Competing for Green Neoliberalism and the rise of sustainable cities

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Competing for Green

Neoliberalism and the rise of sustainable cities

Corina McKendry

Department of Politics, University of California, Santa Cruz


In the last several years many of the most far-reaching environmental policies in the United States and around the world have been implemented by local and regional governments. Simultaneously, however, many argue that neoliberal economic ideology, which rejects a strong role for government in promoting social goals such as environmental protection, has become entrenched at all levels of the state. At first glance it therefore seems quite unlikely that cities caught in the grips of neoliberal ideology and at the mercy of the whims of mobile investment capital would engage in government-led processes of environmental reform. This paper explores this apparent tension. It is argued that rather than being contradictory, neoliberal globalization has served to encourage the rise of city sustainability programs as a form of urban entrepreneurialism. Many of these programs do offer important environmental benefits and have the potential to genuinely reduce the ecological footprint of cities. However, because they operate within the framework of neoliberalism, they are not likely to provide the panacea of green economic growth that they promise, nor adequately address issues of social and environmental justice.

Be it resolved, today on World Environment Day 2005 in San Francisco, we the signatory Mayors have come together to write a new chapter in the history of global cooperation. We commit to promote this collaborative platform and to build an ecologically sustainable, economically dynamic, and socially equitable future for our urban citizens.

~ Green Cities Declaration
Our goal is to be the greenest city in America.

~ Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley

~ Sacramento City Councilmember Robert Fong

In the last several years many of the most far-reaching environmental policies in the United States and around the world have been implemented by local and regional governments. This is particularly true for efforts to address climate change, reduce energy consumption, and encourage the development and growth of green businesses. Simultaneously, however, many argue that the last decade has seen neoliberal economic ideology, which rejects a strong role for government in regulating business and private activities to promote social goals such as environmental protection, become entrenched at all levels of the state. Furthermore, the increasing mobility of financial capital under globalization is often cited – by critics and politicians alike – as constraining the ability of governments to prioritize social or environmental needs over those of business. At first glance it therefore seems quite unlikely that cities caught in the grips of neoliberal ideology and at the mercy of the whims of mobile investment capital would engage in government-led processes of environmental reform.

This paper explores the apparent tension between, on the one hand, cities as sites of the progressive embrace of environmentalism and, on the other, as vanguards and victims of neoliberalism. I will argue that rather than being contradictory, neoliberal globalization has served to encourage the rise of urban sustainability programs. It has also had a significant impact on the direction and form that programs of urban greening are taking. While not the only factor in the widespread promotion and dissemination of urban greening, neoliberal globalization has served to encourage local sustainability programs as a form of urban entrepreneurialism. Furthermore, the neoliberal context has led to programs firmly grounded on the premises of ecological modernization. The extent to which cities’ sustainability programs operate within these two frameworks (urban entrepreneurialism and ecological modernization) has significant implications for the potential of urban greening to move society towards greater sustainability, environmental justice, and more effective global environmental cooperation.

Though the goal of urban greening has been embraced by local governments around the world, it has gained particular popularity in cities of the global North.1 To illustrate my theorization of the relationship between urban greening and neoliberalism, I offer four case studies of cities whose sustainability initiatives each show a somewhat different relationship with urban entrepreneurialism and the neoliberal global economy. These four cities – Chicago, Illinois; Oakland, California; Sacramento, California; and Seattle, Washington – are all in the United States. Though urban sustainability programs are equally if not more significant in other countries across the developed world, because the United States “is the most thoroughly liberalized environment in the world,”2 an examination of U.S. cities can offer particularly clear insight into the relationship between local politics, sustainability, and the neoliberal global economy. Furthermore, since pro-market “liberal environmentalism” has become the dominant environmental discourse in international politics,3 examining the limits and possibilities of actually existing (neo)liberal environmental policies on the local level may help to illuminate the implications for liberal environmentalism’s impact on sustainability and social justice at the scale of the global.

