How cities can better confront climate change
Climate change across America. Cities are particularly vulnerable.
So, hundreds of local governments have drafted plans to cut their carbon emissions and prepare for more extreme weather. Milwaukee is one of them.
But very few cities have met their climate goals. Why not?
“We build cities just like termites build their cities or beavers engineer dams. And therefore, they should be classified as a form of nature,” Adrian McGregor says.
Today, On Point: We take a look at Milwaukee’s climate plan, and ask how cities can do better in reaching their climate goals.
Erick Shambarger, director of Environmental Sustainability for the City of Milwaukee, where he leads the Environmental Collaboration Office.
Joseph Kane, fellow at Brookings Metro, where his research focuses on infrastructure issues.
Adrian McGregor, founder and Chief Design Officer at McGregor Coxall, an urban design, landscape architecture and environment firm in Australia and the United Kingdom. Author of the new book “Biourbanism: Cities as nature.”
NEWSCASTER #1: A summer’s worth of rain, nearly 40 centimeters over the course of 24 hours, flooded the streets of northern Texas.
NEWSCASTER #2: Hurricane Ian made landfall tied as the fifth most powerful storm ever to hit the United States. A category 4 hurricane, maximum sustained winds 150 miles an hour.
NEWSCASTER #3: The first week of summer shattering records as an unrelenting heatwave pushes into the southeast.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: As the effects of climate change grow ever more inescapable, cities find themselves uniquely vulnerable. They’re also key contributors of carbon emissions. They account for more than 70% of CO2 emissions across the globe, according to the World Bank.
So that gives new urgency to the old ‘Think global, act local’ cliche. And cities are acting. Across the United States, more than 600 municipal governments have drafted climate change plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for more extreme weather. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is one of them.
MARINA DIMITRIJEVIC: It’ll be such a cleaner place for everybody. As we increase population and build the city that we want to see, I think we go from surviving to thriving.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s District 14 Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic last week on television station WISN. She’s a member of Milwaukee’s Common Council and the lead sponsor of the city’s climate plan. The plan aims to cut the city’s carbon emissions by 45% in the next seven years, and be carbon neutral by 2050. The plan is expected to be approved by Milwaukee city leaders on Tuesday. However, when it comes to meeting climate goals, the track record of hundreds of American cities isn’t so stellar. And here we have the tension between two truths.
Big challenges require bold solutions. But could falling short of those big goals disincentivize future enthusiasm, effort and funding to keep pushing towards trying to meet those big climate goals? That’s a problem, especially given the short-term decision making favored by American politicians more beholden to an election cycle than anything else. Or is there a different way to think about how cities should be preparing for their climate futures now, one that could resolve that tension between those two truths?
That’s what we’re going to try to explore today. And we’ll start by looking much more closely at Milwaukee’s climate plan. And to do that, we’re joined by Erick Shambarger. He’s environmental sustainability director at the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office, and he joins us from Milwaukee. Erick, welcome to the program.
ERICK SHAMBARGER: Hello, Meghna. Thank you for having me. It’s exciting to be here.
CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, you know, I mentioned that cities are particularly vulnerable, or finding themselves ever more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. How is that playing out in Milwaukee? What is changing about life there as emissions keep pouring into the atmosphere?
SHAMBARGER: Well, all of us are going to be affected by climate change, regardless of whether you live in rural areas or whether you live in cities. But the way cities have been built up over the last, you know, 50 or 100 years, I think makes urban residents particularly vulnerable. You know, we’ve paved far too much of our city to, you know, accommodate the automobile, and that creates urban heat islands. It creates extra flooding risk when it rains.
There’s not as much place for all that rainwater to go. And so, it increases the opportunity for homes to get flooded and those sorts of things. So cities have a unique opportunity to do what’s right for climate change and take action. But we also have these vulnerabilities that are staring us in the face. You know, when I was driving into the studio today, there was a little bit of a haze over the city, and I think that was the result of some of the wildfires in Canada. And so you see these global climate phenomena that are affecting all of us.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, the climate plan has some very interesting specific statistics about Milwaukee’s vulnerability. You mentioned flooding, for example. I’m seeing here that the plan says, “Risk Factor, a group, calculates that almost 20,000 properties in Milwaukee County are currently at risk of flooding. That risk will only increase in the future.” It also says here that without action, “Without decisive climate action, it could cost taxpayers in Milwaukee County or statewide hundreds of billions of dollars in terms of disasters related to climate.” Is that Milwaukee or the state?
