Just over a year ago, not long after taking up my post as Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, I was approached by the American Embassy to ask if I would be interested in participating in their International Visitor Leadership Programme.
The Programme which has been running for over 50 years is pitched as their premier, professional exchange programme and is designed to provide opportunities for professionals across the world to learn from the US and vice versa.
Almost 400 former and current heads of state have attended the programme, including five of our prime ministers, and I guess from the perspective of the US Government, building relationships with professionals from a range of different fields, as well as current and future politicians, is regarded as a worthwhile investment.
Sustainability has been one of the priority themes for the programme over recent years and, given the international interest in what we’re doing in Wales with the Well-being of Future Generations Act, I was identified as a potential candidate.
For me it presents an exciting opportunity to see what is happening to drive the sustainability agenda in the US. Having agreed to go some 18 months ago before their election, I must admit I thought about pulling out after what we have seen of their new President. I wondered what sort of initiatives I was likely to see – it’s difficult to conceive what they might be doing on sustainability when their President denies climate change!
However, what I’ve learnt so far from my time in Washington DC, Baltimore, Portland and Austin in particular, is that, despite the tirades from the top, there is actually a lot to celebrate with people in departments and at state level focusing on smart growth supporting the development of sustainable communities and transport and finding ways to keep good work going in difficult political times.
The beleaguered Environmental Protection Agency still has a number of programmes which support local food in local places, and regeneration schemes which focus on cleaning and greening towns and cities. Baltimore is focusing on greening the city of Portland. There’s just loads which will form the content of another blog and Austin, Texas are doing a lot to join up the dots on place making, food security and energy.
Although their system restricts the Federal Government from legislating for the different states in most areas, government officials are finding innovative way to drive policy programmes, often using financial levers and sometimes providing practical capacity and expertise at state level to get things done.
The city of Baltimore is developing its own sustainability plan based on six areas (which are remarkably similar to our own seven well-being goals), alongside a plan to deal with vacant properties mostly in deprived or ‘under-served’ communities as a result of massive decline in their population over the last two decades (down from 1.2 million to 614,000). Community parks, allotments, cycle routes and spaces for nature are being created. Local people are receiving training to kit out local places as community resilience hubs that provide a place of safety for residents, in particular, vulnerable residents affected by flooding, snow and high temperatures.
Portland has a big focus on parks and open spaces as well as a brilliant approach to transportation which I think is a great example of the Well-being of Future Generations Act in action. The Republican Mayor of Georgetown, Texas with a population of 64, 000 has led the city to become the first city powered 100% by renewables.
All in all, far I have been pleasantly surprised – I guess that’s the whole point because in a country as vast as America with a President as ‘interesting’ and prolific in social and international media as Trump, a programme which shows the other side is probably well worth the investment.