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Northeast Ohio stories to watch in 2015

Marc Lefkowitz  |  01/08/15 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Explore, Live, Transform

We’re thinking about what true sustainability will be like in Northeast Ohio—and what needs to happen in 2015 to bring it into greater focus. As always, we plan to bring you coverage of these and other important stories in the coming year.

What are your recommendations for the local stories to watch in 2015? Post a comment below with your ideas.

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Buildings

Buildings account for nearly half of our energy use—and half of the greenhouse gas emissions—in Northeast Ohio. And buildings are where we spend most of our time. So improving the performance and livability of our buildings must be a major part of the region’s sustainability agenda. We will follow the progress of green building in the coming year with an eye on:

  • The Cleveland 2030 District will be expanding efforts to reduce energy use in large buildings by offering a new platform for building owners to share information and take action.
  • The City of Cleveland has set a goal in its Cleveland Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions 20% by 2020 and 50% by 2050, with a big chunk of those reductions coming from buildings. We’ll look to how the city engages the community and business sector to meet these goals.
  • Is Northeast Ohio (and the world) ready for the Living Building Challenge? When Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation built a Living Building they created the greenest building in the world. It is tantalizing to think Ohio could bring the title home...or at least get a few more buildings that meet the Passive House standard for energy performance like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s SmartHome.
  • We’ll look at where the state standards for green building are heading, including the recent controversy at the Ohio General Assembly about the standards getting tougher.
  • In a slow-growth region like Northeast Ohio, much of the energy savings from buildings will be from retrofitting existing ones. Perhaps the new Cuyahoga County Sustainability Office could set up a regional program to make existing buildings more energy efficient? Our friends at Environmental Health Watch have good ideas for deep energy retrofits of older homes.

Transportation

Northeast Ohio must start building a transportation system that provides more choices for getting around. In 2015, we’ll watch for signs of progress, especially how much the region shifts the balance of transportation modes between biking, walking, transit and driving.

A major test case will be the $331 million Opportunity Corridor project that will link University Circle to the highway system. As the design of the new roadway nears completion, there are still many questions about whether it will promote the redevelopment of places in the corridor or simply speed up the flow of suburban commuters through the city.

While the Opportunity Corridor will get headlines, many other smaller projects will determine whether the city will become a leader in sustainable transportation. We’ll be watching for continued progress toward implementing the city’s Complete and Green Streets ordinance, as well as expanding a vision of bikeways to include more striped bike lanes (instead of “sharrows”) and protected bike lanes, such as the Midway concept proposed for streets that used to have streetcars. It also would be great to see the city hire a cabinet-level transportation director with the responsibility to accelerate the transition to multi-modal streets.

Out in the suburbs (where people are really dependent on the automobile) there could be progress in 2015 toward a more sustainable transportation system. The Cuyahoga County Planning Commission has just completed a Complete Streets toolkit that should inspire suburbs to consider the safety of pedestrians and cyclists every time a road is worked on.

The larger region could be helped by a new strategic direction at NOACA (the region’s transportation agency). We’ll be watching to see if the agency will go beyond adopting general goals for a more balanced transportation system and adopt performance metrics, such reducing the vehicle miles traveled (VMT) or shifting the region’s mode split (the distribution of trips by car, transit, bikes, and on foot). And we’ll want to see new goals actually implemented by changing the list of transportation projects scheduled for funding in the coming years.

Is it time for perpetually underfunded and under-appreciated public transit to get a boost? The just-released “Statewide Transit Needs Study” — which calls on Ohio to double its investment in buses and trains — could mark 2015 as a turning point for transit.

And we will remain eternally (and naively) hopeful that sometime, somehow Ohio will join other Midwest states to help develop a high-speed passenger rail system connecting major cities. It would be one of the best investments we could make for long-term competitiveness and quality of place.

Energy and climate

Given the overwhelming risks of climate change, society’s top priority should be transitioning away from polluting fossil fuels as quickly as possible. After a disastrous 2014, when Ohio rolled back the state energy policy leading to energy efficiency and renewables, we will be watching to see what else the state will do to hang on to the dirty past, such as making consumers pay more for First Energy’s old coal-fired power plants.

At least cities like Cleveland are showing some leadership on the climate issue by developing Climate Action Plans and setting ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions. We’ll track the progress, and we’ll see how the recently re-launched Cleveland Climate Action Fund will work with neighborhoods to develop projects that reduce carbon emissions.

We’ll be looking for climate action by other cities and also Cuyahoga County. New programs, such as Solarize Cleveland, will offer deep discounts on the installation of solar panels on homes across Northeast Ohio. And we’ll keep wondering if the Lake Erie wind demonstration project will ever be able to jumpstart the offshore wind industry in Northeast Ohio.

Food

Local food is one of the region’s strengths, but there are still gaps in the regional food system. In 2015, it will be interesting to see if the efforts started by Growhio, plus the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Food Policy Coalition and OSU Agriculture Extension, lead to the formation of an advocacy group capable of improving the local food economy. Another gap is the lack of a marketplace for urban farmers who want to sell food to big institutions. We’ll see if a wholesale distributor can be found to bundle up the crops from many local growers.

It also should be interesting to watch the City of Cleveland, the Cuyahoga Land Bank, and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress figure out how to convert more vacant land into gardens and farms. And we’ll be interested in the spread of permaculture (permanent agriculture) being practiced by groups such as Food Not Lawns, The Green Triangle, and The Oberlin Project.

Land use

In 2014, the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium released a comprehensive set of recommendations for reducing sprawl and promoting the redevelopment of the region's existing cities and towns. In 2015, we'll be covering the group's efforts to start implementing its ideas for a more sustainable pattern of land use.

From one of the region’s urban cores, Cleveland is rethinking how zoning can improve the Walk Score and vibrancy of every neighborhood. We also plan to follow up on the landmark 2007 “Re-Imagine a More Sustainable Cleveland” study and check out the latest creative responses to foreclosures and the blight of vacant land.

Water

2015 will be the Sustainable Cleveland initiative's Celebration Year of Clean Water, and a myriad of activities are planned. We'll be watching to see how all the activities not only make a difference for clean water but help to shift the region's culture -- so we have a deeply rooted consciousness of ourselves as water beings on the shore of a Great Lake.

Since stormwater runoff is a major source of water pollution and erosion damage, we'll be watching to see if the Ohio Supreme Court will allow the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to have a stormwater program.

We'll also be monitoring the progress of cleanup efforts in the Cuyahoga River Area of Concern, hoping that a final strategy for healing the river can be figured out in 2015.

Connecting to nature

Humans need to be connected to nature. It's an innate response of "biophilia." We are healthier and happier when we see nature, walk in nature, experience nature. We need nature all around us.

In 2015, we'll be watching how Northeast Ohio connects people to nature—in buildings, streets, cities, and at larger, regional scales. For example, we'll be watching the progress toward improving lakefront parks, finishing the northern end Towpath Trail through the Flats in Cleveland, creating an East Side Greenway through eastern suburbs, and expanding greenway corridors along West Creek, Big Creek, Mill Creek, and Euclid Creek. We'll also be watching to see if the region can develop a larger greenway and trail vision—one that better connects Northeast Ohio to the national network of trails. And we'll be interested in the many projects that restore nature in the City of Cleveland, such as Re-Imagining Cleveland and the new effort to restore the tree canopy of the city.

GCBL Director David Beach contributed to this post.

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