Saturday, July 20, 2024

Last year’s rezoning in Kendall Square, which adds density by building upward and freeing open space, was cited Saturday by Cambridge Mayor David Maher as an approach the city is taking toward being more environmentally conscious. (Photo: Kingdafy)

The city’s third and final climate congress was held Saturday, wrapping up its four-month span with votes to ask city government to organize and lead the fight to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in Cambridge, but leave room for citizen involvement.

Along with by-now standard argument about best approaches, there were three votes taken among the roughly 50 participants — down by about half from the December and January congresses. This final session was added at the end of the Jan. 23 session when participants felt their work wasn’t done.

Like previous sessions, Saturday’s congress was a mix of small working groups and discussion involving all participants, but this time the groups met at the end, after a vote on larger principles, to craft their next steps.

The most controversial vote, given that it was taken among people concerned enough about climate change to meet from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a Saturday with the first truly pleasant weather of the year, was the final one, called A-3 or “Specific Recommendations for Response to Climate Emergency” (italics theirs).

It went 47-4, with two abstaining, on asking the city to do such things as designating a chief sustainability officer or sustainability manager to report to the city manager and creating a Climate Emergency Response Board to coordinate efforts citywide.

Mayor David Maher, who was at the session with councillors Henrietta Davis and Sam Seidel, seemed generally approving of the congress’ work, but said, “Coming from the ground up is the right way to have it happen. It can’t be a top-down thing … if it’s strictly a city effort, it’s not going to be a success.”

Although the city and council is already a strong green hue — municipal conservation efforts are under way and succeeding, new structures and renovations such as the Main Branch library are built to conserve energy, the council approved zoning changes for density in Kendall Square and recently adopted a “stretch code” for construction, and the schools superintendent is budgeting a self-funded position of “project manager of sustainable practices” — Maher expressed some caution about the ideas behind A-3.

“This needs to be well thought our prior to just creating city positions,” Maher said. “It may be there are many decentralized efforts going on right now and people are looking for a more coordinated effort. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

On the other hand, it’s the perfect time to create positions. The city is in the midst of crafting a budget, he noted.

The other votes taken were:

46-3 on A-1, a “civic climate emergency response” calling on citizens, organizations, businesses and institutions to work with city government to put climate protection actions and policies in place;

46-2 on A-2, a “city response to climate emergency” asking the City Council and administration to act on four priorities — establishing annual and long-term goals and a campaign and coalition to cut local greenhouse gas emissions, leading with cuts to its own greenhouse gas emissions, and “create a robust administrative and governance structure for mobilizing response to the climate emergency” — and report back.

They are summed up in this report.

In the 40-page document are many individual proposals, everything from developing infrastructure for recharging electric cars to fixing cracks, improving snow and ice removal and eliminating or reducing the parking of cars near bike paths. Among them are more controversial ideas such as meatless Mondays or eliminating streetside parking, perhaps reducing it 5 percent each year for two decades.

Maher is a fan of the New Urbanism approach of making neighborhoods more self-sufficient, which includes adding retail and density by building upward while replacing low-lying buildings with open space — a model the council pursued in Kendall. But he fears eliminating street parking will send drivers away from Cambridge and into the suburbs, and is unsure about such practices as the keeping of fowl, even if neighborhood egg collection and composting contributes to self-sufficiency.

“My skepticism around the issue is, we live in a city,” he said, “with many homes in the city on lots as small as 2,000 square feet.”

(He confirmed that he’s heard no one discuss centralized community areas for fowl such as Somerville or the Fenway has for gardening.)

Harvard’s Robert Winters, a longtime political observer who was instrumental in bringing curbside recycling to the city in the 1990s, said the process Saturday was clogged with special interests, each with agendas to promote under the umbrella of environmental consciousness.

But he also agreed with Maher, other attendees and the planning document itself that including the city couldn’t minimize the involvement of citizens, and as a result didn’t like what he perceived from the tone of Saturday’s event.

“Everything seemed to be focused on … passing responsibility onto the city,” he said after the vote. “I made the point that, if that’s the total outcome of this, then we’ve got a problem. One of my biggest regrets I have from when we got recycling going in the city back in ’89 to ’91 was that we had a volunteer army of about 500 people — and once the program became a city-run curbside recycling program, we never really capitalized on those 489 people. Most of them basically went their separate ways. It would have been so much better had we actually kept them engaged doing other things.

“So passing it off the city, saying ‘Form a committee, appoint some people,’ to me that’s a problem,” Winters said.