Taking stock of the citys efforts to get greener

Gayle Prest is the point person for the city’s sustainability efforts. The city defines sustainability as: “meeting current needs without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs by balancing environmental, economic and social (equity) concerns. In Minneapolis, we are defining this as Living Green, Living Healthy and Living as a Community.”

Prest recently shared her reflections on the city’s efforts and provided insights on upcoming projects.

SWJ: What are some of the biggest successes you can point to in the city’s effort to become more sustainable?

Prest: There has been a remarkable improvement in water quality of our lakes, streams and the Mississippi River. “Minneapolis” literally means the “City of Water.” Our history has been tied to our environment — especially the hydro power on the river. Early city leaders ensured that we would love and cherish our environment by making our lakes public parks — something that continues to amaze visitors to the area. The city has not done this alone, in addition to regulations, partnerships with other organizations and financial incentives like the stormwater utility fee credit system are important. We have so many more rain gardens, green roofs, stormwater ponds than we had just a few years ago. People are understanding that there are viable options to the classic asphalt and concrete.

I’ve been with the city for about eight years. A huge success has been the elimination in 2007 and 2008 of untreated water flowing into the Mississippi River during heavy rain events which can cause serious health and environmental problems. Heavy rains can fill sewer pipes beyond capacity and make them overflow into the stormwater pipes which flow into the river. This is pretty common in many older cities throughout the country. For instance, in 2005, this was more than 57 million gallons of untreated water. It’s taken an intense effort of upgrading the city’s sewer system, and many property owners disconnecting their rain gutters from the sanitary sewers.    

Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword in city departments.  Minneapolis is unique from a lot of other large cities in that we numerically measure our progress on a variety of issues and report them out each year in the “Minneapolis Greenprint Report.” It’s a fact-based, meaningful way to have a conversation with city officials, and Minneapolis businesses and residents about what is working and what we can do better on. We have received a lot of national recognition over the last three years for this work, whether it’s from the EPA for our clean air efforts, Number 2 ranking for commuter biking or Number 7 most sustainable large U.S. city by Sustainlane.

SWJ: What inspires you to do this work?

Prest: I have the best job in the city. [I’m inspired by] residents, co -workers, children, all the volunteers, and our City Council Members and Mayor Rybak. The city has an Environmental Advisory Committee made up of volunteers that have assisted in development of many policy issues like green cleaning, and environmentally friendly purchasing, green building and more. This is a city that get things done. All this energy is feeding on itself, creating greater awareness and activity.

For instance, for the second year, we have given out climate change micro grants to neighborhood groups, places of worship, business organizations to motivate their neighbors to take immediate action to reduce their energy use. It’s great because this also saves money on electricity, heating and gas bills. The dedication and volunteer effort has been remarkable. There have been all sorts of projects — promoting clotheslines rather than dryers, organic composting in restaurants, guerrilla tactics to reduce school bus idling, energy audits for businesses, energy fairs in parks and other grassroots efforts.

The City Council and mayor are overwhelmingly supportive and see the value in a city that has clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.  My co-workers are not waiting for me to suggest an idea but are marching ahead with building stronger policies, changing regulations and streamlining processes.

SWJ: What exciting projects are on the horizon?

Prest: Reducing our global warming footprint is going to be a tremendous challenge and also an opportunity to leave a better place for our children and create more “green jobs.” There is only one planet and the credible international experts say we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. That’s a tall order, but I have met very dedicated Minneapolis businesses, environmental organizations and residents/children striving to do their part.

2009 will be an exciting year when it comes to better transportation options. New bike programs (new trails, paths), the North Star Commuter Rail Line from Minneapolis to Big Lake will open, and there will be improved options for walking.

There is a growing interest among business associations interested in helping their members green up their businesses, save money and  build a stronger, greener economy.

There is also an amazing growing interest to take on “local food” through community gardens, farmers’ markets, local food co-ops and backyard gardens. This is good not only for the environment but it’s a great way to meet new friends, stay fit and eat healthy.

People are realizing the problems with buying bottled water, lots of waste with empty bottles, lots of energy is used making the plastic and transporting it from all over the world. It’s expensive, and the city’s tap water tastes great and people know it meets health standards.

Stay tuned.