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Building sustainability into (older industrial) cities at the Cleveland City Club

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/17/09 @ 10:08am

It was a real honor to moderate the first City Club of Cleveland New Leaders forum of 2009-this one about Building Sustainability in Our (older industrial) Cities. The responses from the panelists were, I thought, informative and open about the state of sustainability in Rust Belt cities, progress made and challenges that lay ahead. City sustainability directors from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Andrew Watterson and Lindsay Baxter, spoke of the challenge they face in changing entrenched government operations, and Roger Chang, director of sustainability at Westlake, Reed, Leskosky Architects spoke of the importance of educating people to demand buildings designed to consume less energy.

Watterson said he's gained valuable insight on how city budgets work, and how sustainability could be integrated with existing city services. For example, Watterson advanced a plan to design a bridge with pedestrian and bike facilities that has since been adopted as a design standard. He was quick to add the standard is for Cleveland and that challenges to implementing sustainability include working with agencies such as the Ohio Department of Transportation which clearly doesn't have a sustainability director or plan.

As an aside and to illustrate where work still needs to be done to build sustainability into the city, it is clear from the lack of green infrastructure on the current (and sudden) expanded sidewalks on West Sixth Street that Cleveland still needs to retool the budget and procurement process to add sustainability to, for example, the RFPs for construction (in a conversation at the head table before the panel discussion, it was mentioned that bioswales, like the ones installed on city streets in Lansing, Michigan were promised for West Sixth Street. It was clear that no green infrastructure on West Sixth ? and the continued lack of a sustainability checklist at other city departments ? was a disappointing turn of events).

Baxter says sustainability is still perceived as more expensive. "Sometimes money wins out," she said, adding that metrics of how many people a particular policy or program are serving are often applied ahead of sustainability principles.

The challenge is the same in Cleveland, Watterson said, so he stresses how much money the sustainability program is saving the city as the most important metric of success. Energy efficiency and waste reduction mandates for each city department (a 10% reduction of waste is the goal) are two key areas of focus for the Cleveland Office of Sustainability.

Two great questions came from City of Shaker Heights councilman who wanted to know if Cleveland and Pittsburgh's cost savings analysis can be shared, and is there one big sustainability initiative that cities within the region can collaborate on?

While the cost savings information isn't on a city web site (but definitely should be), Watterson and Baxter suggested:

  • Set up a "green team" ? a coordinated interdepartmental group at City Hall that focuses on the sustainability outcomes of their programs. Cleveland's green team lead to a green neighborhood overlay district policy.
  • Join the network of city sustainability directors, the Urban Sustainability Leaders Network, to improve peer-to-peer learning.
  • Gather a baseline analysis of your current buildings' performance
  • Run cost-benefit analyses on city services, for example, the city's solid waste 'tipping fees' to understand if expanding recycling programs is worthwhile.

The panelists were asked how design can encourage more cycling as transportation.

Baxter pointed to an upcoming program called Bike Pittsburgh, which will provide a checklist of bike friendly moves that workplaces can take to earn points and become certified. The city of Pittsburgh may be the first to pilot the program. Baxter also pointed to the $10 million retrofit of the old Hot Metal bridge as a bike and pedestrian path as evidence Pittsburgh wants to encourage cycling.

In one of the funniest moments of the day, Chang mentioned a study that found cyclists may cause more pollution because they're healthier than non-cyclists, live longer and thus?well you see why this garnered the biggest laughs.

To end on an upbeat note, the event was sold out and, with 25 walk-ins, there was a line to get in-an indication of the growing demand to understanding sustainability.

Click here for the City Club podcast.

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