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It Takes a City

Last May I saw a shining vision of sustainable urban living. A couple I know had totally retrofitted their house for full energy efficiency and were giving tours to show how it could be done. The house, a 19th century Boston triple-decker, had leaked btu’s for over a hundred winters but now it’s insulated, ducted, and sealed, and ready to play its part in a 21st century green city.

The tour was fairly technical – all heat transfer and r-values -- and when someone asked if the energy bills would decrease enough to pay for the project, one owner gave quick and unabashed “No.” “The way I see it,” she began, “this is an investment in our children’s future.” She and her husband planned to live there for 30 years, then pass on the house to their kids who might have it for another 40 years. This kind of thinking gets us a green city : putting energy saving over profit and thinking decades ahead. So, if we all do that will it be enough?

Thanks to Global Warming coastal cities face rapidly rising sea levels -- over 3 feet in the next 90 years 1. The specter of flooded tunnels, overwhelmed storm sewers, and billions in property damage led Boston’s mayor to consider erecting a dam across the mouth of Boston harbor. In the face of an oncoming storm massive panels on the “Boston Sea Gate” would slam shut to protect the city from flooding 2. It seems reasonable; Venice, London, and Amsterdam have theirs; why not us? Our Mayor doesn’t avoid scary ecological problems and he’s thinking on a century scale, so even in our grave new climate we can still have a green city, right?  Historically the US has done great things. We built the Golden Gate Bridge, we won WWII. So let’s get our public fix-all juggernaut out of the garage and crank it up.

Not so fast. We recently fired up that juggernaut and we got ... The Big Dig. At $6-8 billion over budget, the tunnels leak, flood, and shed large chunks onto the roadway. New flaws frequently sprout from dark corners of this project. Each new flaw -- construction, financial, or governmental -- shows that someone working on The Big Dig chose to undermine the project, and others knew about it but decided to keep quiet. Hundreds of flaws equals many hundreds of people weakening the project from within, but it wasn’t a conspiracy. The system is rigged against quality work and, even in a democracy, people on the inside felt they couldn’t buck that. Such alienation is common today and our well-documented decline in social connection only exacerbates it. The Big Dig shows what the Bowling Alone society can achieve when it works together.

Alone, we can work on our house, drive our Prius, take out our recycling -- it’s all necessary. But, if we want to build sustainable cities, or the Boston Sea Gate, or any grand green project; we’ve got to figure out, how can we work together?