How green are we? In October 2021, Cleveland received a silver LEED for Cities certification for its efforts toward making the city more sustainable for residents and businesses. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a global certification program for rating the “green” quality of buildings and cities. This achievement was the result of more than 10 years of environmental initiatives led by Sustainable Cleveland.
While the city naturally scored well in some areas, such as water efficiency and green building policies, it struggled in areas like renewable energy and emissions. For this, LEED offers a potential roadmap for the future.
According to its website, LEED for Cities and Communities is a framework that helps local leaders track and manage green initiatives that are aimed at improving quality of life. LEED is managed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and certifies cities within five rankings—certified, bronze, silver, gold and platinum. Results are based on 14 metrics across five design categories: energy, water, waste, transportation and quality of life.
“We liked LEED for several reasons. It’s a holistic look at how we’re doing, it blends information from city-led operations, but it also brings in data from a broader community perspective. Additionally, it has a critical focus on improving quality of life,” said Jason Wood, former Chief of Sustainability for the city of Cleveland, at last fall’s Sustainability Summit.
Cleveland scored a total of 57 points, only a few points shy of the gold certification level of 60 points. But the city is aiming higher, Wood said. Cleveland has set its sights on LEED Platinum, a level only a handful of US cities have achieved.
According to David Abell, LEED for Cities manager with the USGBC, this is exactly what LEED is for—to help the city benchmark and improve against its sustainability goals. “This is a tool to help cities establish a baseline of sustainability and help them know how to move forward,” he said. “It’s a way to identify areas of strength and make improvements over time.”
Here’s a closer look at how the city performed in each of LEED’s major scoring areas.
For Cleveland, the news isn’t good on the energy front. The city isn’t reducing emissions or using renewable energy quickly enough, according to LEED. Some of this slow progress has to do with the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt region we live in. However, it got points for its LED streetlights program and energy efficient operations.
“In areas where the city needs some improvement, like energy and greenhouse gas emissions, a lot of that is impacted by the grid you exist within,” explained Abell. “The electrical grid Cleveland has is a bit dirtier than other places. In a place that still makes things, you’re going to have that [emissions] as well. It’s also related to state policy and geography. We’re closer to coal, it’s the main driver of our power plants.”
Wood, who spent over 10 years working for the City of Cleveland, said the city needs to rethink its approach to energy and emissions and ratchet up its efforts.
“We learned through the LEED for Cities process that our greenhouse gas emissions lag behind many other places,” said Wood, who is now manager of corporate responsibility for JoAnn. “We know that to truly change this we need to take an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to clean energy. We need to continue to build on the progress we’ve made at the utility scale and look at other opportunities to get more clean energy generated for Clevelanders.”
Some of the opportunities Wood mentioned include distributive generation options like on-site solar and community solar power. Cincinnati announced the launch of a 100-megawatt solar farm last year.
Power Access, Reliability and Resiliency – Completed
Greenhouse Gas Emissions – 0 of 14 points
Energy Efficiency – 2 of 2 points
Renewable energy – 0 of 6 points
Low Carbon Economy – 4 of 4 points
Grid Harmonization – 2 of 2 points
Integrative Process: 4/5
The city scored really well for its long-running sustainability program, an initiative of Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration that started in 2009. “This is really about having the structures and processes in place to do this work,” said Abell.
Integrative Planning and Leadership – 1 of 1 point
Green Building Policy and Incentives – 3 of 4 points
Water Efficiency: 9/11
Another area where the city rated highly was water efficiency. Cleveland scored well for its management of water systems, though it received no points for stormwater management. Abell said that’s a hard credit for cities to achieve, especially those like Cleveland with older stormwater management systems whose problems we’re still addressing.
Water Access and Quality Prerequisite – Completed
Water Performance – 6/6 points
Integrated Water Management – 1 of 1 point
Stormwater Management – N/A
Smart Water Systems – 2 of 2 points
The city got full credit for this category, which they based around economic justice initiatives that the Jackson administration launched in its fourth term, especially the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative in Clark-Fulton, Fairfax, and Glenville.
