Minneapolis aerial with Downtown Minneapolis skyline in the background and Loring Park with Loring Pond in the foreground, during early autumn.

3 Ways Cities Can Build Back Better through Green Recovery

As we approach the fourth month of the pandemic, cities across the United States continue to be hit hard. I recently spoke with mayors who are being asked to simultaneously manage unprecedented public health challenges, a rise of social unrest, increased unemployment, and a looming housing crisis, on top of major budgetary challenges due to unanticipated revenue losses from the economic downturn. But despite these challenges, there has been little to no federal support for many local governments to date.

Local governments need immediate, direct, and flexible financial assistance. This would also create jobs and grow the economy. Christina Romer, President Obama’s Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and co-author of the administration’s plan for recovery from the 2008 recession, did a post-mortem on the 2008 stimulus legislation. One of her key takeaways was more funding should have gone to state and local governments to ease budget problems since this was particularly effective for near-term job creation.

But this funding should not just go to rebuild the status quo. When something breaks, it’s a good opportunity to pause and review what didn’t work and build back for better, more sustainable, more resilient, and fairer outcomes. A green recovery should prioritize the following: creating jobs and growing the economy; supporting public health and reducing air pollution; enhancing economic, energy, and climate resilience; and decarbonization. Social equity is embedded in each of these priorities.

We used these priorities in Rocky Mountain Institute’s US City Stimulus report to select our top five ideas for cities to implement in a green recovery, three of which are highlighted below:


1. Move Permitting Online and Enable Virtual Inspections

Each city follows a different permitting process, and some are more streamlined and digitalized than others. When the pandemic hit, many permitting processes in cities were shut down, but Alexandria, Virginia, already had online permitting and virtual inspections.

Because of this, when Alexandria’s in-person permit center was closed and in-person residential inspections were suspended, projects could still move forward online. By automating and streamlining the permitting process and developing virtual inspections, cities can reduce unnecessary project costs and time for cleantech projects, make the permitting process more resilient, and reduce city staff time spent processing permits.


2. Transform Abandoned Properties

Many cities still have abandoned properties from the last housing crisis that will only be exacerbated by this pandemic. These properties can be a focal point for crime, violence, urban decay, and environmental degradation. They can also lead to waves of disinvestment in cities.

Federal funding can be used to rehabilitate abandoned properties, where there’s market demand, to be more efficient and electric. A successful effort worth replicating is Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program. This program not only creates renovated, efficient housing from vacant units, but also helps low- to middle- income citizens build wealth through homeownership by providing down payment assistance for these revitalized properties.

The pandemic has also emphasized for me that access to green space is crucial, yet oftentimes this is less available to lower income and/or Black and brown communities. One way cities have increased access to green space for these communities is demolishing abandoned buildings and replacing them with community gardens, recreation spaces, and parks. A great example of this is Detroit’s Civic Commons project, which was also used train and employ 20 local residents on green-collar construction and maintenance jobs.


3. Support Active Transportation

While highway expansions tend to be a go-to for stimulus infrastructure funding, this is not the best place to spend money for mobility since it leads to higher vehicle miles traveled and congestion in cities as well as local air pollution and reduced access for those without vehicles. A better place to focus these funds is on infrastructure for active modes of transportation including dedicated bike lanes and sidewalk expansions.

I’ve never appreciated my hometown of Minneapolis more than when I was biking on the greenway after spending the last four months in my apartment. Minneapolis went a step further in response to COVID-19 by creating Stay Healthy Streets which provides even more opportunities for safe walking and biking. Supporting active transportation moves creates safer mobility, less pollution, and increased access to essential goods.


The Movement Is Building

Cities are raising their collective voices to help build and be a part of green and equitable recovery. C40 launched the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force in May and released C40 Mayors Agenda for a Green and Just Recovery last week. Meanwhile, Climate Mayors recently launched a national dialogue on green and equitable recovery and wrote a letter urging congressional leadership to advance a green and equitable recovery.

These collective efforts can be used to help inform and spur more federal support for green recovery. As stimulus conversations pick back up “in earnest” this week on Capitol Hill, using federal funding to build a green economy led by local governments can be a first step to create jobs and spur economic recovery, while also achieving climate goals.