Special Report

How to Save the Global Economy: Build Green Cities

Want to grow the economy? Shrink your city's emissions.

In tough times, some of us see protecting the climate as a luxury, but that's an outdated 20th-century worldview from a time when we thought industrialization was the end goal, waste was growth, and wealth meant a thick haze of air pollution.

Cities and urbanization are the story of the 21st century. Already, most of us live in cities. Over the next 40 years, though, we'll ride a building boom unlike anything humanity has ever seen, or may ever see again, as the world's cities swell by billions. Cities at the center of this demographic revolution will be utterly changed.

All that growth means opportunity -- at a time when we badly need it. In all sorts of ways, how we build our cities determines how we use energy within them. Denser, more walkable communities use much less energy than car-dependent ones. Multifamily homes use much less than homes on big lots. Compact urban infrastructure beats sprawling systems. Even consumer choices change in compact communities: How many condo owners, after all, have home gyms? Climate-focused city planning can lead to massive reductions in per capita energy use. That, in turn, can spur rapid economic growth.

Cities at the cutting edge of this kind of development, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, aim to be carbon-neutral within 20 years. Change at that speed means not just doing things differently but doing different things and starting now. Top of the list: avoiding big investments in outdated projects such as highway construction in favor of concentrating resources on transforming key neighborhoods, extending transit systems, and upgrading infrastructure.

Carbon-neutral cities will also help uncage urban innovation, given that making them carbon-zero will involve a million opportunities to do things better in nearly every industry. I suggest new innovation zones: specific parts of cities (perhaps currently underutilized or abandoned) that can be turned over to small- and mid-scale experiments in carbon-zero work, commerce, and living. Think of them as seedbeds for new urban ways of life. Guided by clear, basic rules and fast-tracked permitting, and encouraged by connections with local industry and universities, such zones could quickly become hothouses for growing the kinds of city-building businesses that will feed the global economy as it surges into this urban century. If they bloom, they will draw the kind of creative young people every city is fighting for; what many of the brightest of the next generation want most of all is to participate in making a better future.

With good climate-focused city planning and a commitment to urban innovation, cities will begin to revitalize neighborhoods, prepare local businesses for global competition and rising energy costs, and become magnets for talent and new thinking. A hundred cities committed to carbon-zero futures would be a hundred cities on their way back to prosperity -- and a brighter future for the planet.

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Special Report

How to Save the Global Economy: Get Healthy, Get Wealthy

Not all of our economic problems are strictly economic in nature.

Consider the interlocking crises in unemployment, health (often caused by lack of exercise and too much food), and education. These conditions exacerbate one another: The unemployed lack the funds to take good care of their health, people with bad health may have trouble keeping a job or staying in school, and inadequate education limits people's employment options and may limit their understanding of how to maintain their health.

Economists speak the language of interest rates, currency wars, and infrastructure investment. But what if we invested in people instead? Bad health costs billions of dollars; preventive care and behavior change could cut that in half -- and restore or retain health for millions of people as well.

One challenge is that health is not just a question of knowledge; it's a set of behaviors you need to be motivated to engage in and tempations you need to avoid. That's actually an opportunity, though, because the best motivational tool is other people. That is, keeping people healthy is in fact a potential occupation for thousands of people, and one that is more productive and rewarding than medical care after the damage is done.

Accordingly, one idea is to launch a broad retraining program for the unemployed, focusing on health and health care. Those with formal education or professional experience could be trained as teachers of academic or vocational subjects, while those without such credentials or inclinations could become gym teachers and healthy-living counselors.

How to do this politically? Not by launching a giant public-works program, but by offering such training through unemployment offices and vocational services and integrating them into unemployment benefits programs. In other words: Instead of just handing job-seekers checks each month, teach them how to take better care of themselves and others.

Better yet, we need not rely wholly on government programs. For example, I am an investor in a for-profit company called Omada Health that runs online counseling programs for people who have just been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Modeled on programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, it relies on a counselor to manage five to 10 groups of 10 people each. Existing counselors may select new counselors for training from among the members (especially those who are un- or underemployed), because they get to see how group members interact with one another.

America's health-care crisis -- which few would argue has been "solved" by the recent reforms -- is not just the result of high costs for new therapies and treatments for disease (though that's part of it) or even misaligned incentives (payment for care rather than outcomes); it's also a result of the proliferation of noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, that are caused or at least aggravated by individuals' own behavior. This means that educating people and changing their habits are big parts of the solution.

What can governments do? In some ways, there's very little, other than all the in-the-box things everyone already knows about, such as paying for preventive health care, paying for outcomes, and so on.

In the end, the best government entities to address these questions (in the United States, at least) will be city and occasionally state governments. They operate at the right level for engagement in everyday living, whereas national government intervention can be polarizing and intrusive. These measures include everything from modifying building codes to favor stairs over elevators (while providing elevators for the disabled) to overhauling school lunches to provide healthy food and sponsoring green markets.

Ultimately, it will be up to us to take better care of ourselves. After all, it's everyday choices that make people sick: doughnuts over apples, driving over walking. We might as well make the right choices easier.

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