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Investing in a Green Future

Baltimore's Sustainability Commission Holds First Meeting

Christopher Myers
FORWARD THINKERS: (from left) Cheryl Casciani, Beth Strommen, and Sarah Zaleski are leading Baltimore's new effort to become sustainable.

By Joe Tropea | Posted 6/18/2008

It's not hard to worry about the environment when the sweltering summer heat of Baltimore is in full effect. How fitting, then, that the city's first Sustainability Commission planning meeting was held at the end of May in the stiflingly hot, un-air-conditioned Phoebe Stanton Board Room on the eighth floor of 417 E. Fayette St. The meeting was surprisingly well-attended by an estimated 100 to 150 people, all of whom seemed genuinely concerned about a serious potential threat to the city: its lack of a long-term plan to sustain itself, environmentally and otherwise.

On May 27, before a standing-room-only crowd, officials introduced the commission and laid out their hopes that Baltimore can come up with a comprehensive plan to address development, environment, social, and economic concerns now and in the future. The concept of sustainability has become popular among municipal leaders in recent years, and cities like San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis have all adopted plans to make sure they thrive in an environmentally friendly way. Locally, both Howard and Baltimore counties have adopted sustainability plans as well. These plans generally address such things as water and air quality, conservation and recycling, public health and environmental issues, public transportation, and green-building practices. Baltimore's sustainability plan, now in its early stages, is being put together by the city's Sustainability Commission, a 21-member panel appointed by Mayor Sheila Dixon. The goal of the commission, which was created last year by a City Council bill, is not just to work for a cleaner, greener footprint for the city but also to create a blueprint for meeting the economic and social needs of city residents.

Last July, Dixon announced the creation of a new Office of Sustainability, which operates under the Department of Planning, to implement the city's sustainability efforts. The new office employs a manager, Beth Strommen, and a coordinator, Sara Zaleski, in addition to a handful of administrative assistants, all of whom are working with the commission to build the sustainability plan. Just a week before the May 27 meeting, Dixon announced that Cheryl Casciani, the Baltimore Community Foundation's director of community investment, had been named chair of the Sustainability Commission.

At the meeting, Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank kicked things off by reminding attendees of the Dixon administration's mantra: "cleaner, greener, healthier, and safer." He told the crowd that the plan was to look at the city's future through three lenses: people, environment, and economy.

With the help of Strommen and Zaleski, Casciani tried to identify the broad and nebulous concept of sustainability and explain how the commission hopes to get there. Between now and October, they explained to the crowd, the commission will hold public meetings at which the various working groups that make up the commission will determine what a sustainable Baltimore looks like. The working group's findings will be used to draw up the sustainability plan, which the commission will present on Oct. 28, the date of its next full meeting.

"The commission needs participation and help from the public," Casciani said, noting that the commission will also partner with local hospitals and universities to achieve its goals. "It's up to the citizens to get this going."

The Sustainability Commiss-ion is made up of six working groups, which are headed by appointees from city agencies, labor unions, community organizations, public health/environmental justice groups, and the private sector. Each working group chair, all of whom will serve four-year terms, was introduced at the meeting. The groups and their leaders are:

l The built environment group, chaired by Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, will address zoning, green buildings, historic preservation, and brownfields--abandoned buildings, salvage yards, vacant lots, and other run-down properties that blight Baltimore's landscape and waste its resources.

l The air and energy group, headed by Abell Foundation consultant Lynn Heller, will look into air quality, climate change, clean-energy jobs, and affordability of utility bills.

l The green infrastructure group is chaired by former organic farmer Alyson Taylor. When asked at the meeting what, exactly, green infrastructure means, she said, "We'll have to figure that out." The group will deal with things like food systems, green spaces around the city, and how open space relates to public health.

l The transportation group is being helmed by transportation planner Patrick McMahon, who says his group will explore car sharing, parking issues, bicycling, school transportation, alternative-fuel city fleets, shipping, and how these things affect air and water quality.

l The water group is being led by neighborhood activist Mary Washington, who ran for the Maryland House of Delegates' 43rd District seat in the 2006 primary election. Her group will look into quality, cost, and availability of water in the Baltimore area.

l The waste group, led by Keith Losoya, president of Chesapeake Sustainable Business Alliance and self-proclaimed Green Republican, will examine solid-waste reduction, reuse, composting, and recycling.

First District City Council-man James Kraft, who sponsored the bill that led to the Sustainability Commission's existence, did not attend the meeting but says he is particularly interested in seeing how the commission will address the city's public transportation problems. "I'm advocating every day to build the Red Line," he says of a proposed east-west transit line. "If it were up to me, I'd break ground tomorrow. We're 25 years behind in doing it, and it's going to stifle the growth of this city if we don't do it as quickly as possible. Because people are enthusiastic about coming here, but we don't have a way to get them around when they get here."

Casciani and members of the commission fielded tough questions throughout the night. One sharp criticism came from Ira Feldman, president and senior counsel of Greentrack Strategies, a company specializing in environmental management and sustainable business systems. He said that much of the commission's framework--addressing air, water, waste, and other issues independently of one another--seemed to be based on outdated approaches to environmental policy. "How are crosscutting issues going to be dealt with?" he asked.

Casciani admitted that the commission's structure does seem based on an outdated model but assured Feldman that "crosscutting issues will get precedence as [the plan] comes together."

After the meeting, Feldman said he felt hopeful about the project.

Another question Casciani and others had to answer was about employment: How many new jobs does Baltimore think it can create by becoming a more sustainable city? "Each group is charged with assessing the creation of green jobs," Casciani told the audience. "We have no numbers yet, but someone is looking into it."

That someone is the Annie E. Casey Foundation, represented at the meeting by Scot Spencer, a commission member and the foundation's manager of community relations.

Casciani says there is so much sustainability planning going on around the country that Baltimore's Sustainability Commission can study the efforts made by other cities and use them to inform work done here.

"We are not trying to reinvent the wheel," Casciani says in a recent interview. "We've pulled draft plans from Minneapolis, New York, and Santa Monica. So far we haven't found one [plan] that fits exactly Baltimore's personality. Chicago is really among the best examples of a city that's adopted this with such strong mayoral leadership, which is what we have."

While the committee has a long road ahead, Casciani says she is optimistic about the work being done to bring the city up to speed on its sustainability plan. With the help of city residents, ambitious group leaders, and lessons taken from other cities, she thinks sustainability is within Baltimore's reach. "I wouldn't stay involved if I wasn't hopeful about it," she says.

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