CHICAGO/AMERICAN URBAN VOICES. There are think-tanks of all sorts. The Chicago-based non-profit Center for Neighborhood Technology, CNT, has added a few words in its description of the organisation.
CNT likes to see itself as a think-and-do tank.
“The thinking part is the easiest. We like to focus even more on getting things done”, says Jacky Grimshaw (left), CNT vice president for policy, when I meet her in the organisation’s carefully retrofitted headquarters in Wicker Park, a popular and trendy section of Chicago’s urban landscape.
Located a short walk from the busy intersection of the Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues, the CNT headquarters is a top-rated example of modern sustainability when it comes to energy saving and eco-friendly design.
Anything less wouldn’t do for an organisation that has struggled for greener cities since 1978, long before sustainability became a household word.
The low-key CNT has an effective way of researching, inventing and testing strategies for a more effective use of resources, and then putting it to use in the local community.
Think and do.
For this, founder Scott Bernstein and his organisation has received many awards.
Jacky Grimshaw, who joined CNT in 1992, plays an important role in making sure local politicians and the public listens to the organisation. As an advocate for mass transit, among other things, she can make good use of many years serving on numerous boards and working in Chicago City Hall under former mayor Harold Washington.
She has also been next door neighbour with President Barack Obama and his family on Chicago’s South Side, not a bad connection for someone lobbying for a cause.
“We try to find practical solutions to a problem. We show how this will work, and then we use it to advocate for changes in laws and regulations”, says Grimshaw.
CNT is mainly involved in areas like climate, energy, natural resources, transportation and community development.
Jacky Grimshaw explains the way CNT works.
“Here’s an example from our energy program. We have the idea that there is no need for more power stations, we just need to lower our need for energy. That’s not rocket science. We turn to a utility and ask them to let us show them how lower demand can lead to lower need for production. We then turn to a big consumer and show them what happens if you switch energy hogs like refrigerators, washing machines and air conditioners to better models. This gives us an example for a local municipality, a big consumer and a utility how they can interact for energy efficiency.”
CNT offers everything from urban consulting to a system for membership based car-sharing.
“The big challenge we stand before in the U.S. right now is how to retrofit all these suburbs so that people can have an alternative in transportation. Today the cost of transportation is the second highest for a normal household. It has taken over second place from food”, says Grimshaw.
“We hope that we can get people to see the disadvantages with living like this in the suburbs. Sprawl versus compact urban living is a question of quality of life.”
CNT is now working for a change in the definition of affordable housing, to make it include both housing and transportation costs for consumers calculating the impact of location and transportation costs when purchasing a house.
According to CNT, there is a clear connection between high transportation costs (commuting long distances by car from suburban homes to work) and the number of foreclosures in an area. CNT developed an H+T Affordability Index which helps residents and house buyers in more than 50 metropolitan areas calculate the true cost of suburban living.
Grimshaw admits that this is a tough question for policy makers and the public in the U.S. to deal with, since suburban living with two or more cars in the garage has become the American way of life.
“But if we don’t try to improve the prospects for urban areas and aim for sustainability, then it will affect the quality of life and the economy of this country”, says Jacky Grimshaw.
And she knows that her neighbour, who now lives in the White House, is aware of this.
This is the third in a series of interviews with American urban thinkers and activists that I met in Chicago recently. One more report will follow later.