Mark Alan Hughes: energy intensity a decisive competitive factor among regions in the future

Nov. 07

By Mark Alan Hughes
For PlanPhilly

See Hughes’ piece in the Daily News, 4 November 2008

“We don’t shovel sunshine down here.” Twenty years ago, a counter clerk in Dallas teased me with that line as I paid him to ship presents back to Philadelphia after a Christmas visit.

The line has ever since epitomized for me the competitive challenge facing Philadelphia as a region in which to live and work. Sunbelt triumphalism has guided investor psychology for half a century.

In an era where energy and water were perceived as almost too cheap to meter, there was no way that Philadelphia could compete with Charlotte and San Diego.

When people routinely commute 30 or 40 miles from home to work and when goods routinely travel hundreds or thousands of miles from origin to market, Philadelphia is essentially obsolete. It’s cheaper to build new cities than to adapt the old ones.

Sure, public policies like defense spending and mortgage subsidies and new technologies like air-conditioning accelerated our obsolescence. The fundamental cause, however, was a world of cheap and falling energy prices.

But now, for the first time in six or seven decades, the big changes in the world are increasing rather than evaporating the value of the assets we’ve inherited. The main change is rising energy prices and the key asset is a metropolitan infrastructure that was built for high energy prices.

Our regional network of dense local places (think Center City, Germantown, Frankford, Doylestown, Bryn Mawr, and Upper Darby all tied together by rail and each surrounded by housing and schools within walking distance) is the perfect urban form for the future.

The very best evidence of this is the attempt underway by Atlanta and Phoenix and Denver to reinvent themselves into the kind of city and region we already are.

It’s been a hundred years since anyone walked down the streets of Philadelphia and concluded, “yes, this is the future.” But imaginative folks are doing just that these days. Our challenge is to turn imagination into reality.

So, I have a notion. Sustainability can reposition Philadelphia as a city and region of the (and with a) future. It’s our best chance since the building of the interstate highway system to recapture a larger share of American prosperity.

But I’ll be frank with you. I don’t have the time I once had to read and think and discuss. I don’t have time to test my notions as fully as I need to. These days, as I attempt to drink from a fire hose like all overwhelmed public servants, I’m a consumer not a producer of evidence and arguments.

So I need help with this notion and I want to use this great forum to invite that help.

I propose that energy intensity will be a decisive factor in the competition among regions in the coming decades. By energy intensity, I mean the full costs (money, carbon, climate, etc.) associated with living and doing business in a place. Energy intensity implicates access to food and water, the structure and cost of energy utilities and regulation, the vulnerability of housing stock and infrastructure to rising prices and changing climates, and so on.

The question I offer for debate in this region, is there anything to this idea? Can we orient a new economic development strategy in Philadelphia around the idea of reducing our energy intensity and marketing our lower energy intensity to potential employers and residents?

Such strategy would potentially change the way we perceive and use our assets. For example, SEPTA isn’t just our public transit system; it’s a critical element in our ability to lower and sustain our competitive energy intensity. Investing in SEPTA’s capacity to lower the region’s energy intensity would become a fundamental economic development decision not a public transit decision.

I speak in public forums two or three times a week and I release requests for proposals for new initiatives every other week. But on this big idea, I want to invite the broadest possible discussion and response.

Mark Alan Hughes is a Senior Adviser to Mayor Nutter and the City’s first Sustainability Director. Contact him at

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