Part I Going green. What will it take?
Find out how Tulsa can become a sustainable city.
Could Tulsa be on its way to becoming sustainable?
A place where citizens live in greater harmony with the environment while still enjoying a high quality of life and a comparatively low cost of living and doing business?
Some say this movement toward sustainability is already under way and it’s time for Tulsans to get on board or risk missing out on the growing opportunities that a green future presents.
“We’ve reached the point where taking better care of the planet and our homes in sustainable ways is something that people want to do,” says Sean Griffin, president of Sustainable Tulsa and co-chair of Mayor Kathy Taylor’s “Green Team,” a panel of city officials and local experts advising leaders on how to create a greener city. “(Sustainability) is not a trend anymore. We’re going through an unprecedented level of change, and now it’s become a movement. You can’t go back anymore.”
By adopting fresh thinking and new attitudes
While the glory days of conspicuous consumption epitomized by gas-guzzling vehicles, urban sprawl and industrial scale environmental degradation may fast be receding, the road to a more sustainable Tulsa remains riddled with obstacles, foremost among them the need for a wholesale transformation of our thinking and everyday behaviors.
Griffin’s colleague, Corey Williams, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Sustainable Tulsa, says the city has reached a decisive crossroads that could determine whether Tulsa remains a vital going concern in coming decades or putters to a standstill as the new paradigm supercedes the old.
“Tulsa in some ways is a dying city,” she says. “If we don’t want it to die a slow death, we’re going to have to lead. Green energy and green jobs are the way things are going, and they require investment. So the question is, does Tulsa want to go kicking and screaming or does it want to lead?”
But lead where? For many people, even those already inclined to a greener lifestyle, sustainability can be a somewhat nebulous term. Sure, it sounds great, but what does it mean? As it turns out, sustainability is a broad concept that can mean somewhat different things to different people in different places.
“What it means and looks like for Tulsa to be sustainable will look different than Austin, or Portland or Chicago,” Williams says. “That’s because our resources are different and our people are different. Sustainability is a path, it’s a process and there is no, ‘Here’s exactly what it looks like.’”
Being sustainable or “green” may very well require a personal change in attitude and a willingness to be flexible in how its terms are defined in any given place. Williams’ personal path toward sustainability began with a simple experiment in a third-grade classroom.
“We baked some cookies in a solar oven and I was just mesmerized by it — by how fun and simple it was,” she says. “I guess that’s where my interest started, with solar energy and how quiet and simple it is and yet we all need it.”
But going from solar oven cookies to convincing people of the need for sustainable cities is a big leap that takes time, she admits.
Williams says, “Basically, I think there are three main elements to sustainability:
1) responsible economic prosperity and growth;
2) quality of life for all; and
3) environmental stewardship.
“The key is striking a balance between the three so they’re in harmony.”
Tulsa, so far, has had difficulty striking that balance. Last year, SustainLane, a San Francisco-based firm that examines the sustainability practices of U.S. cities, ranked Tulsa 48 out of the nation’s 50 largest cities. To make matters worse, Tulsa dropped from 40th in the previous study. In the categories of Green Economy, Metro Transit Ridership and Green Building, Tulsa fared even worse, finishing at 49th. Of cities similar in size to Tulsa, Portland ranked first, Austin 13th, Albuquerque 18th, Omaha 25th and Fort Worth 39th. Tulsa still remains the greenest major city in the state, beating 49th-ranked Oklahoma City.
Through growing political will
With such a dismal standing, Tulsa would appear to be in for a long, hard slog on its road to sustainability. Not so, says Griffin. If anything, momentum is gathering as influential people across the political and business spectrum come to realize the long-term value and economic necessity of a more sustainable city.
Mayor Taylor, in particular, has put significant political capital behind efforts to create a greener Tulsa.
“She is a powerful force, and that is inspiring people to make a difference,” Griffin says. “That’s the kind of leadership that’s propelling us and we’ve actually built up a lot of momentum in a short period of time.”
Griffin says he believes Tulsa’s sustainable practices have moved from a trend to a movement. Action is taking place. As a California native, Griffin already has seen sustainable practices integrated into everyday life.
“Growing up in California, my parents were into sustainable practices. We had solar panels to heat our pool, we always had a veggie garden and we always recycled,” says Griffin, who moved to northeastern Oklahoma nine years ago from Silicon Valley and today lives in a downtown loft. “For us, it was a way of life.”
Impressed with the friendliness of Tulsans and the quality of life here, Griffin says it is crucial that the city of Tulsa lead by example to inspire greener attitudes among the people at large.
“What the city needs to do now,” he adds, “is walk the talk. Then you’ll see more citizens respond and get on board.”