Cleveland: Community Action Turns the Rust Belt Green

Despite world-class amenities like its orchestra, museums, parks, and acclaimed healthcare facilities, Cleveland, Ohio, and surrounding Cuyahoga County still suffer from a Rust-Belt image of abandoned industrial buildings, impoverished neighborhoods, and the burning Cuyahoga River.

Much of the city still fits that stereotype. But there are distinct signs that Cleveland is at the beginning of a Great Turning and is reinventing itself as one of the most ecological cities in America. Although local governments are starting to provide official leadership, Cleveland's transformation toward greater sustainability is not being driven from the top down. It is happening mostly because of the actions of thousands of committed and caring people at the grassroots, organizing in such groups as EcoCity Cleveland and Entrepreneurs for Sustainability.

A symbol of this transformation is the  Cleveland Environmental Center. Originally built as a bank in 1918, it was renovated in 2003 as Ohio's first commercial green building retrofit. With energy-efficient geothermal heating and cooling, abundant day lighting, waterless urinals, green roof, and many other high-performance features, the building demonstrates how sustainability contributes to historic preservation and neighborhood redevelopment. It's the home of a bank branch, as well as the Cleveland Green Building Coalition, EcoCity Cleveland, and other nonprofit organizations promoting the regeneration of Cleveland.

A few blocks away at the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland's flagship microbrewery, owners Pat and Dan Conway are working to create a zero-waste business. In addition to reducing the energy used in brewing and cooling the beer, the company uses spent grain from the brewing process to make cracked--barley beer bread and pretzels for their restaurant. Other grains go to a local farm to be used for growing organic mushrooms. Recycling and vermicomposting take care of much of the brewery's other waste, and waste vegetable oil powers a shuttle van—affectionately called the "Fatty Wagon"—that takes customers to downtown sporting events. To support the larger sustainability community, the brewery hosts monthly meetings of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability, an organization of green entrepreneurs, investors, government, and nonprofit leaders making sustainability and a local living economy the development drivers for the region.

Another center of innovative regeneration is the Cleveland EcoVillage. A transit-oriented development centered around a stop on the rail line connecting downtown with the airport, the Eco-Village includes 20 town homes boasting super-energy-efficient design and superior indoor air quality. Future plans call for efficient cottage homes marrying green design with affordability, improved pedestrian and bicycle connections, and the ecological restoration of a 22-acre greenspace around a city recreation center to improve habitat quality and demonstrate techniques for preventing stormwater pollution.

The green movement in Cleveland isn't confined to just a few, visible projects. A sustainability mindset has taken root in the city and county governments. Faced with the continuing loss of industrial jobs, officials are realizing that economic development needs to focus on things like alternative energy, resource efficiency, and quality of place.

The City of Cleveland, for example, hired a sustainability programs man-ager in 2005 to help the city save money and create jobs—as well as improve environmental performance. This staff person will conduct energy audits of city buildings, promote development of wind turbines, change building codes to encourage green building, institute anti-idling policies for city trucks, improve recycling programs, and reform procurement procedures.

With the help of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission is developing the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, a sustainable development plan to restore the ecology and economic vitality of the Cuyahoga River Valley. The initiative asks provocative questions about the coexistence of industry and natural systems, the importance of place, and the potential for the Cleveland region to capitalize on the clean-water technologies that have brought the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie back to life.

The collective power of individual efforts has helped the entire community realize its potential to thrive by, as Eco-City Cleveland's director David Beach says, "creating a green city on a blue lake."

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