Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's behind San Antonio's low ranking on sustainability?

Carlos Guerra - Carlos Guerra

Whether it's about obesity or environmental concerns, when I see cities ranked, I want to know who did the ranking and what criteria were used.

Startled that San Antonio ranked 33rd among the nation's 50 most populous cities in “sustainability” — down from 21st in 2006 — I called James Elsen, CEO of, who is quite open about the methodology. The rankings, he says, weigh 50 criteria, half of which use data from politically neutral sources. They also rely on interviews of experts and officials in the 50 cities, and the findings are peer-reviewed.

“We try to be as nonsubjective as possible,” Elsen says.

The rankings, the Web site says, “explain how people's quality of life and city economic and management preparedness are likely to fare in the face of an uncertain future.”

And the reasoning is simple. A majority of the world's population now lives in cities. With populations growing, large numbers of Third World residents are demanding — and can now afford — First World lifestyles, and the implications will be enormous.

Dependence on fossil fuels — whose costs are likely to keep rising — and dwindling water supplies will require lifestyle changes globally, and U.S. cities won't be spared. How efficiently U.S. cities use energy and water — and safeguard water quality — and how safely they dispose of waste are some of the things that will make some desirable and others unsustainable. To what extent urban dwellers' food is produced nearby, instead of transported from far away, and how city residents are enriched by local culture, history and lifestyle amenities will also determine which cities are winners.

To produce its 2008 rankings, SustainLane's researchers quantified their research into 16 economic, environmental and green/clean tech categories. Factored in were air and water quality, parks, sidewalks and public transit, bicycle use, walking, and “a robust sustainable local economy with green building, farmers markets, renewable energy and alternative fuels.”

“This is a relative ranking, so it's possible for San Antonio to improve in some areas and fall in ranking because other cities are improving more rapidly,” Elsen says.

The top three overall rankings went to Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle, in that order. The bottom three went to Oklahoma's Tulsa (48) and Oklahoma City (49), and to Mesa, Ariz. (50).

Though the Alamo City ranked 33rd overall, it did rank in the top 25 in six categories — 1st in housing affordability, 7th in water quality, 16th in both natural disaster risk and air quality, 18th in metro street congestion, and 22nd in city innovation.

But San Antonio ranked 32nd in energy and climate change policies, programs and performance and 37th in solid waste diversion. The top five solid-waste diverters, all in California — San Francisco, San Jose, Long Beach, Los Angeles and Fresno — divert more than 60 percent of their solid waste away from landfills by recycling and composting, as required by state law.

In the construction of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly structures, San Antonio ranked 38th. And we ranked 40th in commuting, or “getting around without driving alone,” and were among the five worst cities for bicycling and walking.

We also ranked 40th on our overall sustainability plans and in educating our populace about the importance of building sustainable urban areas.

Elsen pointed out that unlike other cities with city-owned utilities, San Antonio is moving very slowly in incorporating solar energy, for example.

But he is impressed with how San Antonians have become very conservative water users, and added: “That is a great indicator that more communication with your people could make a huge difference in becoming more sustainable.”

No comments: