Making a sustainable city

Minneapolis setting broad livability goals

As Mayor R.T. Rybak begins his second term, he is seizing what he calls a golden opportunity to move Minneapolis to the top of the list of the nation's most sustainable cities.

&#8220I will be pushing, as will a number of Councilmembers, to have sustainability goals, especially the core environmental goals, be part of the work we do in every department,” Rybak said.

A lot of the focus of sustainability is on making the city &#8220greener” by implementing environmentally friendly initiatives, but it also focuses on improving the quality of life for city residents now and in the future - including measures like increasing the number of workers earning a livable wage and decreasing the number of homeless individuals in the city.

&#8220The city can't isolate environmental initiatives from economic or health initiatives because it's all part of a larger way of looking at a sustainable city,” Rybak said.

City officials began working on a sustainability plan more than a year ago, but the next six months will be crucial to getting it off the ground. In June, the City Council will review its first annual sustainability report, which will outline specific goals for the coming years. Included are 23 sustainability indicators, including the volume of carbon dioxide emissions, the number of newly planted trees, the amount of airport noise and the Minneapolis Public School graduation rate.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward), chair of the Council's new Health, Energy and Environment Committee that will first review the proposed plan, said it will set benchmarks to &#8220test the general health of the city.”

&#8220There's a big number of steps that have to be taken, but at least we're progressing toward doing that at this point, and I think it's a very exciting time for the city,” he said.

Although there are improvements the city can make, already it is one of the nation's leading sustainable cities. Minneapolis tied with Denver as No. 10 in the nation for sustainability, according to SustainLane, a Web resource that tracks the sustainability programs, policies and performance of U.S. cities. Both cities were classified as &#8220moving to sustainability” but not as a &#8220sustainability leader.” San Francisco ranked highest, followed by Portland, Berkeley, Seattle and Santa Monica. The Green Guide, a magazine focusing on environmentally conscious living, also listed Minneapolis as one of the country's 10 greenest cities.

Gayle Prest, hired as the city's environmental programs manager 11 months ago and a leader on the sustainability plan, said city officials have set aggressive targets to get Minneapolis to the top of the sustainability list.

&#8220It's going to take time,” she said. &#8220A lot of these things aren't going to happen overnight.”

But some environmental activists say the plan doesn't demand enough of the city. Southwest resident Christine Ziebold, a member of the city's Environmental Advisory Committee, said the proposed sustainability targets don't go far enough.

&#8220It's business as usual,” she said. &#8220They're not very aggressive.”

In particular, Ziebold said she'd like the city to set a target for improving air quality given its relatively high rates of asthma among residents.

Exploring alternative energy

A key focal point of the city's sustainability work plan involves reducing fossil fuel emissions and increasing use of alternative energy sources.

By 2012, the city has proposed reducing carbon dioxide emissions of city-owned buildings and vehicles by 12 percent, 20 percent citywide.

Rybak said the city needs to take the lead locally on energy issues and be assertive about pushing the state and federal governments to do more to reduce greenhouse gases.

&#8220It is important to pass the International Kyoto Protocol, but it is also important for people to simply walk to the store instead of using their cars,” he said.

In December, Rybak joined hundreds of mayors across the country in calling on federal officials to be more aggressive in addressing the threat of global warming.

He was among the first mayors to sign the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement, which calls on U.S. cities to reduce global warming pollution by 7 percent below 1990 levels - the target outlined in the Kyoto Protocol.

Nearly 200 mayors from 38 states around the country have signed the agreement.

The city's actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions touted by Rybak's office include:

– Retrofitting city streetlights with energy-efficient bulbs;

– Reducing the size of the city's fleet and increasing use of vehicles that rely on alternative fuels;

– Installing solar panels onto Downtown's Fire Station 6 at 121 E. 15th St.;

– Redesigning city buildings to be more energy-efficient; and

– Pushing Xcel Energy to convert its Riverside plant from coal to &#8220combined cycle” natural gas, which is expected to happen by 2009.

Michael Krause, principal of Downtown-based Kandiyohi Development Partners, a consulting firm that promotes sustainable land use, renewable energy and other environmentally friendly technologies, said energy policies can have broad implications.