SHAMBARGER: Well, I think it’s a statewide figure. So we have major challenges. I mean, again, whether it’s wildfires in the West, whether it’s flooding risk, it does damage our property. And we’re going have to pay for the effects of climate change one way or another. So our preference would be to be more proactive and try to redesign the city going forward to help reduce some of these risks.
CHAKRABARTI: So we’re going to talk about that proactive set of goals in a second. But I do think it’s important, you know, I don’t like using a broad brush and being like, “Cities are vulnerable.” Putting some gritty detail around, I think it’s quite important. And it’s in this report. I mean, it’s in the climate plan. For example, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that, has a prediction that by 2050, Milwaukee will see three times as many days with heat above 105 degrees Fahrenheit as it does now. Now, specifically in Milwaukee, what impact, you mention the heat islands, but the overall increase in, you know, deadly hot days, what impact could that have?
SHAMBARGER: Well, it’s certainly not good for the health of our residents, you know, especially our more vulnerable residents who may not have air conditioning in their homes. And when you have these not only hot days, but hot and humid days, and it doesn’t cool off at nighttime, that can really put vulnerable populations at risk for, you know, heat-related stress, heart attacks, asthma increases. All of those threats are real. And there’s a real emphasis in this plan to focus on solutions that support our vulnerable populations and to do more to address racial and economic equity.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and the vulnerability is really multifaceted, isn’t it? Right? Because the plan talks about how a large portion of Milwaukee residents are already food insecure. And climate change could make food supply chains even more vulnerable, which would magnify the food insecurity of those Milwaukee residents even further. But then also regarding heat, there’s an interesting fact here, which I’m wondering why it was included in the plan. It says, “Higher temperatures can also result in an increase in violent crime.”
SHAMBARGER: Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve seen that, right? Where people are coming out in the summertime, and you have people can get angry or they can feel more stress. And I think sometimes that can act out in unproductive ways in our community. So, you know, we’ve got to find solutions to address the overall climate, but then also, again, help people adapt to these hot days and have, you know, places to go and ways to cool off so that it doesn’t spill over into negative consequences.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So that’s at least kind of a quick snapshot about the climate vulnerability that Milwaukee specifically faces, if, you know, the globe continues on its march towards more carbon in the atmosphere. So let’s talk about the plan here. Now, I mentioned that one of the near-term goals is that 45% reduction in the city’s carbon emissions in the next seven years. There’s ten big ideas in the plan, Erick. We’re not going to be able to hit all of them this hour, but what would you say is the most important of the ten, to begin with?
SHAMBARGER: Well, there’s two related to residential housing, so about 32% of our emissions comes from residential housing. And when we talk to residents, the intersection of, you know, people wanting better, more affordable housing really came to light. And so within the plan, two of the ten big ideas are focused on housing. One is regarding retrofitting or repairing our existing housing stock to make them more energy efficient.
And when we do that, we’re going to try to do better coordination with other city housing programs like lead abatement. So that when we have an opportunity to work with a family and make their house better, we’re incorporating energy efficiency, potentially renewable energy, along with other basic housing improvements.
The other strategy related to housing is to build new housing in our cities. You know, much of our housing stock was built before 1978, and so we have a need to build new housing from the get-go that’s designed to be net zero energy, all electric. And it’s easier in some respects to make the climate changes on new housing, because you can design them from the beginning to be very tight and have, you know, better technologies to help us get to carbon neutrality by 2050.
CHAKRABARTI: Mm hmm. Okay. So quick side question. You had mentioned a fact that I’m glad you did, because I was having a hard time finding some data on what are the biggest sources right now of Milwaukee’s emissions. So 32% from residential housing. What are the other big ones?
SHAMBARGER: Yeah, and this profile is similar to many cities. You know, it may change on the margins. But in Milwaukee, 22% is from transportation. So that’s the gasoline and diesel that we burn in our vehicles. 31% from residential. 23% from large commercial buildings. 22% from industrial. And then depending on the way you count it, about 2% is from waste, solid waste that we throw in the landfill, and it can decompose and become greenhouse gases.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you talked about residential housing. The other main big part of the plan is greening the grid. Okay? Really, really interesting. Tell me more about that.
