In about a week The New York Times will host its annual Cities for Tomorrow conference in New Orleans. You weren’t invited to present? Inexplicably, neither was I — nor, as far as I can tell, was anyone from Colorado. You can, however, write a big check, sit in the audience and listen respectfully.
The Times “… will convene an audience of urban power players — policy and government officials, entrepreneurs, cultural figures, thought leaders and executives from diverse industries — to assess key challenges facing cities today and define the winning formulas that lead to flourishing urban centers.”
The power players principally come from the long-established Cities of Yesterday — New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami and Houston. The theme: How do the greatest cities succeed?
The subtext: We’re the big dogs, we’ll stay the big dogs and ambitious little cities like Colorado Springs aren’t part of the club and never will be.
“As always,” the conference blurb states, “Cities for Tomorrow will feature the high-level analysis that only The New York Times can deliver, through discussions with the newsmakers driving pivotal urban change.”
To prevail and prosper for generations, cities can’t be one-trick ponies. Detroit relied on the automobile industry and its well-paid workforce until suburban flight and a changing industry almost destroyed it. New York seemed to be on a similar path in the 1970s, but it recovered spectacularly, thanks to its diverse economy and financially savvy leaders such as Felix Rohatyn and David Rockefeller.
Detroit might not have recovered its former glory, but it’s on the mend. Yet once-thriving smaller cities in the industrial Midwest such as Dayton, Akron and Toledo in Ohio are still struggling.
Colorado Springs is at the forefront of medium-sized American cities. Our business climate is as good or better than any of our peers’, our natural environment is unsurpassed, our future seems unlimited, our local governments are in amazingly good hands, our economy is strong and our workforce skilled and resilient — so what could go wrong?
If current trends continue, the city’s population should reach 1 million before 2045. Imagine that shining city beneath Pikes Peak, with its vibrant, shimmering downtown, its swift and efficient public transit system, its green urban canopy and its vast bike and trails network. Imagine its great museums, schools and universities, as well as its self-renewing, perpetually innovative entrepreneurial business community.
I imagined great things when I moved back to my native city in 1981, and I haven’t been disappointed. It has been a great ride, and it still is — and if our collective future depends solely upon us, we have nothing to worry about.
But it doesn’t. We are particularly at risk from climate change, which may dry up our delightful high desert oasis.
Since the turn of the century, much of Colorado and the Colorado River Basin have experienced a new normal — an apparently permanent state of drought, diminishing winter snowpack, desiccated forests and reduced stream flows. Summers are hotter, and storms are more intense. In Colorado Springs, we’ve experienced two major forest fires and substantial spring flooding. As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, drought and heat will inexorably follow.
More than half of the water that flows from our faucets is diverted from tributaries of the Colorado River. Our rights to that water are not absolute, but subject to the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement between seven Western states and Mexico. Water storage in Lake Powell and Lake Mead protects downstream users from transient shortages, but if the water level in Lake Mead falls below 1,075 feet, compulsory conservation measures on the river may be implemented. On Nov. 26, Lake Mead reported a level of 1,078.67 feet, 150.33 feet below full pool.
Initial Compact shortages might not impact us, but what if drought never abates? What if the city has to implement radical water conservation measures indefinitely? What if every June brings fierce winds, 100-degree heat and uncontrollable forest fires along our urban/wildland interface? We’d be a parched, lawn-less and treeless settlement backdropped by blackened mountain forests.
As Bill McKibben wrote recently, “Simple inertia and the human tendency to prioritize short-term gains has played a role” in the sluggish response to the dangers of climate change, but we’re running out of time. It’s up to the politicians, and they’ve dithered, delayed and denied for 30 years.
Good luck to you — this septuagenarian will be long gone.