It can be a &#8220tool for alleviating poverty,” he said, if city officials can help low-income families find ways to reduce their utility bills. &#8220So, if you can find a better way to [supply] energy, you're going to alleviate that financial burden,” he said.

While Minneapolis officials have pledged to do more to promote alternative energy, Krause said the city is &#8220behind the curve” compared to other cities.

Krause supports a municipal utility over an investor-owned company like Xcel because residents would be more likely to influence energy policies and push for increased use of alternative fuels. Minneapolis also should follow the lead of other cities and states that have set more ambitious targets, he said.

Portland city officials, for instance, have set a goal of relying on alternative energy for 100 percent of the city's electricity by 2010.

The state of California, meanwhile, has pledged to rely on solar power for a third of its energy by 2017.

Improving water quality

Minneapolis has attracted attention for its work on managing stormwater and was one of the first U.S. cities to assess property owners a fee for stormwater runoff when it began the program in 2005.

&#8220That began when I looked at the city's capital budget and saw that we were about to spend many millions of dollars building more pipes to funnel more water from our streets into our lakes and creeks, damaging the water,” Rybak said.

&#8220Instead, we felt we needed to create an incentive for people to capture more of their water on their property, which will, long term, save the city millions of dollars and improve the water quality in our lakes and creeks.”

Property owners with large areas of covered asphalt, such as surface parking lots, are hit with the highest stormwater runoff bills.

The policy is intended to encourage property owners to find ways to retain stormwater on their property, such as creating parking lots with permeable surfaces that filter stormwater.

The true cost of managing water has taken some by surprise, Rybak said.

&#8220But we need to tell our citizens that there is a cost for not caring about the environment, and there is a benefit when you do; and that's what the utility fee is about,” he said.

Encouraging property owners and developers to outfit buildings with green roofs is another way city officials are having an impact on water quality.

Green roofs filter stormwater runoff and improve a building's energy-efficiency.

The New Central Library, set to open in May, will feature a green roof, and city officials also have looked at planting a green roof in City Hall's inner courtyard.

The south portion of the new library has an 18,560-square-foot green roof with succulents and bedrock bluff prairie plants.

The city also encourages developers to think green by providing incentives for environmentally friendly features.

Downtown's Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) hopes a greener Minneapolis will help the Convention Center attract national conferences on such topics as environmental commerce and sustainable technologies.

&#8220I'd like to see us use our environmental record as a way we market the city,” she said.

Setting a timeline

The Environmental Coordinating Team (ECT) approved 17 sustainability indicators - or ways in which the city will measure its progress - for Council consideration last year. The Council then adopted the 23 indicators, and the ECT created a Sustainability Steering Committee (SSC). By fall, the SSC developed goals for a majority of targets, which formed the basis of the city's ongoing plan.

The City Council in June will review its first annual report, and Rybak will incorporate recommendations into his 2007 budget address. By fall, city departments will present to him funding requests for their targeted goals.

Prest said the city's plan will focus on comprehensive issues like exploring alternative energy sources and improving water quality, but an important part of making the city truly sustainable is encouraging every citizen to do his or her part.

&#8220There is no big fix anymore for environmental issues,” Prest said. &#8220There are all these little things that add up, and that's not as fun, and that's not as glamorous, but that's the way it goes.”

Beyond those initiatives, Rybak said he considered having the city purchase some of its energy from wind power when he was crafting the 2006 budget.

&#8220I was comfortable doing that until it became clear by taking that action we'd be stepping into Xcel's role. We'd be charged more for wind when I think utilities should be rewarding customers for using alternative energy,” Rybak said. &#8220I was not prepared to use the city's tax dollars to supplement the basic research and development that energy companies should be using to explore alternative energy.”

While city officials looked into increasing the city's use of wind power, it became clear that Minneapolis residents have an appetite for alternative energies, Prest said.

About 33 percent of Xcel's customers who pay for wind power come from Minneapolis, she said.

&#8220So there is a huge amount of people that are very interested in doing the right thing, and they just need help in defining what that means,” she said.