SHAMBARGER: So nationally, the kind of the blueprint for getting to carbon neutrality is first you green the grid, so you replace fossil fuels that we use to produce electricity. So many power plants burn coal or natural gas. So we need to transition how we make electricity from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. And then we work to electrify transportation.
So supporting electric vehicles for cars, and then supporting electrification for buildings. So that’s the basic blueprint. Underpinning all of our strategies, about over half of the emissions reduction is going to be from greening the grid. And so it’s really important, I think, for cities to engage with their electric utility providers and on policy that can accelerate the amount of renewable energy we have on the grid.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So can I just jump in here? Because this is a really, really important point, because I’ve seen that for the state of Wisconsin overall right now, that it’s roughly 10% of the energy comes from renewables. Does that number sound about right to you?
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So but you were leading towards where my next question is, which was okay, what exactly can cities do in terms of encouraging the utilities themselves to increase the green energy in their mix? I mean, do you have negotiation power, policy power? What is it?
SHAMBARGER: Well, it’s going to vary state by state. So some states like California have a lot more tools at their disposal for cities to choose where their electricity is coming from. In Wisconsin, we are a regulated utility state, which means we have our electric power utility is owned by a private company called We Energies, and they’re regulated by the state. So the first thing cities can do is they can open up lines of communication with their utility provider and say, “Look, we have goals. We need you to be partners in this. Let’s talk about solutions where we can increase the amount of renewable energy for our city buildings, but also for the community at large.”
CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s new plan to really significantly cut its carbon emissions and even push towards a net zero future in order to prepare for continuous climate change on planet Earth. And we’re also going to take a broader look at whether the hundreds of cities across the United States who that are attempting something similar, why some of them are falling short of their climate plans. I’m joined today by Erick Shambarger. He’s the director of environmental sustainability for the city of Milwaukee.
And Erick, there’s a couple of more specific details about the plan that I want to go over with you. One of them is particularly important. I mean, not just for Milwaukee, but for a lot of American cities, because the report makes it clear that the climate plan wants to not just tackle climate, but also reduce racial and economic inequality in the city and county of Milwaukee. Talk to me for a minute about why those things are intertwined in Milwaukee.
SHAMBARGER: Well, Milwaukee’s a beautiful city. We’re on Lake Michigan. We call it the fresh coast of Lake Michigan. And so there’s a lot of wonderful things in the city. But we have persistent racial disparities, whether it’s in income, health, employment, those kinds of things. And so, as we were tackling the issue of climate change, we wanted to incorporate equity.
Now, there was a city-county task force that dates back to 2019 that established the goals for this climate and equity plan. And that was in the wake of George Floyd and all of the kind of the awakening around racial issues. And so as we rebuild the city for a more, you know, clean energy and build new jobs, we want to be intentional to make sure those opportunities are open to all of our residents, including residents of color, who have historically been marginalized in many cases.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, and the truth is, is when there’s any major societal change, those people who are already most vulnerable almost always suffer a greater impact. Right? I mean, that’s just kind of how human societies work. And climate change is no different here. So tell me a little bit more then about this goal of increasing green jobs as part of Milwaukee’s plan?
SHAMBARGER: Yeah, absolutely. So as we make this transition, that’s a whole new amount of infrastructure that’s going to have to get built. You know, things like electric vehicle charging stations to facilitate the trend to electric vehicles, solar panel installation, energy efficiency projects in city buildings like weatherization, work at boiling and installation and putting in furnaces and boilers. So there’s a whole new opportunity to create jobs.
And we have one of the ten big ideas, is called the Green Jobs Accelerator. And we had a lot of discussions with community groups about how to make this happen. There are plenty of job training programs in the city of Milwaukee. Many times, people don’t associate those career paths with, you know, being a climate job. One of the biggest ones, in my view, is electricians. So we’re going to need electricians for all kinds of things.