Looking at the local

For academics and policy makers across the political spectrum, the “local” has become increasingly important, both as an analytical category and as a site of social change.4 More specifically, many scholars, policy-makers, and activists concerned with questions of environmental protection assert the primacy of local governments in taking concrete steps toward ecological sustainability.5 Particularly in the United States in the face of federal inaction on such pressing issues as climate change, local governments are seen as offering venues through which bold efforts to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions can be implemented and in which there is room for democratic participation to move society towards both environmental sustainability and social justice.6

To some degree this faith in the potential of local government to promote environmental goals is well-founded. Though the extent to which cities have embraced principles of sustainability varies significantly, Portney7 claims that over forty major cities in the United States have invested substantial time and resources into the development of initiatives to pursue some form of sustainability.8 This number, however, under represents the extent of the phenomenon. Over 800 cities around the world have joined the Cities for Climate Protection campaign of the organization Local Governments for Sustainability (commonly referred to as ICLEI because of its former name – the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives), including four hundred cities and counties in the United States.9 Over seven hundred mayors have joined the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.10 Both the United Nations (Agenda 21, Chapter 28) and the European Union have asserted that municipal governments are the most effective level at which to solve global environmental problems, and the EU has taken significant steps to promote local sustainability initiatives and intra-local cooperation to address environmental issues.11 From Chicago, Illinois to Sacramento, California and from Christchurch, New Zealand to Seville, Spain, cities are working to reduce solid waste and promote green business, are making major improvements in energy efficiency, are creating parks and open space, and are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, in the United States and around the world local governments are engaging in projects of significant environmental merit.

In contrast to those who highlight the transformative potential of the local, however, other scholars are skeptical of an over-emphasis on the local as a space of progressive social change. Brenner and Theodore, for example, argue that “the local” as a (supposedly) well defined, manageable scale and discursive category appeals to people because of the perceived uncontrollability of supralocal phenomenon “such as globalization, the financialization of capital, the erosion of the national state, and the intensification of interspatial competition” in the context of neoliberal globalization.12 Yet despite the reassurances the idea of the local gives to people, the authors continue, the possibility of progressive change on this scale is decidedly ambiguous. A major reason for this is that enthusiasts of local politics often ignore important questions regarding the relationship between the local and the global economy. These questions include whether the local is a site of empowerment or of increasingly constrained, interlocal competition; the extent to which cities have power to determine the paths they take or if they are largely constrained by forces beyond their jurisdiction; and if local experiments in sustainability are improving conditions and well-being of the urban population or if they are exacerbating inequality and making cities increasingly vulnerable to the whims of mobile capital. For these scholars, the move to see cities as vanguards of sustainability and social change needs to be tempered by an analysis of the structural constraints of the global economy.

The rise and transformation of neoliberalism and environmental policy

Before delving into a theoretical and empirical analysis of the relationship between cities, the environment, and neoliberalism it will be useful to look briefly at the history of environmentalism in the United States and the extent to which changes in the dominant environmental discourses and policies parallel the rise of neoliberalism. Recognizing the relationship between neoliberalism and the transformations that American environmentalism has undergone is essential because in many key ways their confluence has led to the rise and proliferation of urban greening initiatives. It is also worth noting that the history of environmentalism in the United States shows striking parallels to the development of international environmental policy over the past thirty years, particularly in the movement away from a Keynesian type of environmental politics in which the role of government is to balance the presumably conflicting goals of economic growth and environmental protection to the codification of market-based solutions to environmental problems, premised on the assumption that market mechanisms are the best way to meet environmental goals.13 As such, the limitations that this pro-market environmental framework encounters in U.S. cities may have important implications for aspects of global environmental policy.

