Cuyahoga County’s environmental toolkit sets forth planet-changing sustainability practices

An electric scooter rental pilot program in four East Side suburbs. Lakewood developing a climate action plan. Shaker Heights partnering with Cuyahoga County on solar power workshops for residents.

These are just a few examples of how Greater Cleveland communities have launched sustainability efforts in the past few years. In 2022, the Cuyahoga County Department of Sustainability is hoping to inspire even more neighborhoods to get involved with the local climate change movement.

In February, the regional environmental group released its second "Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit", a comprehensive guide for communities eager to protect the planet. The 79-page report is filled with recommended best practices for municipalities seeking to increase their Earth-friendly efforts. Initially released in 2016, the updated toolkit presents guidelines for expansion of existing programs or creation of new initiatives.

Each section of the report contains data, resources and information to help navigate communities and businesses along their sustainability journey. With motor vehicles remaining the largest producer of ozone-generating chemicals, for example, municipalities are becoming more proactive in reducing air pollutants, the toolkit says.

Marc Lefkowitz, a Cleveland-based sustainability consultant and former director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute, assisted with the updated report. The multiple issues the guide breaks down don’t exist in silos—Lefkowitz expects any forthcoming policies to carry at least some overlap.

 “There are issues of land use and development with air quality, and transportation has that impact, too,” said Lefkowitz, who is also a FreshWater contributor. “The challenge is acting with urgency to where we have everyone rowing in the same direction. The toolkit is full of ideas on the policy level, so we tried to find local examples of where those policies have been put into place.”

 Progress since last report
Since 2016, cities have rallied around shared mobility in the form of electric scooters and rent-by-app bike stations. A pilot program introduced last fall brought electric scooters to four east side communities—Euclid, South Euclid, East Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights.

 The scooter pilot ties into Euclid’s larger sustainability push, which includes the addition of solar panels on city hall and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations throughout the city. In January,Euclid rolled out four new EV stations thanks to city funding and a grant from Greater Cleveland Partnership.

<span class="content-image-text">Cuyahoga County Solor Co-Op</span>Cuyahoga County Solor Co-Op

Land use is another regional pain point undergoing change, with neighborhoods balancing continued urbanization and protection of natural resources. When Pepper Creek in Pepper Pike backed up onto properties, the city partnered with Western Reserve Land Conservancy and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to redirect the meandering stream and floodplain.

 What’s more, re-investment in vacant properties through land trusts and other tools offers marginalized populations options for affordable housing. South Euclid established a land bank with nonprofit community development corporation, One South Euclid, to acquire swaths of unused land. And Cleveland Heights is assembling infill housing on vacant lots with help from area CDCs and its Neighborhood Redevelopment Program.

In Lakewood, the city is currently developing its climate action plan, naming Canada-based Sustainable Solutions Group (SSG) as a consultant on the effort late last year. SSG is assisting Lakewood on data collection and objectives around the city’s stated 100% renewable energy goals.

Plan priorities encompass relationships with community partners and ensuring any sustainability programming addresses social and racial equity. Although still in draft mode, the initiative will revolve around sustainability in governance, from municipal programming, to environmental, economic and social policymaking.

 Lakewood City Councilman Tom Bullock says the program will also incorporate a climate vulnerability assessment and greenhouse gas inventory. The West Side suburb is committed to using 100% renewable energy in local operations by 2035, he says.

 “An action plan is good common sense,” says Bullock. “We wanted to have a plan in writing to help us rank order our priorities. If we should do A, B or C, let’s go to the plan and figure out which of those steps will give us the most bang for our buck.”

Lakewood had previously budgeted $100,000 toward the proposal, with a final draft slated for summer or early fall. This “living document” is subject to change alongside new technologies and evolving needs, notes Bullock. The city has already engaged a number of carbon reduction efforts, among them electric vehicle charging stations and solar panel installations on municipal buildings.

With a strategy in place, Lakewood can better inform daily decisions such as equipment purchases and staff training, adds Bullock. The county’s larger sustainability toolkit can be similarly employed, but on a larger scale.

 “It’s about converting operations into action, rather than a special project that’s only done on occasion,” Bullock says. “Communities can cheat off of each other’s homework. If you’ve done something cool, let’s build on that in Lakewood. You can save us time without us having to reinvent the wheel.”