And we need to be more intentional, to do outreach to communities of color, to tell them about these opportunities, to show them the career pathways that are possible, to provide supports for people while they’re in training. A lot of people can’t afford to take time off of work to get the extra training they need. So we got to have kind of ladders, career ladders to get people into these jobs. And then you’ve got to have willing employers to hire after people go through the training. So there’s a lot of things that have to come together. And with all of our programs that we’re rolling out, we’re committed to try to have an intentional effort for green jobs.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know, I see Milwaukee’s climate plan as more of a vision statement right now. It’s not a detailed blueprint, specifically, about how you’re going to get to these emissions goals, because as you’ve talked about, Erick, you’re going to need cooperation from the utilities, from the state, from the private sector. You know, plans on paper to reshape the physical infrastructure of Milwaukee. Obviously, there’s about a million steps between what’s on paper vs. what happens in reality. And also, there’s the funding question. And a lot of the funding, Milwaukee is hoping, comes from the federal government. So, I mean, do you think the goals are realistic? Let me put it that way.
SHAMBARGER: Well, first of all, this is not just a plan for paper. Our office, the Environmental Collaboration Office, has been making real progress on these different policies for at least ten years. We worked with our utilities successfully to build the largest solar energy project on a city-owned landfill. We have what’s called commercial pace financing, where we’ve incentivized over $40 million worth of energy efficiency projects in commercial buildings.
So we’ve been at this for quite some time. We are not starting from scratch in any way, shape or form. But you’re right, we really have to accelerate what we’re doing and get to another level. And that’s where the Federal Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law are really, really, really critical. We’ve put this plan, or started putting this plan together, with the idea that hopefully someday there would be federal investments in these kinds of things. And fortunately, Congress came through and now we’re starting to see federal funding available to help cities in a way that was never there before. And so we’re really excited to partner with the Department of Energy, EPA and other federal partners to make this vision a reality.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. No, go ahead. I didn’t mean to interrupt you there. Go ahead.
SHAMBARGER: Well, the climate and equity plan really aligns with some of the federal guidelines for grants. So there’s what’s called the Federal Justice 40 initiative, that says 40% of all the federal climate investments are supposed to help disadvantaged communities. And so the fact that we have a climate and equity plan, and have been planning with that lens in mind, really, I think, puts us in position to pursue some of those federal funds and really start to transform Milwaukee for the better.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Erick Shambarger, hang on here for just a second, because I want to now broaden out a little bit from Milwaukee and see what lessons we can learn from other American cities that are similarly trying to prepare for climate change in the future by cutting their own emissions. So let me bring Joseph Kane into the conversation. He’s a fellow at Brookings Metro, where his research focuses on infrastructure, and he joins us from Washington. Joseph, welcome to the show.
JOSEPH KANE: Thanks for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: So earlier in the program, I did offer that sobering statistic that many of the hundreds of American cities that are attempting something similar to what Milwaukee is doing have fallen short on their climate goals. I mean, what evidence do you see of that, Joseph?
KANE: Yeah, well, my colleagues and I did a report on the end of last fall. Systematically and consistently trying to compare what different cities are doing or not doing across the country. And no one really had done this before. I mean, a lot of cities have come out with pledges saying they’re going to be carbon neutral by a certain year, usually by 2050. And cities are jumping from those pledges, hoping they’re going to achieve those outcomes.
And so no one had really looked at the missing middle, as I like to call it, of the planning process. Of what are going to be those actual strategies to decarbonize, to do all these sorts of improvements across buildings, transportation, how we generate electricity and so on. And so in our study we looked at 50 different cities across the country.
So trying to get a representative slice of what’s happening. And we found that in many of these climate action plans, at least in the most current versions that were available to us, we recognize they’re constantly being updated. But the ones that were available to us, a lot of cities are falling short in the level of detail in those plans.
CHAKRABARTI: Huh. Level of detail in the plan. Okay. And so specifically, what kind of details do you think are important that are missing?
KANE: Well, I mean, some of these have already come up, in the case in Milwaukee. But, you know, are there certain benchmarks for particular sectors of infrastructure? So in as much as there’s an overarching target of, you know, carbon neutrality and reducing GHG emissions, I mean, specifically, how does that break down for transportation, for example?
How does that compare with building improvements? And then beyond those individual sectors, you know, how are the judgment sort of benchmarks over time, the measurements, you know, the precision of those measurements? And I think that the two areas in which we saw the greatest gaps were on how cities are actually paying for these efforts, and then in particular, how they’re measuring the progress on these efforts in terms of economic and demographic equity.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So three major things that you call the missing middle here in the plans. And let me just hop back to Erick for a second. Now, Erick, this is not a gotcha moment, I promise. I want to do some, like collective learning here to see, you know, what can be improved.
