08/06/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

All Sustainability Politics Is Local

As the late Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O'Neill, used to say, "All politics is local." After watching the U.S. Congress over the past several years, one has to be grateful for a federal political structure that reserves real power to states who in turn delegate significant authority to county and local governments. While broad, global issues such as climate change are ignored by national governments and international organizations, a wide range of sustainability issues have entered our political agenda and are being acted on by local governments.

The issues of environmental quality, public health, and resource scarcity are understood and deeply felt by many people. They experience traffic jams and pollution alert days, and they can easily see the gradual shrinkage of open and undeveloped land throughout America. People understand that the planet's resources are under stress. They also understand that they still need to feed, clothe and house their families and are eager to buy into sustainability solutions that allow them to live well while still caring for the natural environment.

In New York City, this has resulted in increased investments in public parks, ranging from the innovative and now world-famous High Line, to the effort to redevelop Staten Island's Freshkills Landfill into a park and urban ecology research facility. A recent agreement between the Department of Interior's National Park Service and the City of New York may lead to a similar 21st century park, recreation and research facility in Jamaica Bay. New York's creative green infrastructure plan will help the city address its combined sewage overflow problem while building green space and saving money. The city is also working to transform its system of exporting garbage to one that makes greater use of water transport and recycling.

While there are always opponents to these efforts, the opposition is based on operational rather than ideological issues. Upper East Side residents oppose the East Side marine waste transfer station due to fears of traffic, pollution and other potential impacts. Several decades ago, similar issues were raised when a sewage treatment plant was built in west Harlem. In exchange for allowing the plant to be built, the community was able to get the design of the plant modified and a state park built on top of the plant.

Last year, when I wrote about New York City's success in building local sustainability programs, I discussed the difference between policy making at the federal and local level:

Unlike the work that goes on in Washington, what happens at the local level has immediate and often dramatic impact. If the subway breaks down, people walk. If the water main breaks, people can't bathe. The work of local government tends to be less influenced by ideology and more influenced by performance.

Fiorello LaGuardia, one of New York's greatest mayors, once observed that there is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage. One of the Bloomberg team's most important innovations in PLANYC2030 was defining sustainability in broad terms and equating it to the quality of life experienced by the public. For example, PLANYC2030 set the goal of ensuring that every New Yorker lived within a ten minute walk of a park. The green space is important in environmental terms -- absorbing rainwater and reducing the heat island effect. But the service experienced by the average New Yorker is proximity to a park. The same could be said for traffic in lower Manhattan. Everyone's been in a traffic jam, and no one likes the experience. While the mayor lost the battle for congestion pricing, he will someday win the war. New York City's population will continue to grow, but the amount of space above ground will remain fixed. Someday we will need to ration or price auto travel in lower Manhattan. The problems of congestion, flooding, and access to parks are well recognized, and not typically subject to the type of ideological warfare typical to our nation's capital. If LaGuardia were around, he'd consider the delivery of clean air, water, parks, energy and other necessities as non-partisan as picking up garbage was in his day.

While we New Yorkers are fixated on New York City, a large number of cities all over America and all over the world are also working to reduce their use of energy and water, reduce waste and improve quality of life. For example:

• In 2010, Seattle's City Council set a goal of carbon neutrality, and the city's Office of Sustainability and Environment is analyzing the scientific and economic feasibility of achieving this goal by 2030. Seattle's sustainability office has been working on a comprehensive agenda of sustainability initiatives for over a decade.

• Cleveland, home of a river that once caught fire and helped start the environmental movement, has also begun a sustainability initiative. In fact:

In August 2009, Mayor Frank G. Jackson convened the first Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit to bring together hundreds of people interested in applying the principles of sustainability to the design of the local economy. The goal: envision a 10-year campaign for "building an economic engine to empower a green city on a blue lake" by the 50th anniversary of the infamous Cuyahoga River fire.

• In San Antonio, a public-private partnership between the City's Office of Environmental Policy is pushing hard to improve residential energy efficiency.

There are hundreds if not thousands of similar initiatives now underway around the United States. While the traditional environmental movement was motivated to protect the environment by a love of nature, the modern sustainability movement focuses on the necessity of the environment. We don't protect the environment because we love it, but because we need it. Air, water and food are easily poisoned and must be protected. Energy is vital to modern life, but without sophisticated management and regulation the extraction and use of fossil fuels can damage the environment and poison our air, water and food.

While it would be helpful if the federal government could provide funding and research to support these local initiatives, communities will continue their sustainability efforts with or without help from Washington. The support for the sustainability agenda is deep and increasingly becoming a routine and expected part of local government. There are a number of obvious indicators that sustainability issues have become integrated into the American political culture. If you go to a restaurant you will tend to find "healthy options" along with the deep-fried, lard-laden stuff. Schools, golf courses, and many businesses are looking for ways to convince the public that they are paying attention to these issues. Local governments are simply responding to the public's demands: a trend that continued during the depths of the recession and shows every sign of staying power. People seem to really like the idea of breathing, drinking water and eating food that is not poisoned. Go figure.