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Our Cities and the Environment

Recently Mayor Bloomberg in New York City sought to install congestion pricing for automobiles in Lower Manhattan. Yielding to cries from the city’s suburbs, at first, the State Legislature refused to permit the Mayor to introduce congestion pricing. The action by the State Legislature is an example of the difficulty mayors face as they attempt to respond to the challenges of climate change. How do we make our cities green when politicians respond so quickly to political pressure of those uninterested in protecting our environment? There is no easy answer to this but there are answers. Some cities have succeeded in initiating major changes to their environment. Seattle is the leader in environmental awareness. The city has established an Office of Sustainability and Environment which coordinates the implementation of the city’s environmental plans which include light rail, green buildings, cleanest city cars and trucks, rapid bus transit and an urban leader in recycling. Why don’t other cities join Seattle? They are but slowly. Seattle officials constantly play host to dozens of city officials who visit their city to learn how Seattle accomplished so much. We must concentrate our energies on local issues but not neglect state officials who often play a deciding role in environmental issues. Because New York had just elected a new Governor, Eliot Spitzer, there was some movement. Spitzer and Bloomberg created a commission, NYC Traffic Mitigation Congestion Commission, as part of a state law governing congestion pricing. The Mayor’s initiative would have died without the Governor’s help. Obviously, part of the answer is to elect officials who commit to improving our environment. Voters need to pay particular attention to state elections because it is the states that have control over our cities and suburbs where 80.6% of Americans live. Unfortunately, voters do not pay close attention to state elections as they do to local elections. Voters who will know the name of their city council member will have no idea who their state assembly person might be. Yet, it is these state legislators who will make decisions about the greening of our cities. Politicians listen to voters if they think the voters are a large enough constituency to influence their elections. Certainly, the environmental movement is growing in strength and influence on every level of government. But at the state level, much remains to be accomplished.

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