Atlantic Cities
The Big Fix

How Can Cities Encourage Residents to Live More Sustainably?

How Can Cities Encourage Residents to Live More Sustainably?
Reuters

This week's The Big Fix looked at a very basic need: water, and how cities can get residents to conserve it. In Tuscon, the city waged a decades-long PR campaign that included public service ads and a mascot that can be hired for parties. In Yemen, the situation is more dire—without dramatic action, Sana'a could become the world's first waterless capital by 2017. So far, the government there has done nothing, despite repeated calls for action. Below, we've rounded up the most interesting responses we received this week.

Some commenters took issue with our claim that Tuscon could serve as a model. Commenter Alan:

I live in Tucson and have yet to discover any significant peer pressure to save water. Water is cheap and most people don't skimp on water use. About 80% of the houses in my development have private swimming pools with large water losses from evaporation. These people would never consider going to a municipal pool, as I do. The only way to really limit water use besides rationing is to raise the price to encourage conservation. The price approach has been rejected by local politicians who want to get reelected. In response to Sarah I can say that I have also lived in Europe and the conservation ethic is far more advanced there than in the US. This difference is driven largely by price. Per capita energy use is one half to one third the US usage. A conservation tax can be revenue neutral, i.e., revenues from the tax reduce other taxes by a like amount.

The latest studies from climate scientists show that the US west will likely enter into dust bowl conditions within a few decades. Water will be much more scarce than our officials are willing to admit. At present we are doing far too little to develop adaptation strategies. Adding drip irrigation is good but not enough for the long term. We must accept the clear and present danger of global warming and accept behavior modification to mitigate its future impacts. At present we are very far from this acceptance.

Commenter EthanHolmes agreed:

Bring on all the psychological studies you wish, talk all you want about people acting like sheep and following the flock, and alleged peer pressure. The fact is MOST people do not give a hill of mule fritters what their neighbors or community are doing when it comes to utilities like water and electricity.

There is a definitive and overwhelming sense of personal entitlement. I have spent years battling the water loss and waste in this state from Phoenix to Flagstaff on both a residential and commercial level. Most customers only become concerned about water usage when their water bill spikes out of a familiar cycle; as in, a normal $75 bill becomes a $200 bill from one month to the other. Then they only want to know what it will take to get it back to the all too familiar and comfortable $75 even if much of that amount is waste.

MOST people take advantage of none of the preventative maintenance issues on their house or landscaping that would save them and the state of Arizona literally millions of gallons of water a year. Nor do they wish to spend the money needed to take care of the whole problem on their property properly and professionally.

MOST people do not understand or wish to understand long term savings of both money and water ... Example: A few months ago I had a call from a tenant reporting severe water loss on the rented property which she reported to the landlord in Phoenix to effect repairs. His response? "What do you care? I pay the damn water bill!"
 

Commenter Sarah Marder wondered if there were other solutions:

If all anyone cares about is money, as Ethan suggests, then what's the solution: raising prices until they're prohibitively high?

But even that loses its effectiveness over time. I live in Europe where gas prices, electricity rates and telephone charges are a multiple of what they are in the States but it's not as though you see empty roads, darkened houses and silent telephones. People consider the rates to be the norm and use the goods and services they want to have no matter the price.

Others argued that we should look beyond historically dry cities. Commenter Bendenny:

Its funny; oregon uses much more water than we do, and wastes literally exponentials of what we do. why isn't anybody on their ass? They've got zero water retention. Less people than we have, and 2000% higher rainfall is still a drought for them.

And finally, the last word from Unclestu:

Trying to induce people to conserve water is a distraction. If they really wanted to "save water", they would limit population growth and over development. The developers and their bought politicians would never allow that though.

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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