So, first of all, let’s talk about the need for benchmarks per sector, because you told us a little bit earlier, Erick, about the emissions per sector. We already know that in Milwaukee. But does the climate plan say, “Well, in order to achieve that 45% reduction in the next seven years, housing is going to have to cut its emission by a certain percent, transportation, commercial, etc.”
SHAMBARGER: Yeah, we develop what we call a wedge diagram, which kind of shows, you know, how much of the reductions have to come from these different sectors. I think it is a challenging thing, though, to quantify all of this, in part because when we put the plan together, we didn’t know how much funding we had. You know, it’s easier to do output measures when you have a dedicated pot of funds and you can say, you know, “Here’s exactly how many houses we can weatherize,” for example. So it’s tricky. But I also kind of want to point out that cities have to have goals.
Without a goal, you’re not going to ever get there. But we have the federal government, we have state governments, we have county governments. We have a whole range of, you know, a complicated political structure. And so cities have to do what they can, with what’s in their legal authority to do. And I am proud of the strategies that we have in the plan and how we’ve been able to operationalize strategy. I think that’s very, very important. So as an example, when the plan was adopted, so we needed electric vehicle transport, you know, charging stations.
Well, in the past week, in order to apply for federal funds for a grant, we had to figure out exactly where those are going to go, how are we going to pay for it, what kind of partnerships are we going to build? So even if the specific details aren’t in there, my colleagues, sustainability directors across the country, are very committed to operationalizing these plans, even though it’s hard and even though there’s much that’s outside of our control relative to where carbon emissions are coming.
CHAKRABARTI: You know, I just want to emphasize this is not a gotcha, I promise you, because problems that are as complex and intertwined as climate, it doesn’t do any good to point fingers. Right? That’s why we invited Joseph on the show to sort of help us learn from cities who are a little bit maybe ahead of Milwaukee in terms of trying to implement their plans and seeing, “What are the pitfalls, can we avoid them in the future?”
So, Joseph, you also point out in your analysis something which I think is really, really important, and Erick did touch on this. And that you say, one of the major gaps in city planning is just kind of like the political realities of the relationship between municipal, state and federal governments. Right? Because they just don’t have, in your words, the fiscal, technical or programmatic capacity to singlehandedly drive decarbonization across their metro regions. There’s so many other stakeholders that can and do have an influence here. Can you talk about that more?
KANE: That’s right. I mean, look, the reality is our built environment is highly fragmented. It’s highly localized, you know, within cities and then across whole metropolitan regions, states. You know, the geography of all of this is in many ways very siloed, in how we’ve governed it traditionally, across the federal, state and local level, to say nothing across the public and private sector.
But then even just operationally, you know, there’s different city departments that are responsible for all of this. So as much as there might be an environmental department drafting this plan and coordinating with the Transportation Department and the public works and other sort of private entities in the area, it’s a lot. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the different timelines.
You know, that all of these different departments work off of in terms of their capital budgeting process and actually getting the money to the projects on the ground. And there are only so many people, you know, in these departments. Often, you know, in addition to sort of the scanning of the reports, we did talk with, my colleagues and I, several of the cities that we had scanned.
And almost universally they would say, “Well, not only do we not have dependable, sustained revenue to pay for all these projects, but we don’t even have enough staff to do all of this.” And that’s true not only within sort of the city departments, but also, as Erick was describing, in terms of the workers themselves, electricians and so on to even do these projects. So, you know, this is just sort of a snapshot at a state local level. But I think is reflected very much nationally in how we address these issues.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, and another commonality between all these municipal plans as you’ve written in your report, Joseph, is that almost all of them identify equity as a goal. But you say almost 75% of them lack details on how to achieve that equity.
KANE: Right. Well, look, I mean, this is a moving target. A lot of places have not been planning around this. Look, let’s be real, until only the last five years at best. Now, you do have some regions. You know, I sort of call them the usual suspects of, you know, the Portland, Oregon’s, and the San Francisco, California’s, that have been doing climate planning for the better part of 30 plus years, where they’re on their third or fourth version of their plans.