Though wilderness preservation efforts began around the turn of the twentieth century, the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States is usually attributed to Rachel Carson’s 1962 work Silent Spring which brought to the forefront of public consciousness the devastating ecological effects of advanced industrial society.14 The initial round of environmental legislation that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Superfund, and the Endangered Species Act, responded to the environmental movement’s challenge to the right of corporations to harm the health of the planet and of people in their pursuit of ever greater profits. In its original manifestation, the proponents of environmentalism were not concerned with individual lifestyle choices or promoting the consumption of “green” products. The blame for environmental devastation was placed squarely at the feet of the businesses that were dumping the unfiltered waste from their industrial production into the rivers and air. Though not challenging capitalist production per se, early environmental legislation did succeed in partially decommodifying nature and removing it from the pure sphere of the market.15 Furthermore, at this time the federal government was seen as the appropriate level at which environmental laws should be enacted. Local governments were assumed to be too weak and too much under the control of local business interests to be able to effectively implement and enforce strict standards on corporate environmental conduct.

The federal laws that forced changes in the behavior of industry were unquestionably effective at reducing pollution, improving environmental quality, and protecting natural resources. They were also expensive. The regulations cost businesses billions of dollars in clean up and pollution control. Though from a societal perspective these costs were probably more than compensated for in improvements in public health and general well-being, from the viewpoint of individual industries, environmental regulation increased the cost of production, thereby eating into profits. Around the same time that environmental regulation was becoming a cost to business, the Keynesian-Fordist economic order that had sustained unprecedented wealth and economic growth in the United States since the end of World War II began to come apart.16 As the rate of return of the previous quarter century stagnated, many businesses pointed to the high costs of environmental regulation as one source of their financial troubles.17

Attempts by the Reagan administration in the 1980s and the Republican Congress in the mid-1990s to radically weaken or eliminate existing environmental laws were mostly unsuccessful. However, out of the corporate and conservative backlash there did emerge a new dominant understanding of legitimate environmental protection. Instead of businesses being unequivocally required to clean up or eliminate the dirty byproducts of their production processes, cost-benefit analysis would be used to determine whether any particular environmental action was worth the burden it would place on capital. In addition, the so-called command and control policies of early environmental laws would be replaced by market-based, often voluntary arrangements between businesses and the state. The purported goal of these arrangements was to encourage environmentally responsible corporate behavior at the lowest possible cost.18 The re-commodification of the environment would, it was claimed, serve to protect it.

Though a detailed history of the rise of neoliberalism is beyond the scope of this paper,19 a short examination of the development of neoliberalism over the past thirty years will show the parallels between this movement and the transformation of US environmentalism. As a theoretical perspective neoliberalism sees unfettered markets as the best way of achieving economic growth and securing individual freedom. As a policy prescription, the goals of neoliberalism are to “purge the system of obstacles to the functioning of ‘free markets’; restrain public expenditure and any form of collective initiative; celebrate the virtues of individualism, competitiveness, and economic self-sufficiency; [and] abolish or weaken social transfer programs while actively fostering the ‘inclusion’ of the poor and marginalized into the labor market, on the market’s terms.”20

Though promoted by scholars such as Friedrich Hayek for decades, neoliberalism did not become a guiding framework for economic policies until the stagflation of the 1970s seemed to prove that Keynesianism and the highly interventionist state that it promoted were no longer able to ensure economic growth. The elections of Reagan and Thatcher initiated the first phase of neoliberalism. This “roll back” phase entailed the weakening or elimination of institutions of the Keynesian state such as social welfare and government regulation of industry.21 Attempts at weakening environmental protections can be seen as part of this “roll back” period. The second phase, called “roll out” neoliberalism by Peck and Tickell and of which the administrations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are illustrative, involved policies of active state building. During this period neoliberal policy-makers “focused on the purposeful construction and consolidation of neoliberalized state forms, models of governance, and regulatory relations” based, among other things, on the primacy of the market.22 As such, the move towards market-based environmental regulations such as cap and trade programs, voluntary corporate pollution reduction efforts, and cost-benefit analysis fit clearly into the pro-market framework of rolled-out neoliberalism. With neoliberalism as the dominant economic ideology, the goal of the government was no longer to balance economic growth with social reproduction, but to use the powers of the state to promote the workings of the market and meet the needs of capital.
Neoliberalism and the city

