To create a more sustainable Cleveland, focus on equity, summit leaders say

Sustainable Cleveland flyer 1.jpg

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, calling these “not normal” times, opened the 12th city-run Sustainability Summit from his desktop computer rather than the podium of Public Auditorium. The mayor, who initiated the annual event in 2009 and has long insisted the formation of his Sustainability Office isn’t about the environment so much as a focus on green jobs, called on the environmental community to embrace social equity.

The theme rang through the entire two-day proceeding, starting with the State of Sustainability, delivered by the mayor’s newly installed Chief of Sustainability, Dr. Jason Wood. On the job since the start of the pandemic, but also in the aftermath of the 10-year anniversary of the city’s Sustainable Cleveland initiative culminating in 2019’s Cuyahoga50 celebration, Wood remarked that equity was “baked into” the Cleveland Climate Action Plan update of 2018.

Wood said his focus will be on plans to replenish Cleveland’s depleted tree inventory, convert 20% of the city’s energy supply to renewable sources by 2020 and 100% by 2050, pursue a top LEED rating as an environmental city, and what to do about the collapse of the city’s recycling program.

Director Jason Wood updated attendees on the State of of Sustainable Cleveland.

Director Jason Wood updated attendees on the State of of Sustainable Cleveland.

Cleveland Public Power, the city’s utility, provides more of a pathway to the city’s renewable energy goals than shareholder-owned utilities, Wood said, as a recent purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) to support a wind farm in Texas indicate.

“But, how do we get (renewables) to residents?” said Wood, adding that his office will focus on a community wide transition plan in the coming year. One bright spot: Cleveland has converted 47,000 of its 61,000 street lamps to LEDs, a highly energy efficient bulb type.

Wood struck a cautionary note on the Cleveland Tree Plan, worrying about a “lack of funding for planning, lack of trees available, and lack of publicly available opportunities.” Nonetheless, he is optimistic about the mayor’s $1 million tree fund.

“We’re focusing trees in neighborhoods with low canopy,” he said, promising an update soon and stating that there have been 1,900 trees planted since the announcement of the plan (which is dated 2015 on the city’s website).

On the LEED for Cities rating, Wood confirmed the city has set platinum as its goal. They selected it because it aligns with the goals of the Climate Action Plan and the US Sustainable Development Goals. Wood acknowledged the city is behind, and blamed Covid-19 for lack of progress. Their goal is to document current conditions and submit their application by the end of 2021. They plan to follow that up by applying lessons learned and identifying policy and program changes.

On recycling, Wood said the city’s diversion rate on its recycling program has averaged 7.5% of the total waste stream. In 2019, he said, it was even lower. “We have initiated a review of the waste management process, including recycling, composting and circular economy opportunities,” he said, adding, “recycling has to work.”

Dr. Julian Agyeman presented at the Sustainable Cleveland summit.

Dr. Julian Agyeman presented at the Sustainable Cleveland summit.

For Cleveland to make progress on racial and social equity in their sustainability plans, they need to be intentional, to root out the causes and come up with the solutions for systemic biases, said the summit’s keynote speaker, Dr. Julian Agyeman, an urban planning professor at Tufts University who has written fourteen books that address equity in cities.

“Social justice never simply happens,” Dr. Agyeman said. “We need a broader coalition, like greening (public) housing or making transit more accessible and more affordable. We cannot treat equity as a second order priority.”   

Take Minneapolis, for example, one of the greenest cities in the nation, according to biking and park advocates. It is also one of the most racially segregated and, as a result, is failing to provide an adequate safety net for its low-income citizens. Like Cleveland, Minneapolis is hampered by its past – racially restrictive housing covenants, redlining and highway-induced sprawl are all markers of “spatial injustice,” Dr. Agyeman said.

Policy can address injustice by focusing on what Agyeman calls ethnographies. “Rather than push out the poor, create spaces for them. Understand their desires.”

Dr. Agyeman thinks the environmental community needs to repair its standing as an ally by broadening its coalition.

“Inequality is a main driver of climate change,” he said, pointing to complete streets, a policy that considers the needs of all users when designing road projects, as an example. “The street is the most common public space. The Swedes have democratized the street. In the U.S., it’s organized chaos. Your access to the street is predicated on owning a vehicle and the size of that vehicle. Now, imagine being a kid in that environment.”    

The Summit included break out sessions with local experts who are working on food access, plastic pollution in Lake Erie, bike and pedestrian friendly streets and other topics that the city is tracking on its website,

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with over 15 years of experience as a researcher, project manager, and thought leader who has been driving community conversations in environmental sustainability. Lefkowitz led the GreenCityBlueLake Institute (GCBL) at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where he helped the public explore sustainability, natural history, and how to change human systems to address the existential climate crisis.

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