06/02/2006 04:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jerry Brown's Biggest "Oops" - & How Oakland Can Bounce Back, Green!

The reign of Jerry Brown - global celebrity and Mayor Of Oakland - is coming to an end. After nearly eight years, voters will to go to the polls next week to pick his replacement.

Brown did some good here, but only a fraction of the good he could have done. When he first ran for local office, he offered us a grand, hopeful and original vision for Oakland. But he quickly backed away from it - limiting himself to "tough-on-crime" rhetoric and very traditional development schemes.

He fancied himself a "realist." But - realistically - Oakland's problems are too big to be solved with small ideas. We need powerful initiatives and bold vision to move the needle.

In 1998, Jerry Brown knew this. He bravely suggested a "green plan" that would create jobs by making Oakland a home for environmentally sound enterprises. But the "Ecopolis" idea was fuzzy -- more poetry than policy. And rather than developing it, Brown dumped it at the first sign of ridicule.

Oops! In the end, Oakland's crime and poverty rates have barely improved.

But the "green economy" idea is now exploding into a billion-dollar sector. And ironically, Oakland isn't getting a dime.

Look at the numbers. In 2004, investors poured $520 million into alternative fuels, solar power and hybrid vehicles. Driven by fears of global warming and rising oil costs, these investments made clean technology the sixth-largest investment category in the United States.

By 2009, that figure could climb to $3.4 billion. Internet billionaires Bill Gates, John Doerr and Steve Case are jumping on the bandwagon. Says Doerr: "Greentech could be the largest opportunity of the 21st century."

Translation: if Jerry Brown had stuck to his original vision, Oakland would right now be leading the country as a center of green innovation -- and pulling in major revenues to fix the streets and schools. Instead, Oakland is losing out to places like San Francisco, which has already established a Clean Tech Council to recruit these new firms.

Lesson: if leaders stick to their principles, visionary ideas equal practical solutions.

Fortunately, it is not too late for Oakland to become the leading example of a blue-collar town transforming itself into a "green-collar" mecca.

Working together, we can STILL make Oakland a model city, with a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

Take pollution at the Port of Oakland. Idling ships and trucks foul the air. Let's build solar-powered energy stations where docking sea vessels can power up cleanly. Let's require all trucks to purchase cleaner bio-diesel blends. After all, Oakland's sunshine, strong tides and high winds provide a ready supply of renewable resources.

Take Oakland's dearth of opportunities for young people. Let's put Green Technology Training Centers in all public high schools. Let's train our youth to install solar panels on their grandmothers' rooftops. Let's give them both the scientific and entrepreneurial skills to bring to market the technologies and products of the future.

Take Oakland residents' chronic health problems, like obesity. Let's support groups such as People's Grocery, which provides organic produce to low-income residents. Let's bolster rooftop gardening and urban farming.

Take Oakland's struggling economy. Let's declare Oakland the first-ever "green enterprise zone" in the United States and offer incentives to make us attractive to the eco-entrepreneurs.

We can create good jobs, safer streets and healthier communities for ourselves while showing the way toward curbing global warming and oil dependence.

Some will call this unrealistic and advise Oakland to keep its dreams small. But that cynicism is the problem in Oakland, not the solution.

If we are to put an end to the fear and the funerals, we must let Oakland dream again. For it is only from a new urban dream -- like Oakland as a "Model City" -- that a new urban reality can begin to emerge.

(FYI: I published a version of this comment yesterday as "Oakland officials must dream big" by Van Jones, in the Oakland Tribune, June 1, 2006. )