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Sustainability year in review

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/21/07 @ 10:45am

This green transportation year-end article reminds me that it's time to look back on 2007 and review the landscape of sustainability in Northeast Ohio.

What were some of the hot topics of discussion? Where did we make progress, and what is still in the idea formation stage? We can use your help deciding what practice areas need more attention next year, so weigh in here.

Northeast Ohio played host to a handful of national sustainability conferences including Solar 2007 and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which focused much needed attention on how cities are rising up to the challenge of climate change, adopting policies that promote green economic development or finding simply elegant solutions like rain gardens, rain barrels and porous pavement. As part of Mayor Jackson's new focus on sustainable development, Cleveland will tie capital improvement loans to energy performance standards in buildings. The city is also taking steps to move from grey to green infrastructure with its new policy to allow homeowners to disconnect their downspouts and connect them to rain barrels or feed rain gardens.

Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Youngstown-all of Ohio's cities-are looking to the state for strong leadership in passing an Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard which will force utilities to produce 12% of their power from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2025. A loose coalition including the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Foundation, Cuyahoga County, the Home Builders Association and environmental groups are asking lawmakers to put in benchmarks, to hold the utilities accountable and to establish an environment for the growth of renewable energy in the state, such as local efforts to build a wind farm on Lake Erie.

Groups like the Blue-Green Alliance, the Apollo Project and Bioneers Cleveland held conferences and meetings to promote "Green Collar" jobs. Entrepreneurs for Sustainability grew at an impressive clip, throwing down a challenge to the area to install more solar panels-a challenge that was answered in part by Jacob's Field, the Great Lakes Science Center and with a pilot solar thermal project for the city of Cleveland starting with the installation of a $15,000 system of six solar panels and two super-insulated 105-gallon tanks for domestic use at Fire Station 20 on Pearl Road.

Cleveland joined hundreds of cities including North Olmsted, Akron, Cleveland Heights and Garfield Heights in signing a compact that calls for steps to reduce our carbon footprint. And Cleveland's Office of Sustainability wasn't sitting still-it reintroduced curbside recycling, explored co-generation heat and wind power, purchased hybrid vehicles and more.

2007 marked a turning point in human history as more people on the planet are now living in cities than not. The most competitive and attractive cities will begin to embrace this turn of events with a new age of higher density. GCBL noted: "Even with demographic trends pointing to a renaissance in higher density development, changing the dominant paradigm of single family homes on large lots will take a combination of public policy reform to slow highway-induced sprawl and educating elected officials and consumers about the benefits of higher density development." The Urban Land Institute published a report debunking the myths of higher density development. It may prove valuable as Cleveland and surrounding suburbs redefine themselves as cool cities.

As urban dwellers such as Clevelander Chuck Ackerman and Rust Belt cities considered how to improve their ever elusive quality of life, urban design solutions, such as Complete Streets, were once again intrinsic to the civic dialog.

E4S continued to be a major hub of sustainable development activity, working with groups like the big hotels in implementing sustainability, launching a Biomimicry Collaborative, and working with regional planners on the eco-industrial ideas taking root in the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, including the innovative green bulkheads project. The planning for zones of regeneration in the valley lead to some very exciting developments along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail, including new multi-use paths in the industrial valley, to and from Cleveland neighborhoods at Treadway Creek and Morgana Run, and even the Cleveland MetroParks' first mountain bike park.

Ecological design and preservation were two hot topics as sustainability became the buzz word of 2007. Cuyahoga County Commissioners promised to preserve the eastern end of Whiskey Island as a natural area (a prairie of native plants will be planted next spring) and the commissioners yielded to the grassroots efforts to preserve the only built skyscraper of Bauhaus master Marcel Breuer, proving that reasoned arguments for adaptive reuse can lead to a green outcome, even occasionally for modern architecture. The efforts to preserve the Breuer raised issues of what is an effective vernacular or regional response to our architectural needs? Meanwhile, commuter rail from Cleveland to Lorain got a boost from the efforts of All Aboard Ohio who sowed up political support from leaders along the rail line, advocates argued for better transportation options on (or rather than) the Innerbelt Bridge, a Transit Oriented Development was explored in University Circle and business started incorporating sustainability plans.

Cleveland's ranking near the top of the nation's poorest cities was exacerbated by the foreclosure crisis and the city's credit problems, lending more credence to strategic investments around anchor blocks, as Neighborhood Progress, Inc. announced it will do. NPI, Cleveland Foundation, Building Cleveland by Design and others are working on a green neighborhood initiative in the form of four LEED-Neighborhood Development pilot projects-a coup for the region as developers will have an up-close-and-personal experience with "green urbanism."

The industrial glacier has retreated in fits and starts. It's been hard to be confident that a different future is possible. But in the last few years a transformation has been gaining momentum, David Beach writes here. People have begun to see new possibilities in the landscape-clean industries, a beautiful lakefront, regeneration of the Cuyahoga River valley, a green city of revitalized neighborhoods, a countryside of protected farmland and natural areas, regional collaboration and strategies to reduce concentrated poverty, wind turbines, greenways, bikeways, healthy local food, and countless other visions of sustainability rooted in the potential of this place.

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