These Mayors Are Stealing Good Ideas, One City At a Time

At the C40 awards gala in Paris, mayors from every continent converged on la Gaîté Lyrique to share, steal, and honor each other's green initiatives. They also cut loose a little bit.
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A view of the Stockholm Royal Seaport, one of several green urban projects honored last night at C40. (Andrey Emelyanenko/Shutterstock)

On a Thursday night in Paris, the façade of La Gaîté Lyrique—the music and performing arts center just a short walk from several of the spots where the Paris terror attacks occurred last month—is lit with a bright green glow. About a half-hour's drive away, in suburbs to the northeast, diplomats from around the world are hashing out a global climate agreement as part of the Paris Climate Talks, an excruciating process that has the power to quite literally save the world, or not.

But tonight's event is focused on something more local, and more tangible: what can be done to fight climate change at the city level.

At the cocktail reception upstairs in La Gaîté, sustainability-minded mayors from all over the world are mingling over champagne and appetizers that range from tiny cucumber circles covered in diced raw tuna to quarter-sized pancakes topped with lox. To one side of the room, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Australia, Clover Moore, is deep in discussion with Huang Lan, the deputy mayor of Nanjing, China. To the other side of the room, Tommy Wells, Washington, D.C.'s director of energy and environment, is trading sustainability tricks with Jim Baxter, the head of the same division in Toronto, Ontario.

The first thing Wells asks Baxter upon making his acquaintance is something that will come to sound familiar: What green program are you most proud of?

La Gaîté Lyrique last night. (Photo: Ted Scheinman/Pacific Standard)

La Gaîté Lyrique last night. (Photo: Ted Scheinman/Pacific Standard)

This is the opening ceremony for the C40 Cities Awards, a competition recognizing 10 cities around the world for their leadership on climate change and resilience-building across an array of green sectors. Organized by C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a global network connecting top cities working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build sustainable cities, the goal of the evening is to foster a kind of environmental hive-mind between cities, as was cheekily made clear by Eduardo Paes—the C40 chair, and the mayor of Rio de Janeiro—and by Michael Bloomberg, president of the C40 board.

"There are an enormous number of ideas coming out of this group because everybody comes from a different city with different needs and different resources," Bloomberg tells me in an aside before the main event. "An awful lot of what cities do is copy each other and customize the ideas." Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York and current United Nations Secretary General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, is something like the Grand Poobah of tonight's event, which was funded in part by the billionaire's namesake charity organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies.

The night's awards ceremony included honors for Wuhan’s ecological restoration project in one of the city’s biggest landfill sites, and for Vancouver's roadmap to become the greenest city in the world by 2020. Stockholm won in the sustainable communities category for its Stockholm Royal Seaport, a major urban development testing how to incorporate best practices in sustainable development, while Washington, D.C., won for its much-touted Wind Power Purchase Agreement, the largest wind power purchasing deal of its kind.

A sort of nerdy knockoff of a red-carpet event, the acceptance speeches ranged from somber tributes to Paris (Tommy Wells alluded to the recent terror strikes, saying that the United States has always looked to Paris for leadership and friendship), to broader calls for action on climate change. Meanwhile, former Mexican President Felipe Calderón, who chairs the jury panel that selected the night's winning cities, emphasized the powerful symbolism of holding the ceremony in the face of global climate talks. It's something he hoped would "send a very important message during COP21," he said. "We can take care of the planet while building prosperous and modern cities."

Throughout the proceedings. Bloomberg served as a sort of comic relief between the more serious sustainability announcements. News that New York City had won for its 10-year plan to boost energy efficiency in a million buildings through public investments and private-sector actions, for instance, came on the heels of an unexpected break-dancing demonstration after which Bloomberg sauntered on stage and jokingly threatened to perform the samba.

One of the biggest laughs came when a presenter echoed a Boris Johnson quip from last year, when the London mayor suggested C40 should give an annual award to the city that "steals" the best idea—a gentle dig at the absurd premise that any of this is actually a competition. And in some places the evening was downright silly, as when Bloomberg hiked up a pant leg on stage to reveal that he was wearing neon-green socks—or when, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the walls of the theater were raised to reveal scores of dancing environmentalists singing gospel songs about a brighter future.

Most of the mayors, though, never broke character. When I buttonholed Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson on his way out of the ceremony, for instance, he was still all shop-talk. "Did you see what Cape Town did with water conservation? In Vancouver we have a big challenge with water consumption," he said, adding that he was excited to "learn from any city that takes a lead on one of those green fronts."

Robertson remains eager to steal Cape Town's ideas, reiterating his commitment to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. But—as Johnson reminds us—the competition of the C40 initiative is really premised on solidarity. When I asked Robertson to name his most formidable competitors in the “greenest city” category, he declined to name names. "I hope all cities are competition to us," he said, "because this is a race to the top."

Somewhere, Michael Bloomberg is dancing the samba.

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Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change” is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.

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