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Chicago's Smog-Eating Cement vs. NYC's Fancy Flood Maps

Which city will win the climate change preparation smackdown?

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Meanwhile, the city was experimenting with more advanced methods of green practices. Johnston and I left City Hall and walked a few blocks to an alleyway that led from the Goodman Theatre to the Chicago Theatre. At first glance, the alley didn't look unusual. But Johnston drew my attention to ground level. The sidewalk looked like normal cement, but in fact it was a substance known as permeable concrete that would help cope with the intense storms climate change would bring: Rain would seep into this substance rather than flash off into storm drains and increase flooding. "We're also experimenting with a special photocatalytic cement that was developed for the Vatican to keep the Millennium Church white," Johnston said. "Apparently this cement has a chemical reaction that causes it to eat smog. We're trying out these ideas at our first 'green street,' in the Pilsen neighborhood, to see what works. Infrastructure—the streets, lights, drainage systems—makes up 25 percent of Chicago. That is a huge green opportunity."

Interviewing Johnston the day before the 2008 presidential election, I asked if he would be moving to Washington to pursue a green agenda as part of the Obama administration. "No, cities are where it's at," he replied. "Cities are the economic engine of the country. They're where 80 percent of the population lives, so city governments can have a huge impact on environmental issues." Then a smile creased his boyish face and he added, "But it will be really nice to have some federal assistance for a change."

Little did Johnston know that some of the federal assistance would come from none other than Ron Sims. Although Sims had backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries, President Obama chose him in early 2009 to be the deputy secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In accepting the No. 2 post at the $39 billion agency, Sims said he looked forward to helping America "prepare for the age of global warming," adding, "Success can only come if we transform our major metropolitan areas." He soon showed what he had in mind. In June 2009, HUD joined with the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency to announce a Partnership for Sustainable Communities, an initiative that closely parallels policies Sims had championed in King County.

From now on, the announcement said, the federal government would "provide more transportation choices"—read: "encourage mass transit more than private vehicles." It would also "promote equitable, affordable housing"—read: "encourage developments like Greenbridge"—and "support existing communities"—read: "stop subsidizing sprawl."

True, announcing a policy in Washington is just the beginning of making it happen on the ground across the country. But the Partnership for Sustainable Communities represents a 180-degree shift in direction for the federal government. If Sims and his new colleagues can make good on their promises, they may inspire the tsunami of adaptation he yearned for, after all.

New York City

Richard Daley was not the only US big-city mayor following in Sims's footsteps. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City actually was slightly ahead of Daley in launching a comprehensive climate action plan. In a speech he delivered on Earth Day, 2007, to hundreds of government, business, and community leaders at the American Museum of Natural History, Bloomberg declared that coping with climate change was imperative to New York's future. As a coastal city, he pointed out, New York was particularly threatened by "rising sea levels and intensifying storms." Climate change would also worsen New York's already ferocious summertime heat and humidity and stress its water and energy supplies. Bloomberg urged facing these problems "not in the future, not when it's too late, but right now." Toward that end, his speech outlined a long-term sustainability plan for the city, a plan he called PlaNYC.

One of the most expensive proposals in PlaNYC was the investment it proposed to make in the aging system of aqueducts and tunnels that bring New York its water. The vast majority of New York's water originates in the Catskill and Delaware River watersheds, hundreds of miles away. Two massive tunnels deliver this water to the city. But neither tunnel had been inspected for more than 50 years; authorities literally had no idea what shape they were in. What they did know was that a failure in either tunnel would leave millions of New Yorkers without water. They also knew that climate change would increase the stress on the water system, because the northeast of the United States was projected to experience more volatile rainfall in the years to come, and this would produce larger pulses of water pouring through the tunnels. PlaNYC's solution was to urge the completion of the long-planned but always-postponed Water Tunnel No.r 3. Completing the tunnel would cost billions, but it would enable temporary closure of Water Tunnels 1 and 2 so engineers could inspect and modernize them. This was an investment the city could not afford not to make, Bloomberg argued.

Completing Water Tunnel No. 3 illustrates how adaptation is a win-win proposition, said Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior research scientist at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University and the chief science adviser on New York's plan. Under Rosenzweig's leadership, New York City had established what she called "a local version of the IPCC" to provide ongoing scientific advice to decision makers in both the public and the private sectors as they refined and implemented the vision of PlaNYC. Like the IPCC, the New York City Panel on Climate Change was composed of experts from a wide range of physical and social sciences; it issued its first report in February 2009.

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