Shelby County mayor A C Wharton may only have two years left in office, but already he's thinking about the county's budget for many years ahead. Many, many years ahead.
Wharton kicked off his "Sustainable Shelby" initiative last week at the Memphis Botanic Garden, convening a group of community members and county employees to serve on seven committees. In four months, the committees — building codes, public incentives, and environment and nature, among others — will present an agenda for sustainable growth.
"This is something we have to do," Wharton told the assembled group. "Shelby County is now on what we all know is an unsustainable journey to the future."
According to information from the initiative, sustainability is "using, developing, and protecting resources at a rate and in a manner that enables people to meet their current needs and also provides that future generations can meet their own needs. Sustainability requires simultaneously meeting environmental, economic, and community needs."
Wharton said people from all parts of the county say they want neighborhoods where they can walk to the store or park; they want so-called complete streets, which allow for transportation other than automobiles; and they want less sprawl.
"Our citizens might not call it sustainability, but nonetheless, they're leading the movement," Wharton said.
For county government, however, sustainability is important to its fiscal future. Suburban sprawl — and its need for expensive infrastructure and additional schools and services — is at the heart of the county's financial problems. Suburban sprawl also takes its toll on the city's coffers, weakening the residential tax base.
"There is no way that either government can afford the path we're now following," Wharton said.
To show committee members that environmental practices are also fiscally savvy, Portland economist Joe Cortright talked about cities' "green dividend."
Using Portland as a case study, Cortright said green policies are not about self-denial but can pay off in economic dividends.
In the United States, the national median distance for citizens to drive is 24 miles each day. In Portland, that number is 20 miles. Four miles might not seem like a big difference, but as Cortright breaks it down — the distance for each person per day, per year, times 40 cents for each mile — it is.
"That's $1.1 billion a year people in our region didn't spend on gas," Cortright said. "That billion doesn't go away; it gets spent in the local economy."
(This example underscores the relationship between the environment, energy, and global security, but that might be a topic for another day.)
Cortright attributes Portland's four-mile difference to three things: The city's longtime urban-growth boundary restricts sprawl, available transportation alternatives, and residents' personal choices.
"Government can set the table," Cortright said, but "ultimately consumers in the community have to make decisions about how they live and how they're going to travel."
But I think how the government sets the table can make all the difference.
Take transportation, for example. According to Cortright, Memphians drive 26.5 miles per person per day. Reducing that figure to the national median, however, would mean $280 million in savings.
So how do you get people to drive less?
Most people make choices based on self-interest. The challenge for leaders is to make it easy for people to act in both their and the community's best interest.
Would people be more likely to use public transportation if they knew it was going to be on time? If it gets them to work in roughly the same amount of time it takes to drive? And what if it is perceived as clean, safe, easy to use, and cost-effective?
Would people be more likely to hop on a bicycle if there are designated bike lanes on city streets?
Another way to cut back on drive time is for destinations — home and work, home and the grocery store — to be closer together.
Wharton hopes that the county can become a model for sustainable communities. I hope he's right, but I think we have a long way to go.
As I was leaving the meeting, I looked for a recycling bin for my aluminum Coke can. There was nothing. And for a meeting about sustainability, held at the Botanic Garden, that spoke just as loud as Wharton or Cortright.