The Midwestern Resilient Cities Summit was held Wednesday, April 20th 2016, at the Student Center at Cleveland State University. Sponsored by the Center for American Progress, it attracted speakers and private citizens from not only the Cleveland area but Buffalo, New York, Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and even St. Paul, Minnesota, to name a few. After introductory remarks by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, speakers including the Managing Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Christy Goldfuss, HUD’s Midwestern Regional Administrator Antonio Riley, and Cleveland’s own Chief of Sustainability, Jenita McGowan, made their pitches on how cash strapped urban areas can meet the challenge of a changing climate.
When I first saw the email regarding this event, I thought it would be a rehash of the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Conference I went to more than six years ago. However, looking at who would be the presenters, and, with a few vacation days from the job saved up, I decided it would be worthwhile to attend. The audience had the array of policy wonks, community activists, civil servants and reporters (such as architecture critic Steven Litt) you usually see at such events. However, there was none of the ‘Positively Global Partnership Cleveland’ crowd that usually takes up most of the tables at the City Club.
As in so many other policy conferences, the speakers were enthusiastic about the subject at hand. Ms. Goldfuss firmly believes that strong and energetic individuals should be at the core of all these projects; these are the ones that have the most invested. She also talked in-depth what the Federal government was doing to raise awareness on climate change resiliency matters. This includes the White House Champions of Change, citing that 1,000 Americans so far were awarded this in the past 5 years.
There was also a panel featuring among others Cleveland’s Director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, Matt Gray. When I asked him in the Q/A period how the sub-prime mortgage crisis affected the city’s sustainability measures over the past few years, he didn’t really have an answer. Instead, he went on and touted the city’s energy programs.
As for me, I participated in the engaging and empowering community members’ group discussion. The moderator, Jacquie Gillon, was from the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. A former East Cleveland Councilwoman, Ms. Gillon has been doing leadership development for 19 years. For her, the most surprising thing people learn is how much we have in common, “We minimize them a critical thinkers, how do we get inclusive?” she asked the group. Communication, as always, seems to be a big issue in our group. How can we get local residents, many of whom are renters, involved in these programs? For example, one woman in our group raised the point that a city official sent to a meeting in her neighborhood at their request didn’t say anything. “He was the wrong official,” a man who worked for the city of Ann Arbor replied. Afterwards, I kept thinking I should have asked him why in his opinion the city didn’t send out the ‘right one”?
Another big question that was raised was how can we capture federal dollars. From HUD’s Lucy Miller’s view, her department doesn’t provide direct financing, only through Community Block Grants (CBGs) to municipalities. In Cleveland, CBGs are allocated on a Ward level. the Northeast Shores Development Corporation’s Ballot Box Project was used as an example of local use of Federal dollars. About $100,000 from HUD was involved and people voted on what projects the money could be spent on.
Antonio Riley picked up where Christy Goldfuss left off. He cited a Harvard Study by Raj Chetty that showed the earlier children relocated the better odds they go to college and got out of the cycle of poverty. Personally, I don’t see how relevant this was to Climate change. After all, inner city families will not be moving to a Hudson Ohio subdivision anytime soon. On the other hand encouraging people to move to so-called “opportunity neighborhoods” that doesn’t mean neglecting low-income neighborhoods either. $7 billion a year on all HUD budgeted housing and therefore the department fully supports resilient community measures.
Both Ms. Goldfuss and Mr. Riley referred in their speeches The President’s Climate Action Plan which has basically three points; the reduction of greenhouse gases, leading international efforts to prepare for Climate Change, and making cities more resilient. I downloaded a copy of it and, to be honest, this is one of those documents I wish I could have been working on. While it offers a variety of chapters from deploying clean energy to mobilizing climate finance (and I did like the proposal to modernize the electric grid), I didn’t see one section specifically geared towards low-income urban areas. As for the report, written by the Center’s staff, it naturally provides far more information than a summit can do. Steven Litt even sites it in his own piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a few days ago.
There was a field trip afterwards to the Kinsman neighborhood to see urban agricultural projects underway there. I didn’t go however, by looking at the Kinsman Farm website, perhaps I should have.It would have been kind of interesting to see how the out-of-towners reacted to all this in an inner city neighborhood like the Kinsman area. On the other hand, the largest urban farm in Cleveland is in Ohio City and other neighborhoods, such as Collinwood-Nottingham Village, are also taking urban gardening to the next level. Perhaps, if there was a solar energy farm off of E. 79th and Kinsman or Wind Power turbines (like you see off of I-90 in Euclid, Ohio) off of Bessemer Road, I would never had hesitated.
The Summit was too general in some ways. While I admire what is being done in Detroit and Toledo, I still wanted to learn more about how all this translates into real, and effective, programs that can help Cleveland; and community gardens are only one part of it. For example, one of the recommendations that the report had been to expand access to distributed solar energy in low-income communities. This not only would lower energy bills but also carbon pollution levels. What someone should have done, and I admit I didn’t, was discuss with Matt Gray and Jenita McGowan an idea of getting Cleveland Public Power to create such a project in the city. The city’s publicly owned Power Company; Cleveland Public Power currently purchases electricity from other sources and generates none of its own. However, as their website shows, it is firmly committed to green power. If small-scale farming can be done in Kinsman, why not some small scale wind farms or solar panels generating power? It would have been interesting what their responses would have been.
While Mr. Gray is correct in saying the Sewer District is investing in green infrastructure. On the other hand, the dollars spent on the $198 million Euclid Creek Storage Tunnel Project in North Shore Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, and the village of Bratenahl, probably has a far more impact on the water quality of that watershed, and the beaches at Villa Angela and Euclid Beach for that matter. This three mile long storage tunnel is more of an immediate benefit for area residents than ‘green parking lot’ demonstrations can do.
One wonders how productive such conferences are in the long run. After all, I saw a presentation of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest Master Plan at a similar conference in Youngstown over six years ago, so none of this was brand new. Yet, it was an excellent summit which one hopes leads to more constructive things in the future.