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Palo Alto in 2030: How One Small City Advanced the 'Sustainability' Revolution


Editor’s Note: As a lead-up to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Jan. 17-24, Masdar sponsored a blogging contest called “Describe the Ideal City in 2030.”  The following post was a runner-up.

By Gil Friend

Palo Alto in 2030 is still the beautiful, desirable, park-like suburb it had been for more than 100 years, still the booming heart of Silicon Valley it had been for more than more than 70. Now it is climate positive, car-free and a vibrant laboratory for the innovations that have rapidly transformed the global landscape over the past 15 years.

The shift began with Palo Alto Green in 2003: A voluntary program from the municipal utility that let people pay a few dollars extra to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from their electricity use enrolled 20 percent of CPAU's customers. Then the city council, prodded by a community organization, decided in 2013 to offset all electricity emissions and eliminate fossil fuel from its portfolio. It began delivering carbon-neutral electricity (CNE) — 20 percent cheaper than the regional utility’s "standard” electricity.

In 2014, as the city explored a climate “moonshot" — carbon neutral in 10 years or less — new challenges became clear. With transportation contributing nearly two-thirds of the remaining carbon footprint, and natural gas nearly one third, any pathway to carbon neutral would have to transform transportation and how buildings, water and food were heated. And it would have to do this in the face of the "jobs/housing balance" problem that plagued the Bay Area — and the smart growth/no growth debate that had become a contentious divide in local politics.

The council decided to replicate the CNE strategy for natural gas, with a new wrinkle: purchase offsets for all natural gas emissions; invest those offsets locally to drive down natural gas use through efficiency and fuel switching; and meet expanded electricity demand with aggressive development of local solar and distributed storage (using the growing electric vehicle (EV) population), supplemented by new renewable Power Purchase Agreements.

Then, it replicated the strategy for transportation: understand the footprint, invest in offsets and focus that investment locally. But the local measures – electrification of the city fleet, expanding EV infrastructure across the city, shifting traditional incentives (like parking subsidies) from single-occupancy vehicles to other modes – could only go so far in the face of an ultimately regional challenge. So, Palo Alto became the "sparkplug" for the Bay Area Mobility Service that rendered the private car all but obsolete by providing safer, cheaper and more convenient “mobility as a service” (MaaS) — electrifying the regional transit fleet and supporting a full range of options, from on-demand, dynamically route-optimizing shuttles to autonomous EVs of all sizes, all accessed through a single, simple subscription and app.

The biggest challenge was confronted in the 2015 Comprehensive Plan, and its unexpected early revision in 2020, with a shift from prescriptive to performance-based planning and zoning. Instead of trying to control the things (like growth) that presumably cause unwanted impacts (like congestion or pollution), the city decided to control the impacts itself. A decade of infill projects built "complete districts,” which added no new net energy or water use, carbon emissions or transportation demand — and often improved those four factors. These districts went a long way to solving the jobs/housing balance, improving housing affordability while reducing congestion, and enriching neighborhood texture and the urban forest that gave Palo Alto its distinctive feel.

The forest evolved, too, in anticipation of changing climate. The 2013 Urban Forest Master Plan supported a gradual, systematic shift of plantings — initially of the park and street trees that city government controlled, then corporate campuses, and eventually residential lawns and yards — from only 7 percent native or drought-tolerant in 2014 to nearly 20 percent in 2030, on the way to a planned 80 percent by 2050. As always, the design criteria were efficiency, beauty and joy.

Tying it all together — some would say driving innovation and engagement — was the 2016 Open City Dashboard that delivered live, real-time performance and status feedback to everyone from city employees to local businesses to residents all over town. This offered a clear line of sight connecting their actions, the impacts of their actions and their aspirations — and it connected them with what they could each do to contribute. The result: autonomous actors advancing a common goal, and bringing alive the promise of “meeting the needs of the present while enhancing the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

For “what is the city,” as the city manager was fond of quoting from "Coriolanus," “but the people?"

Note: This is speculative fiction and does not reflect official city policy. Yet.

Image credit: Flickr/Richard Masoner

3p Contributor

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