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Cities Are Doin’ It For Themselves

David Cieslewicz / Aug 19 2011

For Release Friday, August 19, 2011

David CieslewiczAs the federal government continues to spin its wheels and state governments keep struggling with lean budgets, cities are starting to experiment with ideas about how to create local, self-sustaining economies.

That starts with local purchasing, keeping as many dollars in the community as possible. Every dollar spent at a local business recirculates in the community several times before it leaves. Every dollar spent at a national chain leaves overnight.

Municipal governments themselves can use their buying power to purchase products and services locally to stimulate their economy. Here in Madison, we allow for up to a 5 percent premium to buy all kinds of supplies and services if the vendor is in the city.

But one of the most effective things governments and citizens can buy locally is food. There’s no better way to reduce your carbon footprint than to buy locally produced food because the amount of fossil fuel required to fly your tomato in from California is extraordinary. When you add it up for all the food a family consumes in a given week, eating locally is the single best thing we can do to fight global climate change.

At a recent convergence of the Citistates Group in Chattanooga, Tenn., we learned that a local foods group estimates that if that city were to get just 5 percent of the food it consumes from the local region (compared to only a half of a percent today) it would keep $100 million in the local economy every year. And people would eat healthier, fresher, better tasting food.

Not to be outdone, in Seattle they’ve set a goal of getting 25 percent of their food from the local food shed. But that’s not as easy as just setting a goal or creating more farmers markets. In order to make this work we’ve got to deal with the whole food distribution system. Much like old zoning codes, when it comes to our food we’ve made the less healthy, less environmentally sound thing easy and the healthier, more pro-environment choice harder.

For decades zoning codes pretty much mandated strictly separated uses with the accompanying auto-dependency. It has only been recently that we’ve started to even allow the kind of mixed-use, transit, pedestrian and bike friendly new developments that we know are better for people and the environment.

In a similar way, the big national food distribution system just isn’t set up to get local produce to local markets in a way that’s big enough to make a dent in the market. So we need things like local food warehouses with their own distribution systems. We need more community gardens where local residents can grow their own food and more community kitchens where they can learn how to turn all that production into meals and maybe even businesses. And we need more community supported agriculture, where city residents can buy a membership share in a local farm and get a box of fresh produce or meat delivered to them weekly.

But it shouldn’t end with food. An especially exciting idea comes from Cleveland. The Evergreen Cooperatives essentially root jobs in the community by building cooperative, worker-owned businesses tied to large institutions that can’t easily move from the city, like hospitals and universities.

In Cleveland alone these locally-rooted institutions buy about $3 billion of goods and services annually, very little of it locally until now.

One of the Evergreen coops, for example, provides a laundry service for area hospitals. Not only is it the greenest laundry in the region, but its workers are building equity in the business. Through payroll deductions of 50 cents an hour a worker can build a $65,000 stake in the business in eight or nine years.

Getting back to local food, another coop is a large-scale commercial greenhouse capable of producing 5 million heads of lettuce every year. Keeping the lettuce local – whether we’re talking literally or figuratively — is a good thing.

And yet another Evergreen venture is a solar installation company. That business has all the benefits of the others plus a third. Rustbelt cities import virtually all their energy. Capturing the sun’s energy when it shines down on Cleveland means that Clevelanders’ dollars aren’t flowing as much out of the city to purchase fossil fuels produced elsewhere.

A good story detailing the Evergreen coop projects was originally written for The Nation and can be found at

These are only a few ideas of the many we need to build strong, resilient, locally based economies. And cities are perfect laboratories for progressive innovations like these.

If the recent Washington debt debacle teaches us anything it’s that we can’t rely on the feds to solve our problems or fix our economy. And states are strapped with ongoing deficits and some of the same polarizing partisanship that has paralyzed Congress. With creativity and the courage to try new ideas cities need to — and can — do it for themselves.

David Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Posted August 19, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Along these lines, the local Farmers Market in the Town of Kennebunk, Maine, has been relocated in a now vacant lot right on Route 1. It was proposed that there be outdoor music to attract people to shop there twice weekly. I had suggested a group called Earth Harmony, led by because I believe that group played original diet/health-related songs for shoppers at a chain in MA called Whole Foods.

    All this is to say that music of all kinds needs to be part of the equation that helps any city or community to prosper. Madison has a great tradition of good music, as I remember it was the location of the former Association of College, University, and Community Arts Administrators, now based in DC under another name. Business owners(creators of JOBS) tend to locate in cities that have good theater and music resources of all kinds for the enrichment of their employees’ families.

  2. Posted August 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Self-sufficiency and sustainability are worthy objectives. In this vein, most public goods and services, if well-designed and executed, create higher land values. However, these values primarily provide windfall profits to those who are lucky enough or shrewd enough to own the best-served sites.
    Some jurisdictions are using these “home-grown” land values to make public goods and services self-financing. They do this by reducing the property tax rate on building values, while increasing the property tax rate on land values. By reducing the tax on buildings, they become cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. By increasing the tax rate on land values, public goods and services become self-financing to a greater degree. Also, the profit from real estate speculation is reduced, and this helps keep land prices affordable for residents and businesses who need local sites.
    Indeed, a tax on land values prompts development of high-value land — which tends to be near urban infrastructure and where we want development to occur. And by so doing, it reduces pressure to prematurely develop rural land which is more appropriate for agricultural, conservation or recreational uses.
    For more info, see

  3. Jerome Adler
    Posted August 22, 2011 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I am fully in favor of creating more robust local food systems and I try to practice what I preach whenever possible (eating local is a different matter in the Midwest or New England, where I live, than it is in places with milder climates year-round).

    However, we need to be careful before making the claim that, “eating locally is the single best thing we can do to fight global climate change.” Really? Where is the evidence? Is it better to eat a diet heavy in locally produced beef or better to be a vegetarian getting most of your food from far away? Living car-free, or at least driving dramatically less than average, might be a better candidate for fighting global climate change.

    This is not to argue against the basic point of the article, but let’s be a little careful before making big claims like that…

  4. Michael Casey
    Posted August 25, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I found the following claim very interesting: “… if that city were to get just 5 percent of the food it consumes from the local region (compared to only a half of a percent today) it would keep $100 million in the local economy”

    I’d like to follow up for more info to inform a research project I am working on right now. Who conducted this research? Could someone refer me to the individual or organization?

  5. Bill Tirrill
    Posted September 1, 2011 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    If increasing local food sourcing from .5% to 5% would redirect $100 million/year of spending in Chattanooga, this implies that the food budget of that city is some $2.2 _billion_ per year. Really?