Skip to Main Content

National politics got you down? America’s cities and towns are picking up the slack.

It was no surprise to read last week that a coalition of more than 50 local governments, along with the National League of Cities and the US Conference of Mayors, filed a legal brief supporting implementation of the EPA Clean Power Plan. The plan, which for the first time would limit carbon pollution from power plants, is just another axle around which our national politics are wrapped. More than 60% of Americans support it, but coal companies, the US Chamber of Commerce and officials from 27 states are fighting it tooth-and-nail. In some states, governors support it but attorneys general don’t – or vice versa. Against this crazy backdrop, the message of a very large, very bipartisan group of local leaders is refreshingly clear and straightforward: the Clean Power Plan will improve the current and future wellbeing of our communities, so can we please just get on with it?!

It was just the latest, greatest example of what James Fallows talked about in, “How America is Putting Itself Back Together,” the cover story of the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Jim Fallows and his wife Deb spent three years crisscrossing the country in a single-engine plane, visiting cities and towns and getting to know the local champions who make them tick. In all, he logged 54,000 miles and visited about 50 communities, from Sioux Falls, SD to Pittsburgh, PA. His core conclusion? While discord, dysfunction and inertia too often prevail on the national stage – grabbing most of the media’s ink and airtime – in America’s communities you’re much more likely to encounter creativity, collaboration, and a “can-do” spirit for solving problems and getting stuff done.

“As a whole, the country may seem to be going to hell,” Fallows writes. “Many people are discouraged by what they hear and read about America, but the closer they are to the action at home, the better they like what they see… The kinds of things we have seen make us believe that the real news includes a process of revival and reinvention that has largely, if understandably, been overlooked in the political and media concentration on the strains of this Second Gilded Age.”

What Fallows found comports very well with my own 25+ years of experience working with, and for, hundreds of communities in the US (and dozens in Asia and Eastern Europe as well). After a four-year stint with the federal government early in my career, in 1990 I switched to community-based work and never looked back. During 15 years of service to the City of Seattle (including eight as its very first sustainability director), I had the honor of working with many of the intrepid local reformers of whom Fallows speaks so eloquently in his piece. Most notable among them: former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who in 2005 sparked what quickly became a widespread and high-profile national movement of mayors supporting strong action on climate disruption at a time when our federal government was doing next-to-nothing. His US Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, on which I had the great pleasure of working, marked a turning point in the way cities – and the world – thought about the critical role of local leadership in meeting the global climate challenge. When Mayor Nickels led a delegation of US mayors to the 2005 international climate talks in Montreal, it was an unusual sight that provided much-needed proof to the rest of the world that there was, indeed, intelligent life in America. By the time the 2015 international climate talks went down (just a few months ago in Paris), it was common knowledge that local solutions are the key to global success.

While our Congress dillies and dallies, but does very little, about life-or-death issues – from climate change to gun violence to immigration reform – local leaders are working together to invent new ways of making their communities better. Why is that? Don’t “bipartisan politics” exist at the local level, too? Of course they do – in droves. But they are bounded by leaders’ close proximity to real problems and real people, who hold them accountable for real results. At the community scale, results reign supreme, and ideological squabbling gives way to getting stuff done, rather than the other way around.

Take Southeast Florida, for example. This is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in the country, if not the world – a place where high tides, storm surge and sea level rise are converging to threaten underground drinking water supplies and put more than $150 billion in coastal property at risk of inundation. Yet the state’s governor remains unconvinced that climate disruption is real, and its electricity providers appear not to believe either in using energy more efficiently or shifting to safer, cleaner, renewable sources of energy.

So local leaders have been taking matters into their own hands. About eight years ago elected officials from Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties (a mix of Republicans and Democrats) realized that they could get a lot more good stuff done on behalf of their residents and businesses (who together constitute a third of the state’s population and economy) if they pooled their human, financial and political capital, rather than continuing to work alone and often at odds. They formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, conducted a joint assessment of the region’s climate-related risks and opportunities, and developed and began implementing one of the country’s best local climate action plans: increasing the energy efficiency of their buildings, channeling new infrastructure investments toward the most climate-vulnerable parts of the region, and integrating projected climate impacts into their land-use and water supply planning. President Obama has called their collaboration “a model not only for the country, but for the world.”

Stories such as this – and there are hundreds of them across the country to be told – are more than just a source of hope and an antidote to despair; they are a foundation on which to build. They are setting the stage for a better America.

As Fallows writes: “When the national mood after the first Gilded Age favored reform, possibilities that had been tested, refined and made to work in various ‘laboratories of democracy’ were at hand. After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. And when it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in places we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the nation’s capital. But their projects, the progress they’ve made, and their goals are more congruent than even they could ever imagine.”