“The Neighborhood Transformation Initiative that Mayor Jackson started, that was one we thought was really solid, digging into issues around equity,” said Abell.
Regional Priority: 4/4
These high scores are mainly due to the formation of Sustainable Cleveland and its efforts to collaborate with local organizations that focus on serving residents in need. These organizations include the Rust Belt Riders, Cleveland Water Alliance and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, among others, Wood said.
Materials and Resources: 1/10
Ruh roh! Cleveland scored relatively poorly in materials and resources, but that’s not unusual. “As a nation we need to do a better job with solid waste and how much we produce,” Abell said. “The bottom fell out of the recycling market when China said, ‘We don’t want your dirty recyclables anymore,’” and many cities have not figured out a way to recycle since then.
Cleveland is restarting its recycling program using an opt-in model in the spring. Abell and Wood highlighted Circular Cleveland, the city’s new program that aims to keep materials in use for as long as possible, as an example of innovation.
“We have to continue to look for innovative ways in which we create and manage waste,” said Wood. “This is what our Circular Cleveland initiative is designed to do. We’ve already begun to make progress on this important initiative but we have to continue moving this forward.”
Abell said other cities are trying to reduce food waste through municipal composting programs. Cleveland is finally slated to try composting at the West Side Market later this year, and Rust Belt Riders recently became a worker-owned cooperative and signed on regional grocery Heinen’s as a client.
Solid Waste Management Prerequisite – Completed
Waste Performance – 1 of 4 points
Special Waste Streams Management – N/A
Responsible Sourcing for Infrastructure – N/A
Material Recovery – N/A
Smart Waste Management Systems – N/A
Natural Systems and Ecology: 6/9
Cleveland’s tree canopy program contributed to this score. The program has planted upwards of 5,000 trees since 2019. Additionally, Cleveland has a relatively high Parkscore, according to the Trust for Public Land – about 80 percent of Clevelanders are within a 10-minute walk of a park.
Ecosystem Assessment Prerequisite – Completed
Green Spaces – 2 of 2 points
Natural Resources Conservation and Restoration – N/A
Light Pollution Reduction – N/A
Resilience Planning – 4 of 4 points
Quality of Life: 10/20
The mixed results here are because Cleveland has a low-income population that faces many quality of life issues, but is considered to be improving in several areas. Data the city submitted regarding its unemployment rate, the percentage of residents with a high school degree, its overall graduation rate, and the decline in violent crime pointed in a positive direction.
Demographic Assessment Prerequisite – Completed
Quality of Life Performance – 1 of 6 points
Trend Improvement – 4 of 4 points
Distributional Equity – N/A
Environmental Justice – 1 of 1 point
Housing and Transportation Affordability – 2 of 2 points
Civic and Community Engagement – 2 of 2 points
Civic and Human Rights – N/A
Transportation and Land Use: 9/15
Here, Cleveland scored well for its public transportation system, including the rapid transit hub at Tower City and, of course, the bus rapid transit system along Euclid Avenue (the Health Line). Additionally, the city demonstrated how it has integrated scooter and bike share into multi-modal transportation systems, and that it’s created better infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians.
The city could improve its score by integrating more alternative fuel vehicles, offering electric vehicle charging stations, and implementing smart transportation policies, Abell said.
Transportation performance prerequisite – 6 of 6 points
Compact, mixed use, and transit oriented development – 0 of 2 points
Access to quality transit – 1 of 1 points
Alternative fuel vehicles – 0 of 2 points
Smart mobility and smart transportation policy – 0 of 2 points
High priority sites – 2 of 2 points
“We should be proud” of attaining LEED Silver status in Cleveland, Wood said in summary. “But we need an expanded approach, and we need to embed that approach in our operations.”
Check out the Sustainable Cleveland dashboard here: https://www.sustainablecleveland.org/dashboard. Read more environmental justice stories on our project page: https://www.thelandcle.org/stories/tag/environmental%20justice.
This story was produced as part of an environmental reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, La Mega Media, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).
Hannah Davis is a senior journalism major attending Kent State University. She is an intern with The Land, in partnership with The NewsLab at KSU.