At Moms Clean Air Force our mission is to mobilize parents to fight for their children’s right to clean air.
But even after the last corporate polluter is pulled into line and all of EPA’s solutions to protect our air have been implemented, we still will need to go forward in a much smarter, greener way. So while we must continue our efforts to promote “Naptime Activism,” we should also lift our heads out of the trenches and examine new thinking about how we can perpetuate the gains we are fighting to achieve and maintain.
For example, how will our cities look and operate in a greener, cleaner world? How can we transform—in effect upcycle—the cities many of us already live and/or work in and make them environmentally safe? What are the elements required to create a clean air culture in an urban environment?
Answers to these questions may be found in small cities like Buffalo, New York and Peoria, Ohio. A new book, Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America’s Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World, by journalist and historian, Catherine Tumber, describes how small cities, many of which are currently in decline, could lead the way to a greener, more sustainable future. Tumber explored small-scale urbanism by traveling to 25 cities in the Northeast and Midwest where she interviewed planners, city officials, and activists.
She found that these places offer many assets for sustainable living. These assets include nearby farmland that could be used for local agriculture, windmills, and solar farms; residents who have manufacturing skills that could be repurposed for the production of renewable-energy technology; industrial infrastructure; and the potential to create high performing public schools.
As it happens, Tumber and I were high school classmates, and with a little help from Facebook, we were able to reconnect by phone in early June. We talked about her vision for these small cities and how they could contribute to a clean air culture and improved health for our kids.
“These places have been neglected by urban tastemakers for the past 30 years. People think about them as environmentally degraded, smokestack-belching places that are almost unredeemable from an environmental standpoint. But they actually have a lot of natural resources and historical assets that could be used to turn them into sustainable places.”
For example, Tumber says, “they (cities) sit on some of the most fertile soil on earth.” This land could not only be used for local agriculture, there’s often enough acreage for harvesting renewable energy.
“Renewable energy requires land for solar farms and wind turbines. And next generation hydropower requires special waterways. These smaller cities have those resources, making them a great asset to environmental health. Coal energy is a big polluter. These places have the resources to develop the alternative if we just have the political will.”
Due to significant declines in population, these small cities also have a lot of vacant land within neighborhoods, offering urban planners and economic developers opportunities to rethink how that land can best be used.
One of the ways they are taking advantage of those opportunities is by engaging in ecological restoration efforts.
“These include reintroducing native grasses to the area, restoring the tree canopy, restoring the hydrological infrastructure so there’s less water pollution, and building drainage systems that are more ecologically sound and don’t lead to toxic water runoff into the rivers and lakes. A lot of that work is going on, especially in Cleveland.”
And, she notes, “We often forget that these are big places, and they have a level of urban density that could be made more dense, walkable, compact, and offer more alternatives to transportation besides the car. Mass transit is inherently less polluting than automotive travel.”
With cleaner air and water, and revitalized school systems, these cities would be healthy places for kids to grow up. For one thing, “they’d be getting out of the car and walking,” Tumber says. And if much of their food was grown by local farmers, their energy provided by alternative resources, and local jobs were based in a green economy, “it would provide a pathway to a culture that helps these kids be more engaged as citizens,” she predicts.
Indeed, civic engagement will be required if cities both large and small are to become healthy places to live going forward. For example, Tumber told me about a woman she met in Janesville, Wisconsin who wants to curb urban sprawl. “She sees it foreclosing her kids’ economic future to sacrifice this beautiful farmland to shopping malls when there are areas of the city not being used.”
According to Tumber, the woman attends every city council meeting that has an economic development proposal on the table, and she also publicizes these meetings contacting the local news outlets so that other concerned citizens can join her.
Because every place is different, Tumber says that there is no cookie-cutter approach to making a city more environmentally healthy, but people can start by participating in public meetings to discuss economic development and urban design.
“You should attend planning meetings and give your input,” she suggests. “If the big boys are just fooling around, you can call them on it. It’s a good entry point to civic engagement.”