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Ten things your city can do to be more sustainable

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/22/19 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Live, Transform

The 10th Cleveland Sustainability Summit has us thinking about cities — how they are proving to be more nimble than the slow, state grind or federal backslide on economic, social and environmental sustainability.

<br />A chicken coop at the Cleveland Convention Center<br />Black Girls Do Bike / Cleveland<br />A pop up street calming project in Lakewood<br />A before and after series of photos of a street in Cleveland that lost all of its ash trees to the pest, the emerald ash borer.

The update from last week’s 10th annual Sustainable Cleveland Summit has Cleveland making measurable progress in areas of clean energy, local food, and zero waste (Transportation is another matter. Leaders admit, it is still a cause for concern across the region).

But, what actions make the most sense when measuring carbon reductions, quality of life and health?

Here’s our list of ten things that cities can do. These are actions at the scale of the whole, as Case Fowler Center’s David Cooperrider says. If your city isn’t already doing these, it really needs to consider what it’s doing to be more sustainable.


#1. Make Granny Flats legal: California just legalized rent-able structures on properties with single-family homes because they have the ability to transform low-density communities into walkable, transit-connected places. Cleveland doesn’t have the same housing availability crisis as California. But, accessory dwelling units could offer our aging population a place to live more affordably and closer to relatives.

#2. Eliminate Parking Minimums: No zoning code item distorts the market quite like parking minimums which require developers to absorb the high cost of parking that they then pass along in higher rents. It contributes to gentrification problems by making new developments unaffordable for the middle. They make developments oversupply parking, giving a huge subsidy to drive more and walk less. It drove Buffalo to eliminate them altogether. Cleveland is piloting a form-based code and has a pedestrian overlay district that does away with parking minimums.

Green Infrastructure

#3. Apply for Cuyahoga tree funds: ICYMI, Cuyahoga County is making $5 million available for planting (or planning for) trees. It’s not only Cleveland, with its scary low 18% tree cover, that has to worry about the heat emanating and higher-volume storms not absorbing on pavement (see the Cuyahoga tree canopy assessment to see who has it worse). The U.S. Forest Service has found that climate change will devastate local trees like maples. Pests like the emerald ash borer wiped out whole mono-cropped treelawns. Trees are the best insurance policy when the expected hot and stormy weather sets up over our area.


#4. Paint bike lanes: Cleveland has shown that it can encourage biking (it has grown to 0.7%) with the addition of 80 miles of bikeways in the last four years. For its next act, Cleveland should keep building lanes and paths to more destinations like parks — and to the suburbs where scores of weekend bike warriors are would-be bike commuters. Roads in our region that are overly wide — causing air quality problems and an unacceptable number of deaths and injury — are ripe for road diets. Where to begin? The city is organizing a Vision Zero plan that includes measuring the comfort of biking. In some cases, it costs nothing more than the price of paint. The Cuyahoga Greenways Plan is a good place to start.

#5. Bring the bus: If your elected officials are wondering what top transportation priority could help the environment and transform community, tell them buses (and trains). Buses can move 40 times more people and for that reason alone they rebalance the equation. They are inclusive and they solve the region’s worsening air pollution problem — greenhouse gas emissions expanded by 9% in the county from transportation. RTA is making its first comprehensive effort to modify its bus system to serve the changing needs and settlement pattern of a sprawling region. How to expand coverage to new suburban job hubs while adding frequent buses that makes living car free in Cleveland a reality? The answer is to support increasing the county tax and to design a community around transit. It will solve your parking problem, make an economic development deal more attractive, and bake in a low-carbon lifestyle that confers more benefits of transportation investments to more people.


#6. Marry TIFs and Green Building: When local philanthropy realized that it could influence more energy and water efficiency through their capital grants, city of Cleveland followed suit, tying green building minimums into their economic development grants. Similarly, TIFs are development give aways that hold no particular currency when every community is offering it—it’s a zero sum game. It’s why tying green building minimums to them are the next logical step.

Another huge player that could influence the shape of the region is the Port Authority. Where, in proximity to existing resources, and how, in the design of circulatory systems like transportation, the Port’s development loans go holds a lot of sway over how much carbon is built in to building.


#7. Write a climate plan: Cleveland and Cuyahoga County completed Climate Action Plans (CAP) in 2018 and 2019 with a carbon emissions accounting to know where to direct funds like the $1 million and $5 million tree plans. Suburbs can set a goal for carbon emissions reduction and work with partners throughout the city to plan implementation strategies.

#8. Move away from fossil fuel: Since motor vehicle emissions are at the root of much of the region’s air pollution problems, the most important actions a community can take will help people to drive less. This means developing walkable places and improving transportation choices. Three areas municipalities can key in on are:

  • Improve the energy efficiency of city buildings and vehicles.
  • Prohibit unnecessary idling of city vehicles. (A sample anti-idling policy from Cuyahoga County can be found here).
  • Adjust city operations on Air Quality Advisory Days.


#9. Communities are helping residents and businesses save energy (and money) through conservation and efficiency and by promoting the phase-in of clean, renewable energy sources. Examples:

  • Offer residents the option of purchasing clean power through community aggregation, such as the program offered by the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council (NOPEC).
  • Encourage residents and businesses to take advantage of low-cost energy audit services provided through Dominion East Ohio Gas and COSE.
  • Provide services to make it easy for residents to install solar power. The Solarize Cleveland program and the Cuyahoga County / Solar United Neighbors, for example.


#10. Local governments can do a lot to help residents access fresh, local food. Ohio has fertile soils and ranks in the top 10 in terms of agricultural production, but only an estimated 1% of the food consumed in Northeast Ohio is produced in the region. Although Cuyahoga County is mostly developed, it has unrealized potential for food production. It has an estimated 17,500 vacant lots with 3,423 acres of decent growing potential.

  • Set a local procurement goal (for food grown within 150 miles) for city food services. (Cleveland Heights has an ordinance requiring the city to consider purchasing local and Fair Trade food).
  • Offer a bid discount to local food providers when bidding contracts. (Cleveland’s policy is a model).
  • Permit urban farming uses—Allow urban gardening and small-scale agriculture on residential, commercial and other properties, like Cleveland allowed with its zoning code update for agriculture in residential districts.

For even more ideas on what cities can do, check out the Sustainable Cuyahoga toolkit.

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