Going Green: Collective Impact connects at-risk residents to cleaner air and healthier food

Green Umbrella developed the annual Paddlefest outdoors celebration, managed this year by Outdoor Adventure Clubs of Greater Cincinnati.


Greater Cincinnati’s environment dramatically impacts our quality of life. But that broad topic encompasses so many aspects that one organization would be hard pressed to address opportunities and challenges inherent in energy, waste reduction, transportation, land management, water, local food and outdoor recreation by itself. That made the sector a perfect candidate for one of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s five-year Collective Impact initiatives.
Soapbox is exploring how these initiatives have affected a series of community-wide issues. They’re being addressed through the disciplined Collective Impact approach that assembles numerous players to collaborate toward a common vision, adopting measurable goals and work to reinforce one another’s efforts with the encouragement and oversight of “backbone” organizations.
The backbone organization for environmental sustainability is Green Umbrella, with a broad goal of attaining recognition for our region as one of America’s top 10 sustainable metro areas by 2020. That’s ambitious, but partnering with two regional planning initiatives — the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber’s Agenda 360 (now folded into the overall Chamber organization) and Skyward in Northern Kentucky — and more than 300 businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies, Green Umbrella is tackling a broad array of issues through action teams focused on numerous programs and projects.
Northside Farmers Market helps bring healthy food options to urban residents.
Teams have established goals and metrics to determine progress toward various 2020 targets. One seeks to reduce total energy consumption in the built environment by 15 percent, while another works double the local production of renewable energy annually. A third pursues a 20 percent reduction in gasoline and diesel fuel use. A fourth team hopes to double the amount of fruits and vegetables sourced and consumed within the region, while a fifth works on ways to reduce disposed waste by 33 percent.
Additional teams conceive ways to protect and celebrate streams, rivers and other water resources — including developing and now sponsoring the annual Ohio River Paddlefest extravaganza — and to increase participation in recreational and educational activities and events by 15 percent as well as boosting the local acreage of high quality green space by 8 percent.

The Trail to Cleaner Air
Air quality, transportation and trails go hand in hand. Green Umbrella Executive Director Kristin Weiss points to research indicating that Greater Cincinnati has more air pollution than the national average in every category.
In particular, African Americans are disproportionately impacted by air pollution, especially in the urban core. Minorities constitute roughly 45 percent of the city of Cincinnati’s population but index much higher than whites in exposure to air pollution at home.

Source: PolicyLink National Equity Atlas

“Our African-American population is concentrated in the urban center, where there is more traffic and congestion,” Weiss points out. “Our topography is such that we are located in a valley, which increases our rate for asthma, especially among minority communities.”
Traffic congestion, reduced transit access and households without cars further compound the situation.
“When we look at the share of jobs accessible via public transportation within a 90-minute commute one-way, it’s less than 35 percent,” Weiss says. “We need to look at how to get people to destinations, to jobs, to schools, to parks in a way that’s not contributing to air pollution.”
So the Green Umbrella transportation action team is pursuing a regional trail network.
“Our response is trees and trails,” Weiss says. “We want our communities to be more walkable and bike-friendly, with access to trails for exercise and transportation. We need a robust tree canopy to mitigate the effect of the air pollution.”
The OKI regional council of governments asked Green Umbrella to help update its long-range transportation plan stretching out to 2040.
“The previous update included just three projects worth about $2.5 million,” Weiss says. “Our update identified 17 planned bike and pedestrian projects worth about $191 million. That’s a 7,500 percent increase! People want more walkable and bike-friendly communities.
“Without Green Umbrella, there would have been no coordination and no overall vision. Now our region has a master trail plan. We already have over 315 miles of existing trails, and another 1,000 total miles of trails have been proposed. Now people have that data and can make strategic decisions about projects to connect people and places faster. It’s a good example of Collective Impact.”
A new plan focused on the urban center called Cincinnati Connects would create a 42-mile urban loop connecting 33 communities.
“More than 240,000 people live within a mile of this network,” Weiss says. “The report’s economic study suggests it would be roughly a 3-to-1 return on investment.”
The plan’s momentum is driven by cross-disciplinary engagement, made possible with funds from Interact for Health, a grant-maker supporting community-wide health initiatives. Groundwork Cincinnati Mill Creek manages the project, and partners include Cincinnati City and Hamilton County parks, Little Duck Creek Trail, Wasson Way, The Ohio River Way, Ohio River Trail West as well as businesses such as Kolar Design and Human Nature landscape architects.

