Book review: Emerald Cities

If you’ve ever wondered why some city governments elaborate their own greenhouse-gas-reduction strategies – when it might seem odd to spend scarce resources fighting a global problem in exchange for such minor potential improvements in local environmental quality – then you may find much useful insight from Joan Fitzgerald’s Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development (Oxford University Press).

An urban planner at Northeastern University, Fitzgerald traces the reasoning that leads cities to conclude that they can extract economic- and job-development benefits by positioning themselves as leaders in the new “green” industry sectors. These are the industries that draw their economic relevance from the reality of long-term trends in energy pricing and from the moral commitment of sufficiently well-off populations to lead more sustainable lives.

This book systematically explores the crossover between four aspects of sustainability – renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste management, and transportation – and three economic-development strategies that Fitzgerald calls “linking” (connecting populations to new employment opportunities based); “transformational” (taking hard-hit local manufacturing industries into new markets); and “leapfrogging” (building entirely new technology clusters).


Viewed this way, local greenhouse gas or carbon-footprint reduction programs are only examples of and symbols for a larger commitment to sustainability as a demand-driver for economic development and – as Fitzgerald would prefer, but as she also admits is not often enough the case – as a force for enhanced social justice. As Fitzgerald is the first to admit, there’s a lot of hype involved in these hopes for sustainability as a local development tool, and she reports what seems to work but also debunks where necessary.

By stoking demand for the sustainable sectors, Fitzgerald shows, cities can definitely use the “linking” strategy to create some employment opportunities in design and installation that can’t be exported overseas, though hardly enough of them, and there have also been some scattered successes at repositioning industrial concerns through the “transformational” strategy. These are all still at small scale relative to the size of most urban economies and the employment and equity challenges they face.

The “leapfrogging” strategies pose even more serious difficulties: repeatedly, and correctly, Fitzgerald concedes that it’s unreasonable to expect every urban center with a sustainability strategy to emerge as a center of new technology, and that even when this does happen (e.g., solar-cell development in Toledo), there’s a natural tendency, in an era of globalization, for manufacturing employment to disperse to lower-cost locations closer to the larger and more vigorous end-use markets overseas!

One important reason those overseas markets have been more vigorous, as she dryly observes, is that our competitors in other developed nations do better simply by recognizing “comprehensive planning as a policy imperative rather than a slanderous accusation.” Here, paralyzed by one party’s abhorrence of “industrial policy,” our federal government has failed from 1980 until the Obama administration to play any significant role in setting national strategy or directing resources that only a national government can bring to bear.

Even now, there is remarkably little coherence among state governments on those regulatory issues (e.g., renewable portfolio standards, net metering, waste-reduction laws, and even land-use rules) that drive a great deal of demand for sustainable products and services. Our cities, in effect, have made the best of a bad lot, standing in for lack of national and state leadership by creating and then attempting to exploit their own demand.

In some respects I feel this is where I came in. When I entered the world of technology-based economic development in the 1980s, President Reagan had withdrawn the federal government from almost all aspects of economic development. Recognizing that all job creation is ultimately local, it was state governments that stood up to the challenge and built the organizational tools of tbed that now increasingly connect the advanced scientific research that the federal government sponsors at our universities to the job-creating genius of American industrial capitalism.

In fact, I wish that Emerald Cities had included more insight from working investors who hope to make money in this sector. They might have provided additional reinforcement for the point that sustainability is not itself a technology. It’s a market use for dozens of technologies, ranging from software to electrical engineering to industrial biotechnology. Just because there can’t be multiple cities that lead in solar-cell production doesn’t mean the game is over by any means.

Additional focus on the economics of investment in sustainable technology would also have drawn out a point made a couple of times in general terms in Emerald Cities: that without radical reform of America’s trade policies and what we demand not only of our global trading partners but also of our own industrial corporations, high-tech startups, and their investors, we are unlikely to hold onto as much of the value chain as would be desirable in order to make the most of these strategies.

Emerald Cities is fully accessible in style and tone. It relies heavily on insights from field visits and quotations from in-depth interviews but is also fully referenced, at scholarly standards, to government and industry data and prior publications. Overall, this is a first-rate synthesis of the state of the art in key sustainability sectors and their applicability to economic development. It should be read not just by environmentalists but by any working urban planner or economic developer.

The book may not have an especially long shelf life because it is structured as reportage on the current situation, which is now moving incredibly fast. But perhaps if things work out anything like the way she hopes, Fitzgerald can revisit the same issues in five or 10 years and report on which expectations have proved realistic and why. I am adding it to the recommended titles list in my Amazon a-store.

Disclosure: I read a chapter of this book in draft and provided comment to Dr. Fitzgerald. If you buy it through my website’s Amazon link, I get a small incentive commission from Amazon, which does not raise the price you will pay over the best Amazon is offering you.

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