Cities have been particularly impacted by the rise of neoliberalism. Indeed, a number of scholars have pointed to the importance of cities as both victims and vanguards of neoliberal polices, and as such see cities as particularly illustrative sites for examining the specifics of “actually existing neoliberalism.”23 For instance, Brenner and Theodore assert, “While the processes of institutional creative destruction associated with actually existing neoliberalism are clearly transpiring at all spatial levels, it can be argued that they are occurring with particular intensity at the urban scale, within major cities and city-regions.”24 Examples they offer of neoliberalism at work on the local level include the privatization of municipal services, a reliance on private social services instead of state-sponsored welfare, local workfare requirements, volunteerism and public-private partnerships, and the destruction of public housing and rent control to make room for speculative investment and gentrification.

The impact of neoliberalism on the city has emerged from two major sources, the devolution of state powers to local governments and the retrenching of the federal state as a buffer between local governments and the volatile forces of the global economy. Devolution has included the federal abandonment of the Keynesian goal of maintaining broad-based consumption through income subsidies and other financial transfers to low-income people, leaving the responsibility for many social welfare functions in the hands of local governments. In addition, local governments have seen a series of unfunded federal requirements to increase penalization for various offenses. Together, these create a significant financial burden that has forced local governments to find new ways to generate the revenue needed to pay for social services and incarceration.25

At the same time, however, other changes in the structure of the global economy under neoliberalism have greatly restricted the options local governments have for generating this revenue. Since the 1980s, the elimination of legal restrictions on capital mobility combined with advances in transportation and communication technology have enabled production to be increasingly distanced from sites of consumption. This has exacerbated the tension between the fixity of place and capital’s spatial mobility and has forced cities to compete ever more fiercely to attract investment.26 To do so, cities have adopted policies “in which traditional local boosterism is integrated with the use of local governmental powers to try to attract external sources of funding, new direct investments or new employment sources.”27 Yet despite the increased importance of local governments in “determining exactly how to address, contest, or embrace larger shifts in the global economy,” the actual options available to them have been limited by the necessity of reassuring capital that their city is a safe investment.28 Even progressive local governments are severely limited in their policy options because “neoliberalism … play[s] a decisive role in constructing the ‘rules’ of interlocal competition by shaping the very metrics by which regional competitiveness, public policy, corporate performance, or social productivity are measured – value for money, the bottom line, flexibility, shareholder value, performance rating, social capital, and so on.”29 This makes it difficult to enact policies that may promote important social or environmental goals but that contradict the rules established by the neoliberal policy framework.

Harvey theorized the transformation of the city under neoliberalism as a move from managerialism to “urban entrepreneurialism.”30 Competition between localities to attract investment is at the heart of urban entrepreneurialism. Major competitive strategies include providing training and technological services to business to defray the costs of labor, investing in consumption-oriented developments to “enhance their position in the spatial division of consumption,” and luring global corporations through tax breaks and other incentives.31 The remaking of built space has been a particularly important strategy of urban entrepreneurialism. Though cities and developers have a long history of labeling undesirable areas “blighted,” thereby providing justification for replacing them with more profitable uses, “the neoliberal governance of urban development has allowed … new politicized and marketized relationships to convene around financing, constructing, destroying, and reconstructing the built environment.”32 Because of increased “dependence on own-source revenues, namely property tax revenues, [cities are] more dependent on those that create value: the private real-estate market. Neoliberal redevelopment policies amount to little more than property speculation and public giveaways to guide the place and pace for the speculative activity.”33 This can be seen in the significant public funds that have been spent to redevelop urban areas, often based on vague promises of future capital investment.34 Overall, theorists of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism assert that, as industrial cities wither, they use publicity, marketing, and highly visible redevelopment projects such as waterfront parks in an attempt to reinvent themselves as post-industrial, clean and desirable placed to work and do business.35

