owning private cars. In Vancouver, we encouraged our citizens to compost in their backyard and gave each household a bin to collect all the organic waste that could be separated from garbage. And then we changed the schedule to pick up garbage every other week, but we picked up organics weekly. All we did was shift the garbage pick-up timing, but suddenly the rate of composting in the city went up. The key is to lead by example by changing things in a city’s infrastructure to nudge changes in behaviour: when people can see that they work positively, the impact can be manifold.
CIG expresses appreciation to Apolitical for their support for this interview.
Sadhu Johnston focuses on how cities work, how they can be improved, and how they are evolving. He was the City Manager of Vancouver, BC from March 2016 until January 2021 where he spearheaded initiatives to address housing, homelessness, and climate change issues. He was the Chief Environmental Officer of Chicago from 2005 to 2009, leading the development of the first climate action plan in a major North American city. He is co-author of “The Guide to Greening Cities” (Island Press, 2013) and is a co-founder of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network.