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The best way to make cities greener might be teaching residents what that actually means.

"Helping the trees. Which provide oxygen."

That was the uncertain (and somewhat serious) answer one college-aged woman gave when she was asked the question, "what does sustainability mean to you?" by a pair of George Washington University students. Unprompted, she then second-guessed her response: "The trees provide oxygen? Yeah."

She was not the only respondent to struggle over that and other sustainability questions in the same student video (above), which was featured as part of a recent discussion between three mayors at a conference hosted by the GW project Planet Forward. The District of Columbia’s Vincent Gray, Cincinnati's Mark Mallory and Huntsville, Alabama's Tommy Battle were all at GW to discuss the challenges they face in trying to make their cities more sustainable.

The video illustrated the impediment the mayors' most frequently cited in their efforts to refocus their cities on the long haul: a lack of knowledge about sustainability. "First of all, you've gotta educate the public," Gray said, as he explained to Frank Sesno, the moderator and host of Planet Forward, how he planned to make D.C. "fossil-free" by 2030.

"Until you do the education and the communication with the public," added Battle, "you’re not going to have the buy-in that you have to have to go forward." In 2010, his city of some 180,000 residents launched Green 13, a 20-year sustainability plan that covers everything from the natural- and built-environment to transportation and energy.

Because of its history as a National Aeronautics and Space Administration research center, Huntsville is a step ahead of most when it comes to education. The county chamber of commerce claims the Huntsville metro area has the highest per capita concentration of engineers in the country and Forbes named it one of the world’s smartest cities in 2009. "We use our politicians to hold down the front end of the bell curve," Battle joked.

But Battle is still working to weave the concept of sustainability into the social fabric of conservative Huntsville. A crucial component of that effort has been a push for better childhood environmental education. "Years of working in the schools will give you a whole generation of people who believe in sustainability," he said.

Mallory added that he believes making his city, Cincinnati, more sustainable will not only improve its dire job-growth prospects, but also make life better for all of its residents. "This can't just be for the 'new urbanists' that are coming back into the inner city into condominiums that start at $300,000," he explained. "We also have to make sure that we are building low-income housing and retrofitting low-income housing to LEED certification standards," which he says his administration has begun doing in Cincinnati.

The mayors' assessments were supported by forthcoming research from Melissa Keeley, an assistant professor of geography at GW. In a recently completed survey of matriculating GW students about sustainable choices, she found that — while varying numbers of students associate recycling and the purchase of environmental products as sustainable — “what they uniformly did not associate being green with was urban living.”

That could pose a problem for policymakers who seek to build public support for making cities greener, Keeley said. "We need to be able to communicate to residents, but also to the wider audience in the United States, that urban living is more sustainable."

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