q & a: jenita mcgowan, cleveland's new chief of sustainability

Last month, Jenita McGowan was sworn in as Cleveland's new Chief of Sustainability. McGowan replaces Andrew Watterson, who took his talents to the private sector last year, joining the sustainability consulting firm BrownFlynn. For McGowan, the move was natural one -- since 2010, she has served as this city's Sustainability Manager.
Among her accomplishments, the Columbus native counts a Cleveland Executive Fellowship and an extensive modern dance portfolio. A Northeast Ohio resident since 1996, McGowan's an adopted Clevelander in every sense. Just consider her aptly titled dance performance, "Borne Away on a Crooked River," which she performed at last year's Ingenuityfest. She lives in Ohio City and has worked with local organizations such as Dancing Wheels and Urban Community School.
Fresh Water contributor Erin O'Brien sat down with McGowan and got the lowdown on the status of sustainability in Cleveland.
You've jumped from Cleveland's Sustainability Manager to its Chief of Sustainability. What are the real changes behind the titles?
One of the biggest changes is looking at things through a much wider lens. As sustainability manager, I focused more on discrete projects and initiatives, always with an awareness of how they fit into a larger framework of sustainability in the city. As chief, my focus becomes broader and more strategic.
Sustainable Cleveland 2019 (SC 2019) aims to make Cleveland a "green city on a blue lake" by 2019. Now that we're three years into it, how is the community reacting?
SC 2019 is the framework for how we create our future Cleveland. The initiative is funded by the community through foundation support, corporate sponsorships, and some in-kind donations. We know the community is engaged if it thinks the initiative is important enough to fund. The only taxpayer dollars involved go to the staff time our office puts in to administrate and facilitate the initiative.
This year's key focus for SC 2019 is everybody's favorite topic: food. Who's a local hero in the sustainable food biz?
Sharon Glaspie is one hero that I really think is amazing with her Garden Boyz project. She's been working with neighborhood boys to employ them to grow food and then sell it at farmers markets. These kids learn how to interact with people from all walks of life when they sell their food at the market. They learn how to talk about their produce. It's their job.
Cleveland's sustainability efforts officially began in 2005, with a Sustainability Coordinator working out of the public utilities department. Now, it's a self-contained office. What is one of its major successes?
We passed the "Complete and Green Streets" policy, which is very unusual. Some places have a Complete Streets policy. Some have a Green Streets policy. We have both and will begin implementing them this year.
Complete Streets are streets built for all users and abilities taking into account multiple modes of transportation. The Green Streets aspect of the program looks at how we reduce our impact on the environment when we construct or reconstruct streets. It takes into account things like storm water management, using energy efficient lighting, recycled pavement and green practices in construction.
What else is on Cleveland's sustainability radar for 2012?
I am really excited about the opening of the Sustainable Cleveland Center at Tower City. We think it is a great venue because it's a public transport hub and has a great lunchtime crowd. In addition to our office moving into the space, there will be a public area for exhibitions, story telling and resources. This is a space for the public to interface with the SC 2019 initiative. The office move is slated for February, with public use coming sometime in March.
The 4th annual Cleveland Sustainability Summit will be held in September. In conjunction with that, we're hosting the 8th International Public Markets Conference. The event will bring a national and international audience here to look at the West Side Market and our public markets in general as well as how Clevelanders can access food.
Cleveland seems to have more than its share of foreclosure and financial woes. How do municipal challenges such as these impact sustainability?
We have an issue with vacant and abandoned housing and so we’ve used that as an opportunity to implement deconstruction as opposed to demolition, which allows you to recycle components of a house and upcycle them into other products. That provides opportunities for upcycle businesses such as A Piece of Cleveland. It's a way of taking something that’s destined for the landfill and turning it into a resource.
One of the other things that is most difficult is also one of the things that ensures we do things the right way, and that's lack of financial resources. It’s hard to implement new programs and ways of doing things without a lot of resources behind them. However, the fact that most of our sustainability programs have to pay for themselves means they are really sustainable.
It’s very easy to throw money at operations and make them "green," but then you’re dependent on having the money to do it and not having a program that fits into finances that fluctuate. The good thing about Cleveland is that we have good bones. We have the infrastructure of a sustainable city because of when and how we were built. To overlay a culture of sustainability over it -- I think that's a good fit.
Can you give us and example of a municipal green program that essentially pays for itself?
The composting program at the West Side Market took a very long time to figure out. We didn’t want to pay more to implement compost than it cost to landfill vegetable scraps, so we had to do a pilot program. We did get a small grant to determine what would be feasible, but in the long term, we ended up making composting cost-neutral to our previous way of doing business.
You have an extensive background in dance. Is there any intersection between the poetry of motion and bringing a Rust Belt city into the realm of sustainability?
The practical answer is that to be a dance performer or choreographer or anyone involved in the arts, you typically have to work collaboratively with limited resources to innovate and to bring people together around topics they care about. I see that as a direct correlation to my job as Chief of Sustainability.
From a poetic point of view, most of the dance work that I've been drawn to perform or choreograph is indeed about positive community change. It's about telling our story as a community and envisioning where we are going. I think in that way it's related to my position here.
What do you love about working in this department?
We can't do this alone, so we do a lot of work out in the greater community with business, organizations and institutions. We also work on internal operations and policies, interfacing with all the other departments and divisions and to collaborate to help Cleveland save money, impact the environment positively and create a great place for Clevelanders to live. That’s an exciting job.

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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