And they’re almost reaching a new level of planning where they’re just trying to create priority actions. But even those places are still coming to terms with, “Exactly how do we measure this, how do we address these equity issues?” And so it’s a challenge, you know, in the sense of a lot of places are kind of making the wheel for the first time here. And it’s not going to be a fast or easy issue to solve. And it’s something that probably isn’t completely quantifiable either. And it is going to require continued community conversations. It’s going to require an all-hands-on-deck approach.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, you also offer a set of recommendations on how to bridge this missing middle, as you call it, Joseph. And it seems to me that Milwaukee at least, has the beginnings of already having some of your recommendations in place, if inadvertently. Right? Because one of them is to develop a skilled workforce to manage decarbonization efforts. And it sounds like what Erick is describing gets Milwaukee started in that direction.
Also, there’s, you know, really identifying funding sources. And now with the federal government’s increased funding on that, maybe that one is a little less difficult than it was before. But you also have a couple of really interesting recommendations that have to do with regional coordination and regional leadership networks. Joseph, can you just describe that a little bit?
KANE: Yes. Well, I mean, first of all, when we do see places like Milwaukee and elsewhere taking a proactive stance on these issues, I mean, that’s kind of, you know, step one. In the sense of many, many regions traditionally have been reactive, have only been, you know, if anything, not doing any planning or been only updating these plans every decade or longer. And it’s just really a plan on the books and is really hard to implement. And so, you know, given some of the technical and programmatic hurdles that individual jurisdictions have to overcome, I think there are some internal facing, you know, steps they can take.
And in terms of boosting staffing, you know, having greater budget certainty around these issues. But, you know, again, no single place is going to be able to do this by themselves. And so to the extent that these jurisdictions, you know, across a whole metropolitan region, for example, can actually band together, rather than trying to remake the wheel individually, and coming up with their own climate plans.
You know, in some regions, we see, you know, dozen or more plans for every single jurisdiction. Where they pretty much say the same thing. But they’re all in their different corners, all very siloed doing this. And so there are regional entities, metropolitan planning organizations or MPOs or councils of government or COGS, which already exist at a metropolitan level.
Are responsible for many transportation planning issues in particular, but also climate planning issues. And so we think that, you know, these sorts of entities that are already in place, that can hopefully straddle some of these divides, and can provide some precedent for this. And we’re seeing this in some regions across the country, already. San Diego, for example, in California, through its regional entity known as SANDAG, has done some of these regional measurement questions, for example. Has brought stakeholders together around the table to talk about these issues. So to the extent that it’s not just one place in one region doing this, but it’s a whole region having a coordinated approach.
CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about cities and their climate change plans. And Erick Shambarger joins us. He’s director of environmental sustainability for the City of Milwaukee. Now, Erick, in a minute we’re going to talk about, like, just a completely out-of-the-box way of thinking about cities and climate change. But I wanted to check with you on a couple of things that Joseph Kane said. And whether or not they’re, you know, realistic or something that might be incorporated in Milwaukee’s plan.
First of all, the idea of reporting progress or putting in accountability benchmarks per sector. Like, for example, you’ve got that 45% targeted reduction in emissions in the next seven years. Would it be feasible for Milwaukee to put in its plan specific benchmarks per sector on year-by-year, how they’re going to contribute to meeting that targeted overall reduction?
SHAMBARGER: Yes, I think that’s something that we can add to the plan. Like I said, especially as we get specific funding allocated to these different things, it’s something we can do. But it is something that we struggled with in the planning process. I mean, we had consultants even that really struggled with, “How do we kind of categorize all these different activities?” But measuring is certainly important. The other thing I wanted to kind of reiterate with from your prior speaker is the importance of regional networks.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that one next. Go ahead.
SHAMBARGER: Yeah, absolutely. So we created in Wisconsin the Wisconsin Local Government Climate Coalition, which was counties and cities around Wisconsin that had these goals, but also recognized, look, we need action at the state. And so we get together, and we write joint letters to our public service commission. In some states, those are called public utilities commissions that regulate the electric power utilities, as an example. And it’s a very kind of arcane process to get involved and have your voice heard in the dockets and things that affect where our electric power comes from. But it’s really important for cities to band together and step up and say, “Here’s the things that we want to see to help us reach our goals.”
CHAKRABARTI: One more quick one. Staffing. And we’re not talking about long-term staffing here in terms of creating all those new green jobs, Erick. But I think Joseph was also pointing to, you know, staffing in places like your office or the other offices that would be key players in getting Milwaukee to be successful in its climate plan. Like, do you have enough people?