(Read a full Q&A with Kristin Weiss in the right-hand column of this page.)
Connections for Better Lives
Wade Johnston is Green Umbrella’s regional trails coordinator. He suggests that the Mill Creek Greenway Trail will improve several impoverished neighborhoods.
“A couple of sections are built,” he says. “One in Northside connects from South Cumminsville all the way to Spring Grove Village. The vision is to connect from Downtown near Lower Price Hill to all the way north out of Hamilton County. It’s a 10-foot-wide multi-use trail that can accommodate bikes and walking.”
Such a trail through low-income neighborhoods will positively affect residents’ lives.
“Those communities have located there because that’s where affordable housing is found,” Johnston explains. “Having a trail to connect them to Downtown and the West End and other industrial areas will provide opportunities to get to work. Having a bike is more accessible than a car and generally more convenient than a bus for a short distance.”
Groundwork Cincinnati employs local teens to help restore the Mill Creek and other urban greenways. 
Johnston mentions environmental restoration along the Mill Creek Corridor, work being carried out by Groundwork Cincinnati, part of an international network of trusts focused on environmental issues that improve the quality of life, especially for minority and low-income residents.
Tanner Yess, Groundwork’s youth leader, fieldwork manager and trail coordinator, is deeply involved in the restoration, largely carried out by about 1,000 teens annually that he supervises. They’re not just labor.
“They also learn about sustainability,” Yess explains, “and about the connection to conservation as a whole — not just the Mill Creek but to the Ohio River, the Mississippi and the ocean. They participate on learning projects in reforestation, planting perennials like milkweed, removing invasive species and maintaining green structures.”
Yess also manages an in-depth summer youth employment program.
“With the help of the City of Cincinnati we employ teens for local cleaning projects,” he says. “They get more in-depth restoration experience and learn about conservation and sustainability. Some of them travel to regional preserves and national parks.”
Safer Routes for School Kids
As part of this web of interconnected projects related to traversing urban environments, one with special impact on children in troubled neighborhoods is the “Walking School Bus,” a Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) program spearheaded by one-time banker Carmen Burks.
A federally funded “Safe Routes to School” study caught her interest a decade ago. It revealed that Cincinnati had numerous children walking to school because busing is provided only if they live more than a mile from the school building. CPS has approximately 14,000 students in elementary schools, and about 45 percent don’t need or have access to busing.
Walking School Bus used volunteers to help "conduct" students to and from several Cincinnati public schools. 
When the study was overlaid with crime mapping, a light bulb went off.
“The one-mile walk that some kids take,” Burks realized, “meant that they were potentially facing hazards.”
She became an involved volunteer and eventually a program director.
“Everyone is entitled to a public education,” she points out, “but there isn’t equity in that process. How could we make sure it becomes equitable and, regardless of where you live or where you’re at on that socio-economic status, your kid can get to school to get an education?”
Her response: the “Walking School Bus” with mapped routes and trained “conductors” to walk approximately 10 kids to and from school. Adults receive meaningful training and are paid a stipend, supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice. (The funding for 2016-2017 has stalled, but Burks is confident it will be restored so she can expand her corps of 75 conductors.)
Burks is a leader of Green Umbrella’s transportation action team. It’s enabled her to connect with the Cincinnati Health Department and an organization dedicated to healthy outdoor activities for kids, Leave No Child Inside.
“Being out in nature does something for kids. It connects them with nature,” she says. “Safety is certainly an issue, but kids don’t play outside anymore. We had Cincinnati Parks come and teach about local trees and vegetation.”
That’s the kind of connection the Collective Impact initiative supports.
“I’ve traveled around the country a lot and seen what happens in other communities,” Burks says. “The great thing about Green Umbrella is the Collective Impact model. Just because your focus is on transportation doesn’t mean you don’t have an impact on safety or on schools. More organizations like Green Umbrella would make our country a better place.”

