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Writing Emerald Cities

Joan Fitzgerald is Professor and Director of the Law, Policy and Society Program at Northeastern University.  Her new book, Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, is a refreshing look at how American cities are leading the way toward greener, cleaner, and more sustainable forms of economic development.  Emerald Cities is very readable and Marco Trbovich of the Huffington Post wrote, “Fitzgerald combines the academic discipline of an urban planner with the rigors of shoe-leather journalism in crafting a book that documents where real progress is being made….”  In the original post below Fitzgerald shares how she found the fine balance between “academic discipline” and “shoe-leather journalism”.

Emerald Cities is my first true crossover book—a serious piece of scholarly research rendered as a journalistic narrative for a wider readership. In recent years, I have had plenty of practice on this front, writing several oped pieces for the Boston Globe and longer features for The American Prospect, a monthly magazine that often draws on academics to write many of its policy-oriented articles.

My journalist and editor husband, Bob Kuttner, has long urged me to discover the joys of the interview, both on the record and on background. And indeed, when you follow a formal research design or rely purely on data, you don’t get to ask impertinent questions. You are at risk of missing what is really going on.

When I first started writing more popular pieces, Bob would say, “Get some quotes” and “talk to people off-the-record.” So I did. Interviewing facilitates networking. One interview leads to another. I was intrigued at how much I learned—say about an industry such as solar or wind and the true state of play as opposed to the self-serving claims—in a few phone calls with industry insiders. If one is intellectually honest, this kind of interview is a legitimate scholarly technique as well as a tool of narrative journalism.

Journalistic reportage also helps bring prose alive. Reporting on data without bringing in a human element makes for dry reading. Another discipline of writing in a more journalistic style is that your ideas need to be compressed into a lot less space. The standard academic article is 25 pages. An oped piece is typically three typescript pages and a Prospect policy article between six and eight. It is amazing how many words some academic writers waste, telling you what they are going to tell you, then telling it, and then telling you what they told you.

The discipline of tight, lucid writing also clarifies one’s thinking process. In fact, I now require my policy students to write regular short assignments or op-ed-style pieces. At first, they hate them—they find it easier to write 10 pages than 2, which reminds me of the old saying, “I would have written it shorter but I didn’t have the time.” It does take time, and many drafts. Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, a scholar much admired for his incisive prose was once told by an admirer how “effortless” his writing was. Galbraith replied dryly, “By the fifth draft, it starts feeling effortless.”

In January, 2007, I published an article in a special report of The American Prospect, also titled “Emerald Cities”, which focused on the promise of green development. Using reports that predicted job creation potential of renewable energy, I focused on strategy and policy in Pennsylvania, which had recently landed a large Spanish wind turbine producer, Gamesa. I started out describing which states were using which policies to promote a renewable energy industry, but it was only when I interviewed the players that I understood that nuances of Pennsylvania’s approach of linking renewable energy to a broader strategy to promote “next generation” manufacturing.

This article allowed me to put together the pieces that would become part of the book: the layers of policy needed—states can’t do it alone, let alone cities; that Europe had been experimenting and finding success with policies to promote renewable energy as export industries; and that smart policy was needed if renewable energy was to create good jobs.

One of my assumptions in researching the book was that cities that were on the forefront of integrating sustainability or climate change into their planning would be way ahead on integrating sustainability with economic development. But that wasn’t what I was finding. One of my biggest surprises on this front was discovering that Toledo, Ohio was building a small but important solar industry.

I had an opportunity to write about Toledo in another Prospect special report entitled “The Green Challenge”. My article, “Cities on the Front Lines,” compared Toledo with another city attempting to build a solar manufacturing industry—Austin, Texas. It was counterintuitive that Toledo would be having more success than Austin, which is on several top ten green cities lists. Pulling cases out of the book for the Prospect allowed me to think through some of my preconceived ideas and to develop my conclusions. It was through this article that I began to see clean technologies as a way to revitalize older manufacturing cities.

In the end, I was convinced that the U.S. could gain leadership in some key green industries, but that we needed more than urban policy to get us there. I concluded that cities needed a national industrial policy to support their efforts to become leaders in the green economy.
After I turned in the manuscript, I elaborated on the conclusion in yet another Prospect special report, Made in the USA, on reviving American manufacturing. In “Losing Our Future” I noted that most of the jobs in the clean economy will be in manufacturing. My conclusion: without a national clean-tech industrial policy, the US would continue to lose ground to Germany, Japan, and China in the industries of the future.

So, writing as a journalist has been very good for my scholarly work. And I think the oft-heard characterization of an academic who seeks a wider audience as a mere “popularizer” is often a bum rap. It’s possible, or course, to abandon scholarly work for popular fluff. But it is also possible to write serious books in accessible prose using techniques of journalism.

I knew I had achieved the right balance when both my daughter and my 92-year old mother commented, “This isn’t like your other books—this one is really interesting.”

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