Austin, TX, is a leader among green city innovators. // RoschetzkylstockPhoto

cultivating urban environmentalism

In the face of global climate change, cities are often overlooked in their role as innovators and incubators for pro-environmental policies and practices. Nation-states more typically sign international climate treaties and accords, yet as researcher Christof Brandtner explains, it is often at the city level where the policies and practices needed to achieve those agreements’ goals are enacted. Looking at the city level can be difficult, however, as cities’ effectiveness in adopting green initiatives is highly variable. Why is that? In a recent article in the American Journal of Sociology, Brandtner makes the case that a city’s civic capacity—or the ability of a city’s non-profit organizations to “foster civic engagement and to mobilize citizens for social change”—is central to the successful adoption of green innovations.

To paint a holistic picture of how local context shapes the adoption of green building policies and practices, Brandtner combined data on green building certifications from over 11,000 U.S. cities over a 16-year period (2000-2016) with information on the local organizational, social, and political ecosystem of each place. The results showed that the adoption of green construction regulation was most effective and efficient in places where civic capacity was the greatest. There, values-oriented civic institutions like non-profit organizations and community groups act as catalysts for green initiatives by normalizing their adoption and making them more accessible to the city’s population. City governments then respond by enacting policies to legitimate the green practices and to provide enforcement mechanisms for their continued adoption.

This model of “distributed adoption,” in which civic institutions lead the charge in the development and deployment of green innovation, pushes us to reimagine what a city is and what it can become. Rather than an autonomous entity unilaterally governed by bureaucracy, this research highlights how cities are lively, interconnected networks of civic organizations, public institutions, and private ventures that can facilitate or constrain environmental innovation.