The Mark Alan Hughes Challenge

Sept. 22

By Seth Budick
For PlanPhilly

Between glances at the deluge of e-mails on his Blackberry, Mark Alan Hughes spends a lot of his time these days thinking about the future.  In an interview last week, Philadelphia’s new Director of Sustainability mused about the city’s potential to meet the mayor’s challenge of becoming the greenest city in America.  In the process, Hughes provided a preview of the strategy and ideas that might actually get us there. 

In a sign of the enthusiasm that has greeted his appointment, Hughes said that he could easily spend his days simply responding to the outpouring of offers of assistance that he receives daily by phone, mail, and that ubiquitous Blackberry.  That makes sense since sustainability has become “one of the most engaging things you can possibly be working on in any government in the world right now,” he said.

So how does the man in charge of sustainability define that term?  Hughes suggested what he called the classic definition: “meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”  “For me,” he went on to say, “what that really means is that that’s where the present and the future come together and negotiate what they owe each other.  Sustainability is really the treaty table where that stuff gets worked out.”  One of leadership’s responsibilities, he believes, is to be the future’s advocate at that table.  “What we’ve got in Nutter is a game changer who is prepared to talk about the future’s place in present decisions,” he said.

Though he’s barely had time to settle into his office, Hughes already has a clear sense of his role as the first Director of Sustainability, and that role flows directly from the mayor’s green challenge.  “He’s got this aspiration, he wants to know how he can act on it.  My job is to figure out how to set it up,” he said.  Hughes therefore sees one of his primary responsibilities as bringing the mayor “actionable decisions that he can demonstrate, and make real.”

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The second part of the job, in Hughes’ opinion, has to do with those messages piling up on his Blackberry.  Hughes says he wants to build the organizational capacity to take advantage of all that enthusiasm for sustainability, both inside and outside of government.  He pointed to the announcement two weeks ago of the Sustainability Advisory Board as a tangible sign of that capacity building.  The 21-member regional and multi-sector board “will help guide and react to some of our early ideas around this,” he said.

So what are those ideas, and how will Hughes and his team implement them?  To answer that question, he pulled out a dog-eared copy of plaNYC, a blueprint for a “Greener, Greater New York” announced by that city in 2007.  With 127 initiatives organized under 10 goals, plaNYC lays out an explicit framework for achieving a sustainable future by improving everything from energy efficiency to transit access.  “We’re ripping this off,” Hughes said only half facetiously.  “We’re using that as a template, we’re crafting the 10 or so organizing goals that will help us frame the specific initiatives that we plan to pursue over the next seven years.”  Unable to resist putting a Philadelphia stamp on his version, Hughes likes to refer to it as Phlan.

Organizing those initiatives into a single document has multiple advantages, according to Hughes.  First, it makes it easy to keep track of a broad set of goals.  It becomes, as he put it, “the place that inventories what everybody’s doing.  So it’s not all in my head because I’ve talked to everybody across government, but actually it starts to become a tangible inventory of things.”

Second, the document will contain clear metrics for progress on each of those initiatives, a means of answering the question: how will we know if we’ve become the greenest city in the country?  As far as providing that answer, “I think that there is no one metric,” Hughes said. “But it’s very important to design a metric for each of your goals.”  And it’s those metrics that will provide the necessary accountability over the coming years.  The plan, as he put it, “literally becomes this kind of encyclopedia.  You can turn to page 127 and say, ‘how’s that going?’”

Accountability also means adopting goals that can be met within a meaningful time frame, according to Hughes.  While he doesn’t hesitate to laud plaNYC, Hughes pointed out an important distinction between it and Phlan, and in the process expressed optimism for the prospects of the current administration.  “plaNYC came at the end of the Bloomberg administration and Phlan is coming at the beginning of the Nutter administration, so this document, this framework, it’s a 2015 plan.”  Hughes drew a stark contrast between the Nutter administration’s commitment to progress within its own tenure, and the ease with which elected officials often talk about goals for 2020, 2030, or some other point far off in the future. 

Along those lines, a key component of plaNYC thus far has been the city’s willingness to issue an annual report card on its progress.   Asked if Philadelphia would similarly be providing regular assessments, Hughes’ answer was emphatic: “Oh yeah.”  “For every year, we’re going to tell you what we’re trying to do, and that’s the ultimate in accountability,” he said.  “One of the reasons why I’m in such a madman mode to get this thing created is that we’re in a position to align the aspiration with the accountability for the next seven years.  So a 2015 plan, if we can get this thing out in 2009, and baseline it from where we started in 2008, we’ve got seven years that get reported every year.”

Hughes also drew a contrast between Philadelphia’s approach to sustainability and a pattern that’s becoming common elsewhere.  Unlike some other cities, which have created departments of the environment, Philadelphia is relying on a “matrix management” approach, Hughes said.  In part, this means that his small Mayor’s Office of Sustainability is counting on the cooperation of the rest of city government to help implement its sustainability initiatives.  As Hughes put it, he’s going to “rely on other peoples’ budgets and reporting lines and authority, my four Deputy Mayor colleagues and the Managing Director in particular, to actually get stuff done.”  While relying on that coordination may sound optimistic, Hughes hopes that it won’t be difficult when sustainability is currently such a pervasive theme in government.  “Every department uses energy, every department generates waste, every department’s got a stake in how we do capital and operating budgets,” he said

It seems reasonable to ask where accountability resides in this kind of organizational structure.  Hughes stressed that the plan itself will encourage responsibility through its articulation of a well-defined set of goals, along with the metrics to determine whether those goals are being met.  As he put it, “In the end though, really it’s this matrix and the framework that really pulls everything together so it’s easy to look up for the guy who has the ultimate accountability hammer, which is the mayor.”  And it’s the mayor’s commitment to making Philadelphia sustainable that Hughes thinks provides him with the authority he needs.  “The mayor has delegated to me all the power I could possibly want.  He has told everybody in the region that he wants Philadelphia to be the greenest city in America.  What more do I need?”

