halfway there: sustainable cleveland environmental initiative making progress, says city official

Are you sustainable, Cleveland?
That's the question environmentally conscious city officials are asking heading into the fifth annual Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit, to be held October 3-4 at Cleveland Public Auditorium. The initiative to build "a green city on a blue lake" is at the halfway mark, and Cleveland's new chief of sustainability believes Northeast Ohio is meeting the metrics set out a half a decade ago.
Participants at this year's summit will review efforts aimed at accelerating growth of local renewable and advanced energy production, says Jenita McGowan, named Cleveland's sustainability chief in January 2012. Another focus will be implementing the city's recently completed Climate Action Plan (CAP), developed by more than 40 area businesses and organizations. This year's keynote speakers are author John Montgomery and Chuck Kutscher of the National Renewable Energy Lab.
"The idea is to celebrate our achievements, and shine light on the good work that's happening," says McGowan.
Signs of life
Attendees will be able to witness Cleveland's sustainable successes themselves should they stick around through the weekend of October 5, McGowan notes. Two days of bus tours will take riders past several Northeast Ohio renewable energy projects. Among the possible stops is a former brownfield site in Collinwood that converts trash into electricity and a sun-catching solar farm that powers Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's headquarters in Cleveland's Kinsman neighborhood.
On an individual level, says McGowan, these ventures reflect the progress of Sustainable Cleveland 2019, a 10-year initiative begun in 2009 by Mayor Frank Jackson and the region's business and civic leaders to foster economic growth with sustainable technologies and practices.
The multi-faceted Sustainable Cleveland plan aims to address ways to eliminate manufacturing waste, while producing clean water technologies and green-friendly transportation systems. Neighborhood redevelopment through creation of urban parks and green spaces is another element of the far-reaching effort that could create a "clean" economy and the high-paying jobs that go along with it.
Event participants over the last four years have met regularly to develop programs addressing environmental topics. These "working groups" have emerged from Sustainable Cleveland summits, making bold plans to significantly reduce greenhouse gases in commuter transportation and building maintenance, or to reconnect people to local water around the globe.
"People are getting involved in so many different ways," says McGowan. "These are bonafide organizations making a real impact on the community. This is work that's going on 365 days a year."
In just five years, Sustainable Cleveland has gathered thousands of citizens to build a collective vision for the region's future, McGowan says. The sustainability chief points to a new energy aggregation program that offers 100 percent renewable power to FirstEnergy customers. The program, under the wider initiative umbrella of advanced and renewable energy, is expected to reach 60,000 customers, with an annual reduction of three percent of Cleveland’s total carbon.
Meanwhile, thousands of Clevelanders have banned together to support the nation's first offshore wind project. Almost 4,500 folks took the Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDCoPower Pledge, meaning they will get first dibs when wind turbines built out on the lake start churning out green energy within the next few years.
Charting Sustainable Cleveland's progress is not just relegated to how citizens get their electricity, McGowan notes. On the local food front, there are nearly 200 community farms and gardens in operation to go along with a dozen farmer's markets. Cleveland has also become a more bike-friendly town, earning a bronze-level designation from the League of American Bicyclists for infrastructure improvements like the Towpath Trail project.
Hard work ahead
Taking a macro view of what Cleveland has accomplished in five years, McGowan is heartened by the progress. Citywide water quality and recycling rates are improved, while government, nonprofit and corporate entities continue to work in concert to ensure those metrics get even better. That does not mean that either McGowan or other city sustainability leaders are completely satisfied, however.
"We are headed in the right direction," says McGowan. "There is still lots of work to do, and there's an urgency behind that work."
October's summit will give attendees a peek into the next five years of the Sustainable Cleveland project. An enormous piece of that future will be implementation of the Climate Action Plan, which sets ambitious goals like reducing the city’s carbon emissions 50 percent by 2030.
The plan builds off the work of the overarching 2019 initiative, says McGowan, drilling down into specific ways Cleveland can take action with climate in line with the target of building a new economy. The plan's 33 "actions" are spread across six categories, and if all goes well Clevelanders will be living in an environment that favors density and transit and uses best practices for clean water. Along with greener, more comfortable buildings and improved air quality, these actions also will create local jobs, supporters say.
"The economy of the future will be sustainable," McGowan says. "We have to make that transition or get left behind."
With the city sustainability initiative at the halfway milestone, continued teamwork by a consortium of public and private entities will ensure Cleveland's green transformation meets its goals, maintains McGowan.
"We've created a culture where everyone understands how to collaborate," she says. "The commitment is there."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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