From bike lanes to grass roofs, eco-friendly projects blossom
The following article, published in The Plain Dealer on December 8, 2002, describes some of the exciting green developments underway in the Cleveland area. EcoCity Cleveland is involved in many of them.
By John C. Kuehner
A green revolution has taken root in Cleveland. And now it's beginning to sprout.
In the last year, environmental projects that were once just concepts have become reality, spurred by more receptive government leaders, a small but dogged environmental movement and a growing recognition of the projects' value in making Cleveland a more vibrant, healthy city.
EcoVillage is beginning to take shape on Cleveland's near West Side. The project has been a dream of environmental and neighborhood leaders: the creation of a national showplace for different types of environmentally friendly redevelopment built within walking distance of a bus-rapid transit station near West 65th Street and Lorain Avenue. The first four townhouses rose this year, built with such "green" features as energy ultra-efficiency and building materials that are nontoxic, recycled and recyclable. Sixteen more homes are planned, along with new green space and other changes to encourage walking, local business development and, ultimately, a lifestyle less dependent on cars.
The Green Environmental Center broke ground this year, turning a historic Ohio City bank building at Lorain and Fulton avenues into a home for the area's environmental groups and businesses.
The first tenants are expected to move in this February. The building will boast dozens of features that will keep the historic integrity and not hurt the environment, such as waterless urinals, geothermal cooling and heating that uses far less energy, and monitors that kick on ventilation only when people are in the room.
Bicycling is on a roll. New bike trails and bike lanes are appearing and being planned. The Towpath Trail along the Ohio-Erie Canal is stretching north toward downtown, and work will start next year to add bike lanes to the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Planners added bike lanes this year to designs for the $220 million Euclid Corridor Transportation Project between Cleveland State University and Case Western Reserve University. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority has installed bike racks on several buses and will include them on every new one. And in a symbolic ceremony in September, Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell unveiled four bike racks outside City Hall as part of her eight-point "Bicycle Friendly Cleveland Initiative."
"There are a lot of isolated and interesting things going on," said David Orr, chair of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College. "You can say this almost means this is the beginning of a movement. There's a 21st-century economy trying to get born here."
Orr is one of the drivers behind the movement.
He has been a catalyst for ideas and a guru and spokesman for a new wave of environmentalists inclined toward practical, incremental improvements in quality of life.
The college's Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Studies Center, which opened in 1998, is a showpiece for the most cutting-edge elements of "green building" and has drawn nation attention, including a feature in Time magazine in August.
He and other activists say a spirit of cooperation, open communication and minds open to new ideas emerged this year among leaders at Cleveland City Hall, Cuyahoga County government and the suburbs, to a much greater degree than in the recent past. Many credit Campbell, a former county commissioner who understands county government and the needs of the suburbs.
What has coalesced is an ethos about energy efficiency, clean power and building practices that consider environmental and human health without compromising on function, cost and aesthetics.
A little fear also drives the revolution. Local leaders see other cities supporting environmentally friendly projects to enhance the quality of life and do not want the Cleveland area left behind.
From this, a shared goal has emerged: to make Cleveland and the region an environmentally friendly place that will keep residents and attract new ones, particularly the bright young types who will launch new businesses and help the local economy grow.
"We're all in the same choir," said Chris Ronayne, Cleveland's planning director. "We may break out in quartets or duets, but there's a regular dialogue between city and county, a government-to-government collaboration, especially with projects like the Towpath Trail."
But these environmental projects also are what citizens want. One indicator: Hundreds of people from the city and suburbs flocked to a series of public meetings Cleveland hosted this year, saying they want access to Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River and better parks.
"From my perspective, I'm very encouraged by what I'm seeing," said David Beach, who launched the EcoVillage idea in 1996 and publishes a nationally known environmental journal. "All of a sudden, it seems things people have been talking about for years are starting to go into production."
Behind the curve
Oberlin's Orr, like other advocates, concedes that "critical mass is a step beyond where we are now." No one denies that the steps here are small and belated compared to those in cities that embraced green thinking years ago, such as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. Portland, for example, is known for walkable neighborhoods around transit stops, a concept that reduces car and truck traffic and pollution. Chicago wants to become the nation's center for green technology and manufacturing. Even its city hall has a grass-covered roof that keeps the building cool in the summer and insulates it in the winter.
"There is a general perception that ideas have caught on slower in Cleveland," conceded Beach, whose group, EcoCity Cleveland, promotes the design of cities in balance with nature.
Lisa Hong, vice president of a Cleveland-based ecological design and engineering firm called eQuest, inc., says the green community is more vibrant now than she has seen in the last decade.
"There's more of an integration today of the environment and economic development issues," said Hong. "People who used to be walking separately are finding themselves on the same path."