SHAMBARGER: It’s tight. I’ll say that. But we named the office, the Environmental Collaboration Office, because collaboration is absolutely essential to get to these goals. Because so much of our emissions come from the transportation sector, we have to collaborate with our public works department, we have to collaborate with our utility. We have to collaborate across the board with our housing agencies, for example. So we are trying to leverage the amount of workers that are already working in government on these other kind of areas, to push them in a more sustainable direction. But clearly, I think with the amount of opportunity we have and the need, a little bit more staffing would certainly help.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Erick, so hang on here for just a second, because now, you know, we’ve been asking throughout the show like, “Is there a completely different way of thinking about what cities are, that would help us perhaps to be more successful in tackling the climate challenge?” So in order to think about that, let’s jump over to Singapore, where Adrian McGregor joins us. He’s founder and chief design officer at McGregor Coxall, an urban design landscape architecture and environment firm with offices in Australia and the United Kingdom. And he’s also author of the new book Biourbanism: Cities as nature. Adrian, welcome to the show.
ADRIAN McGREGOR: Hi, Meghna. It’s great to chat.
CHAKRABARTI: So when you talk about rethinking what cities actually are, cities as nature. What do you mean?
McGREGOR: Really … recognizing the impact that human beings, we’re a species, Homo sapiens, and the kind of significant impact that we’ve had on the wild biomes that kind of, you know, are located across our kind of planet.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Okay. So, you know, as termites might construct their termite mounds, we’re constructing cities all over the planet. But we have, you know, we have a much greater impact on the planet than the termites and the termite mounds do. So tell me just a little bit more. I’m not quite sure how this sort of change in mindset, what it means, Adrian.
McGREGOR: Well, the challenge for us, and you know, this conversation around decarbonization is that from Spaceship Earth, which is a term coined by Buckminster Fuller, kind of expressing the fragility of our planet as it kind of sits in space. But there are now more than 10,000 cities on our Earth. And, you know, these cities are emitting 75% of the world’s greenhouse gases. So clearly, we haven’t done a great job at designing these cities. Because they’re now impacting our climate in such a significant way that we’re suffering extreme shocks right across the world.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So from what I understand then, and this is very compelling, that instead of us thinking as human beings, in particular cities, as separate from nature, that we ought to think of them as part of nature, just a different part of the biome. And I think in the book you call it an anthrome. Cities are anthromes because we as human beings, as you said, Homo sapiens, are part of nature. Okay. So in that case, then, what does that shift in mindset then, how does that lead us to making better plans or better cities that would have a lesser impact on climate?
McGREGOR: So what it means is that we need to start thinking about our cities as a set of systems. And it means that the way that we organize our city governments and the way that we interact together on city planning decisions, needs to be more integrated. Because decision-making in one system, and the book talks about ten systems, five bio systems and five urban systems. But when you make an investment or a impact in one system, then there are knock-on impacts to the other systems. So it’s really about not thinking in silos and not designing and planning in silos, but actually having integration across your city departments and thinking about the city as a whole.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So you’re in Singapore, Adrian, and I understand that you look at Singapore as a potential example of a city that’s even, if not intentionally, sort of taking into account this different way of thinking about human environments. Why? What’s Singapore doing that’s so good?
McGREGOR: Singapore is unique in that it has a very small land area, so that it was working really hard. And that is for, you know, energy, water, food and all the things that it needs to support its population. So one of the very interesting projects that’s being explored is a renewable energy solar project, actually in the northern tip of Australia.
… It’s also, I’ve been doing a lot of research work on urban heat and looking, of course, it’s a hot tropical climate. So, you know, how can it modify its microclimates in the city to prevent kind of heat, through green infrastructure? … But also, it has 80% of its housing being supplied as public housing. So it has some, you know real innovations in terms of how it supports the health and livability of its city and its population.
CHAKRABARTI: Your lines cutting out a little bit here and there, Adrian. So I just wanted to repeat something you said. That, for example, when it comes to energy, Singapore is working with Northern Australia, building a major, or it’s already built, a solar farm there that would then transport the energy to Singapore via undersea cable, is that what you’re talking about?
McGREGOR: On cable. And it’s still being looked at at the moment. But it’s an example of the kind of big thinking in terms of the sort of electrification of all the energy grid in the city.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So one more thing that you’re doing, and your firm is doing, which is quite interesting, is you’re building digital twins of cities. These are, I presume, these are digital models of cities that hopefully have quite a fine-grained amount of detail in the model, which allows you to do what?