Hughes anticipates that Phlan will be ready by April 2009, in time for Earth Day.  It’s clear though that he already has a pretty good sense of its priorities. “It starts with energy,” he said, and the motivation for that is twofold.  On a global level, reducing our emissions footprint and its impact on climate change is simply Philadelphia’s “obligation to the world,” as he put it.  But Hughes also stressed that on a local level, there’s a financial imperative to become a more strategic user of energy.  The goal, he said, “is to reduce your exposure to a world where prices are going up.  That’s what it’s all about, it’s about survival in this world.”

Towards that end, Hughes wants the city to become “a strategic consumer, manager, and producer of energy.”  As a consumer, Hughes said, that means becoming savvy about entering into long-term purchasing agreements, whether those are for gas or alternative energy.   The goal, he said, should be to lower not just our consumption, but the unit cost of energy.

Reducing demand is also essential though, and that’s what Hughes means when he talks about energy management.  At the city government level, that involves building retrofit programs and benefiting from the substantial savings that Hughes thinks could come from simply asking city departments to pay their own electric bills.  “Right now, you can turn the light on or off and you don’t even know what the bill is anyway, so there’s no incentive.”

Finally, Hughes would like to see the city produce more if its own energy, whether through solar power or other sources.  He mentioned cogeneration, where heat produced as a byproduct of electricity generation is used for heating purposes, fitting neatly into Hughes’ overall emphasis on efficiency.  “We could be a producer of energy, closing our own waste loops.”

Even if City Hall transforms itself into a model of sustainability though, Hughes acknowledged that the far bigger payoff will come from small changes in the behavior of the million and a half Philadelphians.  “The mayor’s challenge is to not to be the greenest city government in America,” he said, “it’s to be the greenest city.” 

And it’s especially in this sort of “collective action” problem that Hughes sees the value of government leadership.  “Everybody’s got kind of a $5 piece of this,” he said, whether that means new caulk around the windows or not idling your car for longer than two minutes.  “Each of these things is relatively small, but when you start to aggregate that across a million people, then you start to have huge benefits, and that’s when you really need government.”  “What’s the metric?” he asked.  “Every house in Philadelphia is weatherized and has a smart meter in it, and I think we can do that by 2015, which is the horizon for our framework.”

Not only will strategic energy use put money in the hands of Philadelphia’s energy consumers, it will create a marketable commodity in a world where carbon offsets are traded, a world that Hughes believes is likely to emerge in coming years.  He also hopes that these sustainability initiatives will help create an identity for Philadelphia as a low energy intensity place to live and work.  “It’s a comparative advantage as Atlanta and Phoenix scramble to reinvent themselves into places that we already are,” he said.  “We need to extend our lead as a walkable, bikeable, transit-rich community.”

While Hughes often emphasizes the long-term savings of many sustainability initiatives, paying for those programs, particularly their initial capital costs, is a topic that will clearly need to be addressed.  When asked about costs, however, Hughes was ready with just the kind of elegant solution one might expect from an experienced policy strategist.

It’s becoming increasingly common, he explained, to secure financing for cost-saving investments by effectively borrowing against those future savings.  He gave as an example a solar-thermal hot water heater that might require a loan for the up-front investment of five or six thousand dollars, but that can be paid off in six years from the stream of savings on energy bills.  “So it actually doesn’t cost you anything except you’re sharing the savings with somebody who’s actually giving you the money to pay for all the new heating equipment, for example.”  This sort of financing is already happening at the level of “large building managers, the city, the airport, private commercial buildings, and the school district,” he said, but the key will be making similar channels available for average homeowners.  “It’s a super simple idea, but no banks offer that.”

So how might Philadelphia look in 2015, at the end of a second Nutter administration and after Phlan has had a chance to work its magic? “I hate this question!” Hughes said in mock outrage.  “I’m not a planner,” he explained, incentives and policies are his primary motivation, rather than a specific vision.  He humored this reporter though by envisioning a city that no longer “feels like it’s missing a million people.”  The Philadelphia of 2015 will be a city that’s adopted “the appropriate urban form for exactly the foreseeable future,” he said.

Hughes doesn’t shy away from describing the difficulties in Philadelphia’s recent past or the challenges that lie ahead.  But his affection for the city is on display in the historic maps of the metropolis that cover his office’s walls, and in the infectious optimism with which he speaks about its future:

“Right now, Philadelphia too often feels so obsolete, so crumbling, so forgotten, except in a few places.  But what I imagine, even in this relatively short period of six or seven years, what I imagine is a completely different vibe.  That in fact this is exactly the urban form and the combination of infrastructure, like streets and bike lanes and rail and so on.  Infrastructure and land use integrated in a way that says, ‘man, this is sustainable, this is the urban form for the next 50 years.’”

Contact the reporter at sbudick@gmail.com

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