Environment study ranks Wichita last

Wichita is last among the nation's largest cities in environmental livability.

That's according to a study that analyzed policy decisions for the 55 largest U.S. cities by population.

Wichita ranked 55th in the 2011 Sustainability Rankings, complied by Tufts University political science professor Kent Portney.

"A lot of cities have really gotten aggressive in recent years to try and find more solutions to improve their environment," Portney said.

Those who study environment and public policy call it "sustainability."

"Most people call them quality-of-life issues," Portney said.

The top cities in the survey have programs to promote clean air and water, conserve energy, limit reliance on automobiles and promote local food programs. The programs also promote self-reliance, local businesses and economic development.

"This is about doing the things we need to get people to stay in Wichita," said Kay Johnson, director of environmental initiatives for the city. "If we don't they're going to move somewhere else."

Johnson, who has worked in environmental sciences for 30 years, studied the data and talked to associates of Portney at Tufts. She said she found some minor points she could quibble over but overall found it a valid assessment.

Portney has identified 38 policies and initiatives cities are adopting to create a better place for its residents to live. Wichita has seven.

The city that finished 54th, Colorado Springs, has more than twice as many — 15.

Portland, Ore., San Francisco and Seattle lead the ranking with 35 each.

In Wichita, the city has not adopted a sustainability policy, which would guide future policy decisions and encourage residents to adopt better practices.

Sedgwick County started such a policy in 2007 governing areas outside the city.

Nearly one-fifth of the cities have some sort of policy, according to a survey of more than 8,000 local governments by the International City/County Management Association.

Neither does Wichita have programs for residential recycling.

Three-quarters of the cities in the survey had residential programs for plastic, paper and glass.

Most of the leading cities, Portney said, started with grassroots leadership from individuals that promoted better policy.

Nonprofit organizations and community foundations work with cities to offer incentives for better environmental living, Portney said.

Portland has gained national recognition for its green neighborhood development programs, called eco-districts, and its burgeoning specialty businesses that support a burgeoning local food industry.

Albuquerque (No. 5) has a foundation that offers residents $30 for recycling their refrigerators. The city also changed zoning six years ago to require all new buildings to meet nationally recognized efficiency standards — known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED certification.

Austin (No. 16) is addressing water quality issues by offering residents free high-efficiency toilets. Homeowners with houses built before 1996 can get up to three free toilets. The city's water conservation program also recycles the old toilets.

"We don't want to wait for a crisis, which is how most of these things start in other cities," Johnson said. "We want to take the initiative in this."

Grassroots efforts are having an impact in Wichita, Johnson said.

She credited the group Bike/Walk Alliance of Wichita for helping spur development of bike lanes and improved pedestrian designs in the works for downtown.

"Wichita is a great volunteer community," Johnson said. "We would like to see people get involved and get engaged in these areas."

Individual residents can adopt better environmental practices to improve the quality of life in Wichita.

"We want to make more choices available to people," Johnson said. "They can adopt simple things to improve their own lives. And in turn that will improve Wichita."