We live in a myth of plenitude in the Midwest.
At least that's how Dr. James Buchanan sees it. As the director of Xavier University's Breuggmann Center
and a moderator at this year's Midwest Regional Sustainability Summit
, Buchanan understands the apathy surrounding environmental issues.
"Locally, there is no way to sense the climate change crisis," he says. "People respond to crisis."
According to Buchanan, there is one more thing that generates an impressive response from the average Midwesterner: collective action and collaboration.
On May 1, thought leaders from across the region will convene in Cincinnati to do just that. The primary goal of the Midwest Regional Sustainability Summit is to bring people together to exchange ideas on the future of sustainability here and across the country.
This is the first year that the Northside-based Green Umbrella Regional Sustainability Alliance
, in partnership with the City of Cincinnati, has branded its yearly conference as the Midwest Regional Sustainability Summit. The event hopes to showcase Green Umbrella's internal efforts and the efforts of Cincinnati as a whole as well as provide a forum for collaboration among nearby city leaders.
The event combines the Greater Cincinnati 3E Summit and Green Umbrella's own yearly summit into one comprehensive conference.
“We started creating, at a regional level, a network of professionals sharing best practices,” says Brewster Rhoads, executive director of Green Umbrella. “We wanted to see what we can do by working together to go further faster.”
Keeping it regional is important, Rhoads says, as each area of the U.S. is faced with dramatically different environmental concerns.
“We’re not dealing with rising sea levels or water crises here,” Rhoads says. “To sit down with Louisville or Columbus is much different than say, sitting down with San Francisco. We can learn more from those cities dealing with the same issues we are.”
EPA's Stan Meiburg
The Midwest Sustainability Summit will return to the Cintas Center
on Xavier University’s campus for an all-day program that includes a Mayor’s Roundtable, a Sustainable Director’s Panel and two sessions of concurrent discussions touching on the most pressing matters in sustainability right now, ranging from building efficiency to water management. The event will also include a midday keynote presentation by the Environmental Protection Agency
's acting Deputy Administrator, Stan Meiburg.
With the exception of the keynote speaker, all speakers hail from the Midwest.
Cincinnati's sustainability-driven policies
Though issues like climate change aren't inherently local, a strong push for sustainable building and business practices is already underway in Cincinnati and throughout the region. Larry Falkin, director of Cincinnati's Office of Environment and Sustainability
, is focusing on what cities in the area can do at the local level to fit into the bigger picture.
"Most of our peer cities are working to be more sustainable and are making progress," Falkin says. "It remains to be seen whether it will be enough."
Falkin will be moderating two speaker sessions at the Summit, one of which brings together the sustainability directors from Cincinnati's peer cities to share the good, bad and the ugly of sustainability work in their respective cities.
"Perhaps most importantly, we want to discuss areas where we have innovated and it hasn't worked," Falkin says. "We want to alert each other so as to prevent making the same mistakes over and over."
Cincinnati is currently a leader in the region when it comes to sustainable building practices. For years, the city has offered LEED tax abatements for certified green buildings. By creating a standing policy geared toward sustainability, Cincinnati City Council has provided a model for other cities to follow.
Cincinnati was also the first major city to buy electricity on behalf of its residents from 100 percent renewable sources. The city's Electricity Aggregation Program
has reduced the city's carbon footprint by 6 percent and provided a model for cities like Cleveland and Chicago.
"Six percent is a big step, particularly considering that (the program) saves us money and costs us nothing," Falkin says.
Transportation in general is another city focus. Though public transit is hardly a Cincinnati strong suit, there are efforts being made to change that — the city is adding more bike lanes, and the Red Bike program is expanding from downtown to other neighborhoods.
By far the most talked-about facet of the city's plan is the streetcar, a transportation solution that's about much more than moving people around downtown.
"Hardly a day goes by that you don't hear about a new development project along the streetcar line," Falkin says. "When we talk about being a magnet for development, it's also great from a sustainability standpoint. Density helps."
Cincinnati also boasts several accomplishments that fly below the radar. For example, the Cincinnati Zoo
currently holds the title of greenest zoo in America — its campus features solar panels on its parking lot, sophisticated stormwater control and the greenest restaurant in the country.
Further, the City of Cincinnati has invested in a new District 3 police station that will generate more energy than it uses. The city decided to build the station as a LEED Platinum facility after applying a life cycle cost analysis to the project.
The city has also made a statement when it comes to electric vehicles. Cincinnati is one of very few cities that offers free city parking for electric cars. There are even some parking garages
that have caught onto the trend by offering built-in charging stations.
A model organization
By establishing itself as a city focused on sustainability, Cincinnati provides the perfect backdrop for a regional summit. Perhaps the biggest draw to the area, however, is the fact that one of the most successful sustainability organizations in the region, Green Umbrella, calls Cincinnati home.
Founded in 1998, Green Umbrella itself boasts seven separate action teams focused on different problem areas revolving around the broader sustainability goal. In 2011, each team was tasked with creating a measurable goal that could be reached by 2020.
For example, the Green Umbrella waste task force, led by Head of Environmental Services for Hamilton County
Holly Crisman, has been working on ways to reduce waste by 33 percent. They're on schedule to meet that goal.
Task forces aside, what makes Green Umbrella unique among sustainability organizations is its ability to collaborate with all factors in the equation, from grassroots to corporate. Powerhouse Cincinnati companies like Procter & Gamble
are constantly looking for ways to meet their own sustainability goals, and events like the Summit provide them the opportunity to learn from surrounding communities and as well as thought leaders in the field.
“Here we have a summit talking about environmental sustainability and you have some of the biggest corporations in the word thinking about how to work together with nonprofits, universities and governmental professionals to help them meet their goals,” Rhoads says. "Regionally, Green Umbrella is seen as a model for organizing such a broad cross-section of interests.”
The broader goal
Sustainability is just one of the many issues Cincinnati faces on a daily basis. Its significance, however, goes beyond preventing climate change and preserving resources.
According to XU's Buchanan, having such forward-looking policies is the key to keeping the city vibrant and young.
"The question we need to ask is: How do we attract and keep young professionals?" Buchanan says. "How do we make this place an area where people want to move?"
Buchanan sees conferences like this one as an opportunity to show students in the area that Cincinnati is making moves. By bringing together sustainability leaders from across the region, the younger set will be able to see that sustainability is more than just a conversation in a classroom — it's a living, breathing part of the city's plan for the future.
Though Rhoads is stepping down as Green Umbrella executive director this summer, the growth the organization has seen during his four-year tenure has likely established it as a longtime Cincinnati fixture.
"It's heartbreaking," Buchanan says of Rhoads' departure. "There is such a force behind his vision. He is a catalyst for the kind of collaborative action this work requires."
The search is underway for his replacement, but Rhoads will be fully involved in the Summit on May 1. He hopes that this year's event — their largest thus far — will draw considerable input from the community.
“My vision is that people pass around a sign up sheet after the panels in the hopes of continuing the conversation,” Rhoads says. “This is innovation at work here.”
Registration is currently available online
, and the day's detailed schedule is here