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Sustainability Director Mark Alan Hughes at Go Green Expo: Philly is in an enviable position

The green movement has had a bit of bad luck in recent months. This summer, when gas prices were high and President Obama was campaigning hard on alternative energy sources, the greening of America’s cities was placed in the forefront of American consciousness. Since then, plummeting gas prices as well as an oh-my-freaking-god economic slowdown […]

The green movement has had a bit of bad luck in recent months.

This summer, when gas prices were high and President Obama was campaigning hard on alternative energy sources, the greening of America’s cities was placed in the forefront of American consciousness. Since then, plummeting gas prices as well as an oh-my-freaking-god economic slowdown got many people worrying about other things.

The Go Green Expo occupied only half of the space allotted for it in the Convention Center, and most of the booths were companies offering a more economically friendly take on existing products. There was green patio furniture, green wood, green handbags, green candles and for some unknown reason, an Indian palm reader. SEPTA was a dominant presence, parking one of its hybrid buses in the middle of the convention floor. There was even a section dedicated the the event’s media sponsors which the Inquirer used to promote its online “E-Inq” edition with the slogan “It’s just like the paper. Except without the paper.”

Predictable jabs at newspapers aside, the event was worth a visit for a peek into the local companies that are helping to fuel Philadelphia’s growing green economy. Even in the current economic situation, Philadelphia is poised to take a leap forward in sustainability. At least that was the message from the keynote speaker: the city’s Director of Sustainability, Mark Alan Hughes.

photo3Hughes’ presentation was refreshing, if not overly optimistic. Hughes took the podium and immediately asked the audience where they thought Philadelphia ranks in sustainability among American cities. Shouted guesses where mostly negative, containing “Philadelphia attytood,” according to Hughes. But SustainLane.com has placed Philadelphia as the 8th most sustainable city in the country. Not bad for a city government that didn’t have a sustainability office until the current administration.

Hughes’ outlined why Philadelphia gets under apprenticed and overlooked when it comes to sustainability. His main point was that the very components of Philadelphia that made it difficult to compete with the Houston’s and Pheonix’s of the world in the past decade is what will help Philadelphia establish itself as a green city and a place ready for a population increase.

For one, when gas was cheap and energy costs were so low they were barely monitored, it was to a city’s advantage to be sprawled out and have a lot of low rise housing spread across a great distance. Thus, after 1950, the city saw a steadying decline in population. In the current climate this works to Philadelphia’s advantage. These sprawl cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta are scrambling to cut energy costs and re-engineer themselves into the kind of city Philadelphia is today and always was. Hughes noted their efforts to build light rails, hosting large events and producing varied tax incentives to try and bump their population slightly higher.

Here in Philadelphia, we have an abundance of farmer’s markets and a generally compact city. Our neighborhoods are walkable and we have easy access to water resources. Additionally, the city’s 400,000 rowhomes make the cost to reduce carbon in Philadelphia lower than most other cities.

“It’s like we inherited a gold mine,” he said.

When Technically Philly asked Hughes’ about the plausibility of such efforts in the midst of the city’s budget crises, he offered the following anecdote about the budgets relationship to energy use:

The green option is a way to reduce your costs as well as eliminate future costs … Back when energy was cheap, almost too cheap to meter, it was way simpler to pay our city government utility bills out of a single checkbook, a big general fund. What that means is that nobody sees their gas and electric bills. Not only do they not see them, they don’t pay them, they don’t come out of any of their budgets … All of the occupants of our buildings can, and do, treat our energy as free … So one of the things we proposed doing is rewarding and penalizing energy consumption. They key here is incentive, that’s what’s missing now.

If Hughes can support what he outlined in his keynote, the city should be optimistic about our future. Indeed all signs, including the city’s effort to bring this conference here in the first place, have a positive trajectory. Listening to him today, Hughes has all of the knowledge and tools at his disposal to make a greener city a reality. Most importantly, he has a mayor who made pledged to make the city the greenest in the country. But, at a time of drastic budget cuts and an economics crisis threatening to move the city’s unemployment rate into the double digits, it’s easy to be fearful that those resources might be used elsewhere.

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