'Last' Sustainable Cleveland 2019 event just the beginning

The city of Cleveland will spend up to $1 million a year for the next decade to replenish its tree canopy, Mayor Frank G. Jackson said. The announcement in his opening remarks Oct. 16 at Sustainable Cleveland 2019 drew cheers and applause from the 600 attendees, who recognize the need to halt the ongoing loss of the city’s lush tree canopy, which has dwindled to a meager 19%.

At the final event of the decade-long Sustainable Cleveland 2019 effort, Jackson looked back on how it began.

“This is 2019, but it is not the end,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson told attendees Oct. 16. “It’s just a way of transitioning from one approach to life to another approach."“As we talked about it and we began to plan the first summit, it became very clear to me that key to creating a sustainable economy that was productive and benefited everyone, we had to include sustainability in terms of green, environmental elements,” Jackson said. “Our goal was then to create a sustainable economy by the year 2019, and we developed celebration years.”

Jackson had been inspired by a 2008 summit at Case Western Reserve University that Professor David Cooperrider helped organize. It explored ways to foster an economy that prevented the causes of that year’s recession: predatory lending and the exploitation of people, resources, and situations for business gains.

Cooperrider, co-founder of the Appreciative Inquiry method, and his staff each year have facilitated brainstorming, prototyping and planning sessions to accelerate progress, as he did this year in the “Beyond 2019” portion of the afternoon.

The celebration topic provided a theme each year for the conference, highlighting different primary areas fundamental to a sustainable city: energy efficiency, local foods, advanced and renewable resources, sustainable transportation, clean water, zero waste, vibrant green space, and vital neighborhoods. The ultimate goal is to create “a green city by a blue lake.”

This final year of the process, 2019, was designated as the Year of People, Jackson said, because at the end of this initial Sustainable Cleveland project, the focus remains on whether Cleveland’s social and economic system is making people better off as a result of the project.

Climate Action Plan

Several successful initiatives have emerged from Sustainable Cleveland 2019, including Cleveland’s Climate Action Plan. The American Planning Association recently named it the Best Community Sustainability Resilience Plan in the country, one of a number of awards the project has received.

“I want to be clear,” said Matt Gray, Chief of Sustainability for the city. “These awards do not go to individuals. They go to cities, and that’s all of us doing all of this work together.”
Circular Economy

Another strategy gaining momentum is the recycling and reuse concept, developed to counter our difficult and expensive culture of disposables and excessive waste.

“I genuinely am not aware of another city that is as evolved in its thinking, as engaged with its citizens on this topic,” Nik Engineer of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation told attendees Oct. 16.“A circular economy is about designing an economy that is better,” said Nik Engineer, North American president of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, citing a recent advertisement from a worldwide campaign for Lego toys with the tagline Rebuild the World. “It is about redefining the way the world’s global economy works, so that it’s better, inclusive, so that everyone can prosper, and we cease damage to the natural environment.”

The development of complex materials, non-natural polymers and materials that won’t biodegrade has led to the serious waste management issues we face today, said Michael Waas, global vice president of brand partnerships, TerraCycle. All of that is exacerbated when paired with the move to disposability in the mid-20th century, a seemingly unappeasable consumption economy that drives purchases and production, along with the concept of planned obsolescence and the demand for convenience.

“That all leads to the current crisis,” Waas said. “Because, as the massive scale of production increases, and we need ever more convenient, disposable products, the natural world is unable to cope with the products that we’re making.”

Transportation Equity

Transportation plays a role in a green planet as well. We need to emphasize micromobility, including readily available bicycles and scooters, to increase transportation options for everyone, said Richard Ezike, a new mobility and equity expert from Washington, D.C.

India Birdsong, the new CEO at the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, also weighed in. She revealed she is a planner by trade, and public transit is second only to her first love, community planning.  

“With anything we do at GCRTA, our goal will be to make sure that we give back to the community, we connect the community, and don’t forget about the end goal,” she said. “The end goal is to understand that lower income to mid-income residents are our bread and butter.” There’s a difference between “choice riders” who have other transit options and “dependent riders” who may not, she said. Part of GCRTA’s current planning study includes finding ways to give dependent riders improved access and more options to connect with public transportation.

Cleveland Councilman Matt Zone later reflected on the first summit, recalling the excitement of having more than 1,000 people in the room the first day. He’s been to every summit since then except for last year. Since 2009, 5,230 total summit attendees and more than 15,000 people have been actively engaged in the process, according to event statistics.

“To think that we now have legions of sustainability ambassadors who have ownership, feel that their voice and their opinions matter, and that their city leaders are listening and responding is inspiring to me,” Zone said.

Not everyone was so upbeat. “There were a few new ideas that were presented during the post-Appreciative Inquiry session reports in the afternoon,” said Timothy Smith. “But the one constant from every other year of the summit was that there was no one from the financial sector there to offer funding help to make these great ideas into reality.”

Smith, founder and executive director of Community Greenhouse Partners, an urban farm in the St. Clair-Superior neighborhood, has participated throughout the entire process.

"The natural world is unable to cope with the products that we’re making,” Michael Waas of TerraCycle told attendees Oct. 16.Back to the future

Jackson’s closing remarks drew little disagreement. He committed to continue the Sustainable Cleveland work in new ways.

“This is 2019, but it is not the end,” Jackson said. “It’s just a way of transitioning from one approach to life to another approach to life.” After he and his staff discuss and determine that new approach, they will announce it publicly, he said.

“Sustainable Cleveland 2019 will essentially become Sustainable Cleveland period,” Gray said earlier. “We’re trying to get feedback today on where the focus should be going forward. We’ve made a lot of progress, but it feels like we’re still at the beginning in many ways on some of our big goals.”

During a break in the afternoon brainstorming sessions, Cooperrider confirmed he is pleased with the successes over the 10-year process, particularly the 53 working groups launched since 2009, many of which remain active year-round. Six working group “graduates” became businesses and nonprofits: Tunnel Vision Hoops; Cleveland 2030 District; Drink Local, Drink Tap; Upcycle Parts Shop; Cleveland Water Alliance; and Campus District. LEEDCo, which plans to build the first freshwater wind turbine farm in Lake Erie, also got its start at the event.

“It’s a joy to see what a community can do together when it discovers what it cares about,” Cooperrider said. Tampa, Florida, is about to launch a sustainability program modeled on Cleveland’s that he and his colleagues will facilitate in November, he said.

From an outside perspective, Nik Engineer, who travels widely because his foundation works with “millions of people and thousands of organizations around the world,” said in his keynote speech: “I genuinely am not aware of another city that is as evolved in its thinking, as engaged with its citizens on this topic.”

This story is part of our dedicated series titled "People, Planet, Progress: A Decade of Sustainable Cleveland" in partnership with Sustainable Cleveland. See the other stories in our series here.

Read more articles by Christopher Johnston.

Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,000 articles in publications such as American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, Credit.com, History Magazine, The Plain Dealer, Progressive Architecture, Scientific American and Time.com. He was a stringer for The New York Times for eight years. He served as a contributing editor for Inside Business for more than six years, and he was a contributing editor for Cleveland Enterprise for more than ten years. He teaches playwriting and creative nonfiction workshops at Cleveland State University. He wrote The Way I Saw It, the memoirs of Marc Wyse, co-founder of Wyse Advertising. His book, Shattering Silences: New Approaches to Healing Survivors of Rape and Bringing Their Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) will be published in February 2018.