When the Cuyahoga River caught fire on June 22, 1969, a 23-year-old Frank G. Jackson had just returned home from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and he remembers the eco-catastrophe as being “probably the last thing on [his] mind” at that time.
A lot has changed in 50 years, and the now-Mayor of Cleveland is squarely focused on not only the health of the Cuyahoga River, but the city’s sustainability as a whole. In fact, this year marks the culmination of Sustainable Cleveland 2019—a 10-year initiative Jackson spearheaded in 2009 as a measurable action plan for transforming Cleveland into a “green city on a blue lake.”
One decade later, Cleveland is embracing that title in earnest. The Cuyahoga River has been declared safe to fish and named “River of the Year” for 2019 by American Rivers. The number of certified local renewable energy facilities has grown from nine in 2010 to 179 in 2017. Over 70 new miles of bike infrastructure were created between 2014 and 2018.
Additionally, 260 of downtown’s and University Circle's commercial buildings have collectively reduced energy emissions by 20 percent as part of the Cleveland 2030 District (the second of its kind in the country).
And not a second too soon, according to Chief of Sustainability Matt Gray. “If you believe the reports, almost every climate scientist says we have to completely transform the global economy in the next decade,” says Gray.
Gray adds that Cleveland is leading the way among similar cities in that regard. “In comparison to other cities, there aren’t that many cities with large lower-income populations or weaker-market cities doing this work,” says Gray. “Cleveland is much different from cities like New York City in terms of the amount of dollars we have to work with to make change, so we’ve needed to be more creative to make that progress.”
Dawn of a decade
Jackson’s vision first took shape within the confines of a three-day sustainability summit in August 2009, which followed an appreciative inquiry model developed by David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University. Attendance exceeded more than 600 participants representing various sectors of the Cleveland community—from residents to CEOs to small businesses to local institutions.
Gray believes the diverse set of attendees was key in getting Sustainable Cleveland 2019 off the ground. “How does government facilitate a bottoms-up approach to sustainability?” says Gray. “There is no way government will do this alone. If we’re going to change an economy, it has to be every sector.”
Along with engaging the community around the mission, the Summit also marked Jackson’s appointment of the city’s first-ever Chief of Sustainability (Andrew Watterson, succeeded by Jenita McGowan and now Gray), as well as the announcement of the newly created Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Stewardship Council and Jackson’s intention to make the summit an annual event.
“At the end of the summit, I announced that we were going to do this every year for a decade, and that’s when we called it Sustainable Cleveland 2019,” explains Jackson. “I didn’t want to have a summit and feel good about it without having a constant re-upping of that enthusiasm and some steady work.”
Gray agrees, saying, “The summit was three days out of the year, so what will we do the other 362?”
The answer was plenty. A 10-year action plan took shape, with each year taking a different focus from clean water to zero waste to local foods. Gray says that the holistic, bigger-picture focus has been another differentiator for Cleveland as far as the way the city approaches sustainability. “A lot of cities [designate their] primary metric as carbon pollution,” says Gray. “We have 28 different indicators that address quality of life and creating a sustainable economy.”
Jackson believes the difference comes in creating an economy that is built not on exploitation, but rather on service.
“If it doesn’t come down to everyone being the beneficiary, then what kind of inroads have you made?” says Jackson. “Even in a more sustainable economy, if you still have the same disparity and inequity in terms of quality of life, then you haven’t moved the needle that much. Are our people healthier? Better-educated? Connected to more career opportunities? The measure of our success is our people.”
With that, 2019 marks the “Year of People,” a nod to the Clevelanders from all walks of life that have come together to support sustainability.
“When we first started this [in 2009], there were people doing the work who had been in the struggle around sustainability for a long time,” says Jackson. “It was almost like they didn’t know what to do when we provided the platform for people to have a voice, and the consistency of infrastructure to get a positive outcome. Their culture had been one of ‘fighting against.’ We changed it from that into one of opportunity.”
Committee. The 2018 update was partly driven by the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, after which Jackson joined forces with 400 other designated “Climate Mayors” in the country to reaffirm their commitment to combating climate change.
Among other goals, the plan aims to reduce Cleveland’s carbon footprint by 40 percent by the year 2030. (The city has already reduced its carbon footprint by four percent since 2010.) Another goal is to restore the city’s tree canopy by 30 percent by 2040 and plant 50,000 trees by 2020—a mission that will no doubt be bolstered by the county’s recent $5 million investment in increasing the region’s tree canopy over the next five years. (Read a synopsis of the updated plan here.)
In addition, the Climate Action Fund has supported more than 50 resident-led neighborhood projects, such as solar-powered cell phone charging stations, "pocket park retreats" in Glenville, and a beautification project for the Lake Avenue Railroad bridge.
This year promises to bring more exposure and momentum for the movement, with a wide array of Cuyahoga50 events planned to mark the 50thanniversary milestone of the Cuyahoga River Fire. The much-anticipated Icebreaker Wind project is also kicking into gear, after LEEDCo received construction permit approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in March to move forward with the first freshwater wind installation in North America.
“We’ve made huge progress over the last 50 years by sustained local action and leaders throughout this community being supported by policy,”says Gray. “I feel that any solution going forward will follow that same formula: local action sustained and supported by policy.”
And according to a report by sustainability firm Blu Skye, Cleveland is uniquely positioned to keep making progress—pointing to its potential based on the city’s “strategic location, freshwater advantages, advanced manufacturing expertise, social capital, and more," according to Cooperrider.
Though this year does mark the culmination of the 10-year Sustainable Cleveland 2019 initiative, Jackson says the work will continue—and its impact will be felt for decades.
“If we’re able to establish a culture and infrastructure that has a life of its own, that will not sputter out just because 10 years is over,” says Jackson. “This is a lifestyle. This is changing the way people think and behave and what their expectations are—not just on a social level, but on an economic level.”
This is the first feature in a dedicated series titled "People, Planet, Progress: A Decade of Sustainable Cleveland" in partnership with Sustainable Cleveland.