For example, Green Energy Ohio has pulled together a roundtable of Ohio-based businesses ranging from small installers of solar panels to industrial giant Timken Co. in Canton, which manufactures a ball bearing that saves energy in machinery. The hope is these groups will find common ground that will result in the state legislature adopting incentives that will lead to growth in renewable-energy industry.
Cleveland also is home to Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, a budding nonprofit group that supports businesses committed to "sustainable" principles such as reducing waste, cutting energy and using recycled and recyclable materials.
One person that Oberlin's Orr inspired is Sadhu Johnston. While an Oberlin student, Johnston put together a speaker series called "Redesigning Cleveland for the 21st Century." With money from the Gund Foundation, he brought in 15 internationally known leaders who spoke about creating sustainable communities that were productive and energy efficient, and not destructive to nature.
Each event in 1999 and 2000 drew hundreds of people, which surprised Johnston and others.
"What it really did was open our eyes to the possibilities and to learn what other cutting-edge places are doing that we could take advantage of," said Johnson, who formed the Cleveland Green Building Coalition two years ago. "It brought everyone together, and people could see they were not alone."
Top to bottom
Now more and more developers, architects, designers and engineers are using green building concepts here.
Examples include the Walker and Weeks Building, a former office-retail building at 2341 Carnegie Ave. that is being renovated into condominiums and apartments for downtown living. Its insulating grass roof will save energy but will also cut storm water runoff, double the roof life and be a community garden space with views of downtown and Lake Erie. And Trinity Cathedral downtown recently installed a geothermal system that will save thousands of dollars a year in energy bills by tapping into the Earth's temperatures for heating and cooling.
Advocates say the financial sense of incorporating green principles in homes also is becoming clearer, and the EcoVillage hopes to be a showcase. The thinking: Dramatically lower utility bills leave more money for homeowners to spend - on a mortgage they otherwise couldn't afford, for instance, or in the community.
These new building practices generate new businesses, Johnston said.
"It's creating all sorts of new opportunities," he said. "With each new green building project, you need new materials, but you also need professionals who can serve these functions."
He cited some of the area's green businesses: Core Group of Companies Inc. of Sheffield, which produces energy-saving lighting systems and skylights that bring in natural light but without the glare of regular windows, and Environmental Wall Systems of Solon, which makes office walls that can be moved without demolition, saving thousands of dollars, and Sherwin-Williams Co., which makes an odorless paint that emits no chemical fumes.
"For so long, the environmental movement has been about stopping, chastising and nagging people," said Johnston, whose group advances the green building agenda through education, consultation and cooperation. "The real shift in this new sustainability movement is about starting things, creating new things and solving age-old problems in new ways."
The Campbell administration also has proclaimed "quality of place" and "livability" as themes it will incorporate into the city's parks and waterfront plans, which are to be redone early next year. These two plans will fit into a larger citywide plan called "Connecting Cleveland."
"It's all about how we use our assets, how we make it part of our identity and how we promote it," said Ronayne, Cleveland planning director. "I look at the city as the next frontier. For the last 50 years, we have been anything but the next frontier."
Bike and hike
Cleveland wants to link neighborhoods by a web of bike and hike trails that in turn will connect with other communities. It also wants to open the waterfront and initiated a forum on redesigning Public Square so it's more pedestrian-friendly.
Campbell's "Bicycle Friendly Cleveland Initiative" grew from a trip last summer to Chicago, which included a long ride on the city's lakefront bike trail.
"Making Cleveland a more bicycle-friendly city is one of the simplest things we can do to compete as a place to live and visit, while improving the quality of life and health of our residents," she has said.
The mayor also sees parks as economic-development assets that attract residents. So Cleveland is putting renewed emphasis on its 114 community parks, spurred in part by a study of the nation's 25 largest cities by the Urban Land Institute and Trust for Public Land which put Cleveland's system at the bottom.
This fall, the administration held meetings across the city to assess park programs and facilities, and it will release a plan in March.
"There's been an evolution of thinking of parks and green space that, rather than window dressing, they are an important community building block," said Ann Zoller, who heads ParkWorks, a nonprofit green-space advocacy group partnering with the city.
Ryan McKenzie, co-author of a guidebook called "Carfree in Cleveland," likes what he sees happening. McKenzie waged a guerrilla campaign for more than a year to convince the RTA to add bike lanes to the Euclid Avenue reconstruction project. But once he got the support of City Hall and showed the lanes could be done and that other cities were doing it, the resistance melted away, he said.
"I want to create a place where I want to grow old in," said McKenzie. "The thinking is changing, and particularly in the transportation world, it happens slowly."
More is coming.
County commissioners have hired several consultant teams to draw a plan for the Cuyahoga Valley that will redevelop the area yet take advantage of the natural features and protect environmental quality.
"No one else in the country has done anything this aggressive," Johnston said. "It's an exciting time to be here."
© 2002 The Plain Dealer