McGREGOR: So a digital twin is a copy, if you like, of the physical city. And it’s actually a great way for a city to be able to track progress on its own plans, because once you build the model, you can do scenario testing and forecasting, and you can also measure sort of some kind of things in real time. … And they are creating, you know, a kind of vehicle for tracking progress to your targets and your goals.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And so building a digital model of the city sounds great. You know, I’m just curious, we’ve got about another minute or so left with you, Adrian. You’ve been listening to the conversation that’s preceded you about Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What about how your view of biourbanism, as your book is called, what do you think could be applied to Milwaukee or other U.S. cities?
McGREGOR: Look, I think in terms of the energy transition and carbon, that the thing that really, I think cities need to band together on is the fossil fuel subsidies that are still supporting, you know, the traditional forms of power.
So I think the advocacy and, you know, the talk about kind of regional cooperation is really, really important. … [There’s also] the impacts of these extreme weather events and they have to deal with them. So, you know, the cost to them in terms of climate risk is very, very acute. So I think working together and collaborating and then, you know, advocating to the federal government, food subsidies out of fossil fuel industries and into renewables. That’s a really, really important part of what needs to happen.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Adrian McGregor, founder and chief design officer at McGregor Coxall and author of the new book Biourbanism: Cities as nature, with us from Singapore. My apologies for the intermittent drop out of your line, Adrian, but thank you so much for joining us.
McGREGOR: Thanks so much, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Erick, I want to head towards the last few minutes of the hour with you and refocus for a second here on Milwaukee. Because I do really deeply appreciate talking about ambitious goals, plans and some of the steps that it would take to, you know, to be audacious. But, you know, we have to also deal with the realities of modern-day politics in the United States.
And I’m seeing here that even within the city, there’s kind of a couple of political reality checks. For example, Alderman Robert Bauman has been quoted as saying he’s totally on board with the plan, but he’s called the emissions goals a “pipe dream, given the state’s political climate.” Can you talk about that for a second, Erick?
SHAMBARGER: Sure. So, first of all, our goals came from the international goals that have been set that says what we need to do to keep carbon emissions in check. So we have adopted goals that the international community has. Now, the question of whether we can achieve them with the state climate, it is going to be very tough. There’s no sugarcoating it, but we have to have goals at the local level, and we’ve got to keep pressing at the state level. For example, the state controls the building code that dictates how cities, how energy is used in buildings.
And so we have to advocate for better building codes at the state level. We have to allocate, or advocate, again, for all sorts of different policies as a state and federal level to help us meet our goals. But cities are the ones leading. And if you don’t have a goal, you’re not going to be in a position to, you know, change the course of where we’re going.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Alderman Bauman also points out that there is a shared revenue aspect of the bill, but he says it prohibits Milwaukee from fully executing the plan because it blocks the city from expanding, say, Milwaukee’s streetcar system with its own funding. Explain that.
SHAMBARGER: Sure. So the city, without going too far afield, has a major financial challenge because of constraints that the state has put on the city. And there’s all kinds of work that Mayor Johnson is doing to work with the Republican legislature to come up with new funding strategies for the city, just to keep basic services alive. And in those negotiations, some of the state level Republicans have wanted to make clear that they don’t want any of the new funding coming from the state to help the city with support, our streetcar system.
So that’s, you know, a bit of a curveball that they threw us. But we understand that we’ve got to, you know, we’ve got to have the city’s basic finances in order for us to tackle climate change. And that’s why some of the things that we may find distasteful that the state has put on the city, we may have to live with some of that in order to get the fiscal resources we need to do all the other elements of the climate plan.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Well, Erick Shambarger, director of environmental sustainability for the City of Milwaukee, where he leads the Environmental Collaboration Office. Erick, it’s been great to have you on the show. And I’m thinking, you know, maybe once a year we can check in with you to see how the city is doing in heading toward that first set of goals, that 45% reduction in emissions in the next seven years. What do you think about that?
SHAMBARGER: Oh, that sounds great, Meghna. And I really enjoyed our time. And, you know, maybe we can talk about our Green Schools project as well, too, to help advance greening and more biodesign in our school environment. So thank you so much for having me.
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