Within the context of a neoliberal global economy, this inter-urban competition to attract scarce jobs and investment is seen both as necessary and as the only “realistic” option that cities face.36 The (often fleeting) success of some cities to attract capital and spur economic growth through these efforts serves to perpetuate the embrace of urban entrepreneurialism by other cities. However, as investment capital is limited, not every city can have successful entrepreneurial polices. Furthermore, the more resources that cities invest in efforts to attract capital, the more threatening business’s ability to relocate becomes. This then exacerbates the need for cities to offer greater incentives for capital to stay. As such, “elite partnerships, mega-events, and corporate seduction become, in effect, both the only games in town and the basis of urban subjugation. The public subsidy of zero-sum competition at the interurban scale rests on the economic fallacy that every city can win, shored up by the political reality that no city can afford principled noninvolvement in the game.”37

Neoliberalism and green cities
Only a handful of authors have used the above framework to examine urban sustainability programs, and none have looked specifically at these policies in cities in the United States. After studying sustainable city programs in Britain, Australia and elsewhere, these scholars argue that urban greening represents the latest form of urban entrepreneurialism, particularly in post-industrial cities where green technology and business are seen as offering a competitive advantage as traditional industries move elsewhere.38 While, Jonas, and Gibbs, for example, use sustainability projects in Manchester and Leeds in the United Kingdom to illustrate their assertion that even if a particular government or political leader does hold a genuine commitment to environmentalism, “governing for sustainability at the urban scale is consistently undermined by place competition and the limited fiscal and political opportunities for the local state to pursue alternative economic development strategies.”39 Whitehead, in his examination of Stoke-On-Trent and the Black Country urban region of the UK reaches a similar conclusion. Whitehead provides an overview of the application of regulation theory to questions of ecology. He then argues that the “sustainable city” can be “understood as part of the wider regularization (or normalization) of the socio-ecological contradictions of capitalist urbanization.”40 As such, “the sustainable city represents an economic space within which the social, economic and ecological contradictions of capitalism are being managed and strategically addressed.”41 He doubts, however, that this attempt at regularizing the ecological contradictions of capitalism will satisfactorily address issues of sustainability.

The above studies are worth mentioning because they usefully begin to articulate a relationship between urban greening and neoliberalism. This relationship will be further elaborated below in the context of cities in the United States. However, none of these studies offers a truly satisfying analysis of the phenomenon of the urban embrace of environmentalism. As with many studies of neoliberalism, the above authors offer a rather “monolithic and functionalist conception… of neoliberalization as an undifferentiated global behemoth, running on autopilot or guided by some invisible hand.”42 This kind of analysis fails to recognize the agency of people to challenge neoliberal logic even as they are forced to work within the very real structural limitations of globalization.43 As will be argued below, urban greening must be understood both as a form of urban entrepreneurialism and as importantly influenced by other logics and phenomenon, particularly transmunicipal cooperation and struggles for environmental justice. Second, existing research on urban greening as a form of urban entrepreneurialism and capitalist regulation are unsatisfactory in their dismissal of the possibility of any substantive environmental improvements emerging from urban environmental programs. In the face of growing evidence that cities are indeed taking on important environmental challenges in concrete ways, dismissing these policies because they are forms of neoliberalism is less illuminating than analyzing how neoliberalism has both enabled and constrained urban greening. Before attempting to offer a more nuanced analysis of the relationship between local sustainability initiatives and neoliberalism though case studies of four U.S. cities, two more theoretical frameworks that are crucial to understanding urban greening need to be examined. These frameworks are ecological modernization theory and environmental justice.

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