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Earth Day 2014

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I admit to having mixed feelings about Earth Day for the obvious reason that "saving the planet" is a 365-day, 24/7 job. But if we can get people to focus on the central idea it represents even for a few minutes, it's worth it, right?

But what's begun to bother me big time is that we still frame this idea as if it's humans versus the planet, rather than focusing on the intricate interdependencies between humans and the Earth.

Nowhere does this show up more than in conversations we have about cities. Framed by the higher benefit concepts of sustainability, resiliency and livability, we inevitably end up talking about the stuff of cities -- infrastructure, urban design, product innovation, green buildings. But how do we keep the focus on the human that we are designing and building cities for? How can we help humans make better choices about their cities' "stuff" so that it contributes to their health and well-being, not compromise it?

I have the honor of participating in an event on Tuesday that's being hosted by the New York Times titled Cities for Tomorrow, and I hope to use it as a platform to offer a few thoughts about that very subject.

My first piece of advice is to shamelessly use the human impacts our cities have on us as an object lesson, and there is no better showcase of those impacts in high def than to use our schools.

Twenty-five percent of our country enters a school building every day. And yet among the 100,000 or so K-12 schools, fully 15 percent are filled with air that is unfit to breathe. Many are dank, moldy places bereft of sunlight. We've let our schools bear the civic brunt of deferred maintenance to the tune of what we think is nearly $300 billion just to get to code and basic working order, never mind the additional $200 billion that would actually get us to the modern schools our children deserve.

And yet our schools are the anchors of our cities in ways that few building types or civic organizations can match. Our schools can be our living laboratories for measuring the impacts of better decisions that can be scaled throughout a city's infrastructure, and we invest in our future at the same time. Living walls to supplement the lunchroom fare? Playgrounds that inspire activity? High-level HVAC filtration to improve respiratory health? Products that contain known carcinogens removed from the classroom? Why not?????

My advice: High performing green schools are fundamental to high performing students. We need as many of them as possible -- not just because they are better for the earth (and taxpayers), but because they are also better for our kids.

And while we're at it, my second observation is that we must make the business case for greening our cities relentlessly, but not just in hard costs. We need evidence-based research on the soft cost impacts as well -- better health and productivity; lower healthcare costs; more desirable communities. That's what we've had to do to drive the massive uptake of green buildings. If you can save energy and water, your savings drop to the bottom line. Well, duh. But the practices we encourage -- daylighting, access to natural views, better indoor air quality, have human-tethered impacts to the top line. (In corporations and universities, for instance they are high value recruiting factors)

If you apply a top line metric to cities, it would show up in the number of people who want to move there. And cities and communities that have as part of their brand demonstrated leadership in building and retrofitting in a way that helps humans thrive -- walkability, bikeability, green spaces, and better air quality -- attract people, raise property values, lower community health costs, and improve the tax base. What's not to love?

Humans also want to be in cities that have given civic thought on how to bounce back when bad things inevitably happen. As flip as this might sound, I'm profoundly serious about the idea that you can't waste a disaster. Disaster recovery is often the very best moment to invest in greener, healthier solutions. From New Orleans, to New York City, to Greensburg, Kansas, we've acquired a tremendous amount of knowledge on how to build back better, and we need to act on it, not only to keep the power on and the basements dry, but so that people can be safer both at the moment of impact and healthier in the days that follow.

My friend Majora Carter has always had the best advice for all of us on this subject: "You don't have to leave your neighborhood to live in a better one."

Embedded in that thought in an inextricable way is the idea that better neighborhoods better serve the people who call them home. Local access to fresh food, safe places for outdoor play, structures that provide healthy habitat for families all contribute to this very human idea of community. And that benefits us all.

So here on Earth Day 2014, let's do focus on finding ways to be more resilient and sustainable, but let's not do it just to benefit the planet. Let's do it because it benefits ourselves, our kids and our future.

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