Cuyahoga County leaders are engaged in projects that can be a template for the region moving forward, says county sustainability director Mike Foley.

For example, Shaker Heights partnered with the county sustainability office on solar power workshops for residents. Such programming aims to demystify solar misconceptions—like the myth that the city does not allow solar panel installation — and encourages home and small business owners to try the technology for themselves.

Think Globally, act locally
In March, a new United Nations report, “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” detailed the starkest warning yet about a warming world’s impact on our ecosystem.

The study highlights the global repercussions of droughts, extreme temperatures, and unprecedented weather events, while offering detailed recommendations on how to avert disaster.

For metros like Greater Cleveland, climate-induced hazards can contribute to infrastructure damage, loss of services and population displacement. According to the United Nations report, abnormally high temperatures are already having a negative influence on health outcomes, with historically underrepresented populations experiencing the severest effects.

Cuyahoga County’s uneven tree canopy has a direct influence on air quality in urban neighborhoods, particularly when paired with emissions from factories located in these same communities.

Meanwhile, disasters such as wildfires and urban flooding will become a dominant risk to urban areas—displacing people, compromising air quality, and affecting the drinkability of municipal water supplies.

Climate change and social justice
In Cleveland, the lack of quality green space, a shrinking tree canopy, lead exposure, and inadequate infrastructure and transportation merge into negative health impacts—anemia, chronic disease, and an infant mortality rate that ranks as one of the highest in the U.S.
Lefkowitz, the Cleveland-based sustainability consultant, says climate change and social justice issues can overlap.

 “With the urgency around tackling climate change, social justice has become a centerpiece of the work for all of us,” says Lefkowitz. “How do we address climate change and the need for social justice at the same time? Those were driving needs to do this second toolkit.”

Lack of access to fresh food weighs more heavily on underserved communities as well. A study co-authored by Case Western Reserve University’s Swetland Center reported a 30% jump in Cleveland’s food insecurity rate from 2018 to 2020. A reported 40% increase in childhood food insecurity over the last two years translates to one-third of Cleveland children not receiving proper nutrition.

South Euclid councilwoman Sara Continenza operates Food Strong, a Tremont nonprofit that spurs schools and communities to grow their own healthy eats—especially within Cleveland’s urban core.    

Continenza launched Food Strong, in part, to get children interested in eating healthy foods. The program founder delivers nutrition education to farmers markets and other food-centric events, just one piece of a larger mission that targets county-wide clean energy use. Food Strong’s Care-A-Van program runs from May through October, including weekend stints at the Coit Road Farmers Market in East Cleveland.

Continenza says she is excited to use the finished toolkit in connecting to neighborhood leaders, fostering relationships to educate residents—both in her community and beyond—about health outcomes related to diet. Regionally, food security is further bolstered by nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, which saw increased use at farmers markets beginning in 2020. If nothing else, the last few years have heightened how fragile the national food supply chain can become in moments of crisis.

 “There’s always going to be issues around [program] buy-in,” says Continenza. “The solution is a larger emphasis on community partnerships. Collaborations can support our collective impact without breaking the bank.”

Putting policies into place
With calls by the Biden administration to reduce national greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, Cuyahoga County’s updated toolkit is designed to keep sustainability practices top-of-mind for officials and residents alike.

“We know the region will be warmer, wetter, and getting wilder weather,” Foley, the county  sustainability director, says. “The science is clear, and we’ve got people doing things in terms of mitigation and adaptation around climate change. That’s where we think the report is important.

Advancements in sustainable technology and resources were additional catalysts for the new guide. Department officials interviewed 40 local experts who provided recommendations for the toolkit across key categories including air quality, energy and food sustainability.

 Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish says the toolkit has a varied audience. Community members, elected officials, home owners, and entrepreneurs can all glean something from the document, he says.

“Climate change affects everyone, and everyone should take a look at [this report],” urges Budish.
Using the toolkit as a map, Cuyahoga County residents can help create a prosperous and healthy region, says Bullock of Lakewood.

“Residents will come to us and say, ‘Let’s make this a priority,’” Bullock says. “Good government means incorporating those insights, not dismissing them. I feel empowered and optimistic by the progress we’ve seen, and the innovations that other communities are doing. What we’re doing is future-proofing our regions to be good places to live, work and play.”

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.