As one of our nations most progressive small cities, Davis, California, is already a cool place to live for its 63,000 residents. It is the quintessential American small town, with a Birkenstock vibe and politically active culture. Home to an eclectic mix of environmentalists, students, academics, and entrepreneurs, this bucolic area just west of California’s capital city is a model for smartgrowth livability. Residents with graduate degrees outnumber those in almost every other U.S. city. An abundance of bike paths support the highest per capita number of bikes of any U.S. locale.

Not content to rest on its laurels – or perhaps laureates — Davis is now seeking to further its coolness reputation by becoming America’s first carbon neutral city. This ambitious undertaking stems from the mind of David Gershon, author of Low Carbon Diet: A 30Day Program to Lose 5,000 Pounds and a catalyst for a movement known as the Cool Communities Campaign. Building on an extensive body of experience including a beta project yielding an average household CO2 reduction of 22% for Portland, Oregon over 300 cities worldwide are now vying for this highest honor. The litmus test: Seventy-five percent of all households must contribute to the reductions targeted for a given city.

Davis may have a leg up on its competition, however. Located in the Sacramento region due east of San Francisco, the city has a longestablished reputation as an ecologically innovative locale. It boasts a series of distinctive firsts: the first dedicated bike lanes; the first city to adopt legislation requiring energy efficiency tied to the local climate—a precursor to California’s Title 24, which was the first state law of its type in the nation. Davis also has a strict growth ordinance to ensure that the built environment is managed in a sustainable fashion.

Downtown Davis, California

Using parameters ensuing from California’s landmark AB 32 legislation on carbon reduction goals, the City of Davis has set up an initial target of reducing up to 50% of the community’s carbon emissions by 2013. Recognizing that half of an areas carbon footprint is at the residential level, city leaders are actively encouraging grassroots participation from the local populous. “Our goal is to position Davis to be at the forefront of the climatic transitions currently taking place worldwide,” says Mitch Sears, director of sustainability for the City of Davis.

A lofty goal, to say the least, but how will the city know when it has hit its target? How will it actually measure success? Sears says that the City of Davis has gone to great lengths to ensure that its carbon reduction efforts are supported with solid industry based data. “We’ve tried to capture information from regional organizations such as the Sacramento Area Council of Governments and the California Air Resources Board, among others, to ensure that our expectations are realistically grounded. That being said, we recognize that the numbers we are using aren’t exact science or bullet proof.”

Daniel Lerch, author of “Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainties,” the first major local government guidebook on peak oil and global warming, says that on a macro scale it’s nearly impossible for most of us in the modern world to achieve “pure” carbon neutrality. However, he adds, this should in no way discredit efforts like those of the city of Davis to make an impact on this pressing issue. “There are many good reasons why we should all try to reduce our carbon footprint, and global warming is only one of them,” says Lerch. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we can erase our impacts. At best, we can minimize them—and frankly that’s plenty good enough.”

While known for activism and outreach, it remains to be seen whether this otherwise forward-thinking community is truly up for the task. “The single biggest challenge we face is in engaging the community—moving them from interested bystanders to active participants,” says City Director Sears. “Nevertheless, we believe that we’re better prepared to do this than any other city in the nation, based on our long history and track record regarding sustainability.”

Indeed, if there is a city that merits consideration is terms of readiness for this goal, Davis deserve top consideration. Even if the outcome fails to hit the stated target bulls-eye, any substantive reduction will represent a major feat–another first in the city’s cap.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at