06/05/2006 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The 'Most Sustainable Cities': Houston, We Have a Problem

The 2006 rankings of America's "most sustainable cities" were announced last week -- released, with more than a little irony, at a mayors' conference in Las Vegas -- and as usual they fomented a feeding frenzy for local media. Reporters in and around the top-ranked winners -- among them, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Chicago -- produced glowing stories touting their green standings. Meanwhile, media in the 40-odd other cities tended to look the other way.

While the victors (and especially their elected officials, chambers of commerce, and tourist bureaus) enjoy their spoils, what happens to the "losers"?

The case of beleaguered Houston -- home of Ken Lay, Katrina refugees, and the nation's dirtiest air -- which ranked dead last in the 2005 rankings, may be instructive.

The rankings, produced each year by SustainLane, an online community focused on sustainable living, are based primarily on public data, supplemented with primary research and interviews with city officials conducted by SustainLane's San Francisco-based team. Some cities, it seems, provide a wealth of information and data about their performance -- everything from air quality and green buildings to local food and agriculture and "city innovation." And some cities provide little or nothing.

Houston fell into the latter category. When SustainLane sought out a contact in the city government who could fill out the group's questionnaire last year, one woman, Sylvia Brumlow, identified herself as the best point person for environmental issues for the city.

But despite follow-up calls and e-mails, Brumlow (who, it turns out, works for the Environmental Investigations Unit of the Houston Police Department) never followed through, contributing to the city's rock-bottom ranking last year.

"That created quite a stir, and a lot of hate mail came pouring in from Houston," James Elsen, SustainLane's founder and CEO, told me last week. "But then a cool thing happened. We started getting comments posted to our Web site that we were right in placing them last -- comments from consultants and academics working with the city, as well as from residents of Houston. We were on local Houston radio and covered in their papers, and a real debate ensued about Houston's record."

Elsen continues:

About a month later we got a call from Karl Pepple, recently appointed by Mayor Bill White as Director of Environmental Programming. Karl said he would work with us, which he has done quite effectively this year, and he told us that Houston did indeed have environmental management functions within numerous departments, but they never met with one another or knew of each other's work until Karl was appointed. He told us that now they meet monthly across many departments and are thankful they are now able to do so, as they are involved in new learnings and discussions, as well as being able to create new efficiencies for the city of Houston's environmental programs.

Houston's problem, it seems, had as much to do with its lack of self-knowledge and coordination of efforts as with its actual performance. And that put it in good company -- not just with other cities, but with thousands of companies that have good, green stories to tell, if only they knew about them. Sometimes, it's the simple matter of finding the stories -- along with good storytellers -- that can begin a positive spiral of inspiration and innovation -- leading, of course, to even more good stories.

Put another way: If only Houston knew what Houston knew. Now, increasingly, it does.

A happy ending? Well, not exactly. In this year's rankings, SustainLane expanded its coverage from 25 cities to 50, and Houston, sadly, dropped from 25th to 39th, slightly ahead of Tulsa and Detroit. Seems that Houston's "good stories" don't measure up to those of 38 other cities.

Meanwhile, what of Columbus, Ohio, which won this year's dubious 50th-place honor? Says Elsen: "We're already being set-up with interviews there so they can understand why they finished last."