A now-predictable protest against public environmental initiatives, whether proposed law or big project, is the lament, “we can’t afford it.” The “we” is cast as larger society, although those actually objecting are usually a smaller group. Viewing public sustainability decisions as obstacles, however, is, itself a choice. What Evanston’s recent win of the 2011 Mayors’ Climate Protection Award should demonstrate is that, like making lemonade from lemons, an alternative framing can turn green measures into opportunity.
One key to avoiding a false choice between price tag and purism is to recognize differences in markets. Not all serve the same buyers. In residential real estate, Evanston since inception has profited by contrast with the City on the Make to its south. Chicago, as novelist Henry Blake Fuller’s merchant character put it, was a city where “all its citizens have come for the one common, avowed object of making money.” But Evanston, declared Frances Willard, “began in a prayer-meeting,” and grew up around an institution of “sanctified learning.” In the 19th Century, as now, niche marketing worked. Evanston’s moral and academic brand wasn’t for everyone, but early developers did quite well selling Evanston to those excited by such a vision.
Currently, greenness counts increasingly in consumers’ minds. As such, consideration of measures like a green building ordinance or disposable bag reduction strategy should include all the marketing benefits. Green building, done right, lowers long-term business operating costs for owners, tenants, and, ultimately, customers. “Free” grocery bags are as illusory as a free lunch; right now, those who voluntarily reuse bags, as well as all those marine critters and factory neighbors who absorb the “externalities” associated with bag production, subsidize the throwaways. A “green community” image as a place to shop responsibly for everything from homes to groceries may not appeal to all, but for every shopper turned off by the inconvenience of not having a plastic bag, such a town may gain two households who want to give environmental awareness their stamp of approval.
Seen in such perspective, our longstanding commitment to an open, accessible and relatively natural lakefront should not be viewed as anti-development, but as investment in the community’s top asset. Restoration initiatives such as those seen in the original Lakefront Plan would further affirm a green brand, while offering opportunities for dune stewardship. Meanwhile, Evanston’s recurring status as a Tree City suggests that having an actual tree protection ordinance could only reinforce our image.
Big-picture economic considerations must play out in future wind farm discussion. Cost is more than kilowatt-hours. No one wants to double electric rates now, but offshore wind will certainly be competitive at some future point, and onshore wind already is. To get to the future, many consumers would pay a little more to know that surfing the Internet was not contributing to asthma, cancers, or fish kills, or that their municipal choice helped build knowledge or advance technology for a cleaner world. If grants for studies can simultaneously build Evanston’s green brand while lowering real costs, that’s a bonus.
Once you plant the seed of green thinking, opportunity starts sprouting everywhere. The troubled Frank Govern golf course, which clearly spends less than many competitors on chemicals and manicure, is actually an opportunity to build a model of high-access, low-impact community golf. Already a haven for wildlife, that jewel of a green space, if even greener, would see more greens fees flow as well.
Startups shouldn’t be treated like upstarts. New Leaf Urban Gardens, Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse, the Library Friends’ Mighty Twig, and neighborhood farmers’ markets exemplify a vision of creative, more localized services that should be supported with the same vigor as facade improvement or big building projects.
Short-term sell-offs get institutions into trouble. Long-term thinking is what builds a better future. Evanston can’t win a race to the lowest common denominator anyway, so why not leverage its leadership as a selling point? The city now has national recognition for its Climate Action Plan. The citizen creativity and initiative that spawned that Plan should not be subordinated to economic development, nor viewed as the enemy of progress. Building a greener Evanston is integral to economic sustainability as well.
— Mr. Smith, a local attorney, is a member of Citizens Greener Evanston, the Mayor’s Wind Farm Committee and other local organizations.