The Swedish city that calls itself “Europe‘s greenest city” has some advice to help Savannah Mayor Otis Johnson market his city’s environmental initiatives.
When officials from Vaxjo, Sweden, and Savannah signed a pact to foster further cooperation on environmental issues on April 21, Vaxjo’s top official said Georgia‘s oldest city should become “double green.”
Learning about Savannah’s goals for the past few days, Vaxjo Lord Mayor Nils Posse has seen that the city is already engaged in green thinking, he told GlobalGeorgia.
“But also now living for a couple of days in the historical district in Savannah that’s already very green and very beautiful, I told (Mayor Johnson), ‘Why don’t you try to make it double green? If we are single green, Savannah will be double green,'” he said.
A delegation of about 10 Vaxjo government, company and university officials visited Savannah for the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneurial Days conference. (Click here for full Edays coverage.)
The conference facilitates networking between Swedish and American businesspeople. It takes place in the spring and fall of each year, with the host location alternating between the U.S. and Sweden.
In remarks at the official grand opening of Edays Tuesday, Mr. Johnson said Savannah plans to learn from its new strategic partnership with Vaxjo. The memorandum of understanding lays out a “project-based” relationship with an emphasis on sharing knowledge and best practices in tangible ways.
“We want to be ‘two times green,'” said Mr. Johnson, alluding to Mr. Posse’s suggested catchphrase. “We have a green canopy and an urban forest designation, and now we are working hard on the challenge of sustainability.”
Savannah’s charm is most easily seen in its 22 city squares, green parks throughout the city’s historic district graced by venerable trees draped in Spanish moss. These were part of the initial layout of the city at its founding in 1733 and have been meticulously preserved over the years, Mr. Johnson said.
The partnership with Vaxjo highlights how Savannah is now committed to using the same care in environmental transformation that it has shown in historic preservation, Mr. Johnson said.
Some of the green ideas Savannah is exploring – converting city vehicles to run on biofuels, retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and planting thousands of trees throughout the city – have already been addressed in Vaxjo.
In remarks opening the conference, Swedish-American chamber national chair Viveka Wahlstedt challenged Savannah to take full advantage of the knowledge that Vaxjo has gained in its quest to become a model city on these issues.
“What I think is neat about this is the city of Vaxjo is considered to be the greenest city in Europe, and this well-preserved city of Savannah has decided it wants to be the greenest city in Georgia,” she said.
Mr. Posse said Vaxjo was received the “greenest city” moniker two years ago from BBC News, which profiled Vaxjo as it was searching for a municipality that deserved such a title.
But this designation never would’ve been achieved without a long governmental focus on environmental issues, he said.
About 40 years ago, two central lakes in the city were polluted and avoided by residents. The city decided to clean them up, and what once was a hazard is now an advantage for Vaxjo, which has an estimated 200 lakes.
“Now you can have a bath, go fishing in the middle of the city,” Mr. Posse said.
In the early 1990s, officials laid out the ambitious goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half by 2010. They won’t reach that mark by next year, but per capita emissions have been slashed by 32 percent since the endeavor began. This was achieved mostly by a push to produce 90 percent of the city’s heat energy with renewable, clean-burning fuels.
Over the same period since 1991, Vaxjo’s economy has grown by 68 percent, answering critics concerned that a green economy stymies economic growth, Mr. Posse said.
Bo Frank, the Vaxjo’s executive mayor, told GlobalGeorgia on a recent trip to Sweden that his town has realized “economy and ecology are two sides of the same coin.”
The environment has permeated practically everything Vaxjo does, from its city branding to the flex-fuel cars its employees drives, to its tax incentives it offers on its citizens.
Unlike in the U.S., the environment is not a partisan issue in Vaxjo, and city governments have a lot of latitude in setting environmental policy.
“What’s a little unusual is that the political decisions in those matters are always in consensus,” Mr. Posse said. “Employees of city hall know what to do the day after the election, whoever wins, so that’s a strength.”
The next big challenge is extending its focus on renewables to the transportation sector, Mr. Posse said.
The memorandum signed between the cities also outlines a general focus on promoting exchanges between universities in the respective regions as well as economic development.