I am a candidate for Cleveland Heights City Council. In July I posted an essay here called "So ... What's A Progressive?" in which I spelled out my thinking about progressive values as applied to our community. I wrote then that I would detail particular ideas and policies to promote these values in future writings. In this post I want to expand upon my statement about sustainability:
Sustainability. For the health of our community and for the benefit of future generations, it must be a top priority for us as a progressive community to use less energy from nonrenewable sources, conserve water, generate less waste, promote local food production, preserve green space, and minimize our negative impact on the environment. This requires not only that our government implement sustainable practices in its own operations but that it provide leadership in educating all residents about the benefits of sustainable practices.
How do we make sustainability a top priority? First let's declare our commitment to becoming a Sustainable City, meaning one that is dedicated to the goals I outlined in July, or in other words one that "manages its human, natural, and financial resources to meet current needs while ensuring that adequate resources are equitably available for future generations." Sustainable cities are supported in their efforts by an expanding roster of organizations including the ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, Sustainable Cities Institute, Sustainable Cities Collective, Institute for Sustainable Communities and Sustainable Communities Online.
We have already taken a big step in the direction of declaring our intention to become a Sustainable City by including Goal Seven (encouraging sustainable development practices) in the city's latest Strategic Development Plan, and our city has implemented a number of important sustainability projects including the recent renovation of the Cumberland Pool parking lot to reduce water runoff, utilization of solar cells at the Cedar Lee parking structure and the new Denison Park soccer field, installation of energy efficient lighting at the Community Center, support for a Solar Energy Special Improvement District, and most importantly the pending amendments to our zoning code to accomodate modern sustainable practices.
These are all great steps and I applaud them, but in the race to sustainability they represent the starting gun rather than the finish line. They should spur us on to develop a more comprehensive and high-profile sustainability program, so that we can become and be recognized as a leading sustainable community.
Having a comprehensive sustainability program is undisputably the right thing to do in order to help respond to the threat of global warming, increase our nation's energy independence, and preserve resources for future generations. It is also a smart strategic move for our community on at least two levels. First, creating cost savings through conservation, energy efficiency, and waste reduction in city operations is sound fiscal policy. This is especially true in light of recent drastic cuts in municipal funding and the prospect of additional cuts to come. Second, recognition as a Sustainable City will help attract and retain engaged young people as residents, a strong need given the rising median age of our community. The generation now in early adulthood grew up with awareness of global warming and their support for responding to it is high. Recognition as a Sustainable City will enhance our reputation as an exciting progressive community in which to live and do business.
To make our sustainability program comprehensive and give it a public face, we should have a sustainability officer in city government. This official would be charged with a comprehensive review of city operations to propose conservation, efficiency, waste reduction, recycling, and renewable energy improvements; researching and applying for grants and other aid to implement those improvements; and developing a partnership with our library, schools, and the citizens' group Sustainable Heights Network to educate our residents and businesses on the benefits of sustainable practices. This latter function is especially important because the pending amendments to our zoning code are largely permissive rather than mandatory, so our community must be educated about the changes if the newly permitted sustainable practices are to have a real impact.
You may be thinking that our city is too small or our financial resources too limited to have a city employee devoted to sustainability, but neither objection is well founded. As an instructive example, the City of Evanston in Illiniois is a first ring suburb not much larger than Cleveland Heights (it has 74,000 residents) and it created an Office of Sustainability in 2007 after its strategic plan identified environmental sustainability as one of three guiding values for the city. The new office "works with City departments, residents, businesses, regional, state and national partners to develop policies and implement initiatives that strengthen the environmental and economic sustainability of Evanston." I recently spoke with Catherine Hurley, the Sustainable Programs Coordinator for Evanston, who is the only employee in the Evanston Office of Sustainability. She reports that there are about 75 communities across the country with comparable full or part-time sustainability officers, including other Chicago suburbs like Oak Park (52,000 residents) and Schaumburg (75,000 residents).
Nor should we be deterred by expense. Grants and other help are available at the federal, state, county and non-profit level to defray the cost of sustainability improvements. (For example, the cost of renovating the Cumberland Pool parking lot was entirely covered by a grant.) Because efficency, conservation, and waste reduction improvements all reduce expenses in the long run, the position of sustainability officer will more than pay for itself. Ms. Hurley reports that Evanston's sustainability program has generated over one million dollars in donations, grants, rebates, and efficiency savings over the past three years. A sustainability officer to spearhead a comprehensive sustainability program should be viewed as a sound investment that will generate cost savings far into the future.
A comprehensive sustainability program would extend into many substantive areas including solar and wind energy, energy efficient equipment and other energy conservation measures, biodiversity, permeable pavement and sustainable drainage systems, bike- and pedestrian-friendly improvements, recycling/composting, xeriscaping, and encouraging community gardens and local food production. This list is too long to discuss in detail here, but I would like to focus on recycling as one important area for moving forward.
Because Cleveland Heights has a long-standing recycling program many residents probably assume that we continue to be a leader in that area, but this is not really the case. The Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District ranks communities in the county each year on percentage of solid waste recycled and Cleveland Heights is not in first place, or even among the top five. The 2010 report [.pdf] has us in ninth place at 53.16%. We have more work to do in educating and encouraging our community to recycle, and we should consider following Lakewood's example by making recycling mandatory for all persons who receive municipal refuse collection.
We should also join the organizations and cities that are pioneering new forms of recycling. Sustainability experts point to food waste recycling as the next big frontier. Food waste is the largest component of municipal solid waste going into landfills and incinerators, and when food waste rots in landfills it produces the potent greenhouse gas methane. A survey of 121 cities by the Center for a Competitive Waste Industry found that more cities are beginning to look at a centralized composting program as part of a residential recycling program.
Significantly Cleveland has been the scene of preparatory steps toward food waste recycling on a large scale. Eight downtown Cleveland businesses participated in a three-week pilot program in 2009 with the help of the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District and the sustainability group Entrepreneurs for Sustainability (E4S), resulting in the collection of nine tons of food waste. Some area grocery stores, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and NASA Glenn Research Center already collect and recycle at least a portion of their food waste. Brooklyn Heights-based Rosby Resource Recycling is a nearby composting facility that will pick up food waste for recycling. Another destination for food waste is on the way, as former Cleveland Heights resident Tim Smith reports that his outstanding nonprofit organization Community Greenhouse Partners is in the process of obtaining a "B" recycling permit.
Very close to home, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District, at the urging of Cleveland Heights resident Laura Marks, is working on a program to have food waste from school cafeterias collected for recycling. Superintendent Doug Heuer has stated that this program could generate savings of up to $30,000 per year by reducing solid waste disposal. At a recent meeting of the Coventry Village Special Improvement District, I brought up food waste recycling as a topic for the organization to expore with its member merchants, citing the example of the school district. Executive Director Steve Presser responded favorably to the concept, noting that Tim Smith could be a resource for that purpose.
Putting these developments together, it is clear that there is strong potential for systematic recycling of food waste in Cleveland Heights and I believe it would advance the interests of our community for the city to look into it, along with enhancing participation in its existing recycling program.