Greening the Food Deserts
Another focus area for Green Umbrella is food, especially “food deserts,” where low-income populations have very little access to grocery stores.
“We want to get fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to our residents,” Weiss says. “We do that through our Food Policy Council, and our local food action team has a campaign asking people to spend 10 percent of their food budget on local food. That would drive $56 million into our local economy.”
The council came together in October 2014 with a grant from Interact for Health. Today, 40 representatives from organizations in the 10-county region come together regularly to focus on healthy food access and consumption from a policy standpoint. They address distribution and procurement, food production and land use as well as community assessment, planning and zoning.
To create equity and better health, Green Umbrella is the fiscal sponsor for a new program called Produce Perks. It’s a dollar-for-dollar incentive program offering up to an additional $10 in value for SNAP participants (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program once called “food stamps”). It’s available at farmers markets across the region.

Ana Bird runs the Northside Farmers Market May through October to help support the Rainbow Choice Food Pantry operated by Churches Active in Northside.


Ana Bird heads the year-round Northside Farmers Market, operating 4-7 p.m. every Wednesday from May through October in Hoffner Park. It’s indoors at North Church, 4222 Hamilton Ave., when necessary.

For 2016 there have been 40 vendors selling produce, fruit, bread, cheese, pastries, jams, meats, gluten-free baked goods, spices, chocolates, coffees and more. Two-thirds of visitors are from Northside, but lots of others from Finneytown to Northern Kentucky make it a regular stop.
Bird has enhanced Produce Perks with a “Budget Recipe Menu Plan” in partnership with the Rainbow Choice Food Pantry operated by Churches Active in Northside (CAIN). They teach SNAP participants how to spend $40, enhanced by the $10 supplement from Produce Perks, and create five dinners for four people.

With the support of a grant from Green Umbrella’s Cincy Good Food Fund this year, the market now provides a free shuttle service around the 45223 ZIP code to enhance access. The grant also makes possible cooking classes for kids and adults with a special emphasis on preparing seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables.
Bird has established a partnership with the Apple Street Market Cooperative, working to bring back a grocery store to Northside sometime in 2017. Apple Street presently has a booth at the market to sell items not grown locally as well as packaged goods like canned beans and rice.
Learn More About Quality of Life Equity and Collective Impact

Learn more about Green Umbrella’s efforts to improve greenspace equity and healthy food access.
Northside Farmers Market website is here.
Apple Street Northside Market website is here.
Learn more about Churches Active in Northside (CAIN) Rainbow Choice Food Pantry.
Groundwork Cincinnati website is here.
Learn more about Collective Impact at the Greater Cincinnati Foundation website’s Collective Impact area. See how big, complex problems require a collective approach with a shared vision and goals and all hands on deck rowing in the same direction.

“Green Umbrella does a really great job, even beyond Produce Perks,” Bird says. “The food action team brings together people and ideas. It gives us networking opportunities with other farmers markets and sources for local foods. They really are an ‘umbrella.’ Their name says it all — a connector for people to meet with the food action team, join forces, learn what’s going on.”
That’s the point of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Collective Impact initiatives: concerted, focused, broadly supported efforts that make a difference in Greater Cincinnati.
This is Part 3 of a Soapbox series of reports exploring how Collective Impact is changing and improving Greater Cincinnati, with future reports to come on Sept. 20 and Oct. 18. Support for this "Collective Impact" series is provided by The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
Infographic by Steph Landry Design.
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Kristin Weiss
Kristin Weiss
Green Umbrella

Green Umbrella Executive Director Kristin Weiss is a Cincinnati native, but after earning a marketing degree from Washington University in St. Louis she moved to Chicago and worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years. Her experience included an alliance organization, a regional environmental organization and food- and health-related organizations. All of those experiences coalesced when she returned to Cincinnati in 2015 to head up Green Umbrella, the regional alliance focused on addressing and advancing environmental issues in Greater Cincinnati that she says is “my dream job.” “Our vision,” Weiss says, “is to have the region recognized as one of the top 10 most sustainable metro areas in the nation by 2020.”

Soapbox: How did Green Umbrella start?
Kristin Weiss
: Green Umbrella was first organized in 1998 and focused initially on conserving green space and preserving the abundant diversity of plants and wildlife in the region. In 2015, the organization expanded to promote outdoor recreation and nature awareness for children and adults.

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation’s Collective Impact Model got rolling in 2011. How did it affect Green Umbrella?
: When we relaunched as the Regional Sustainability Alliance in 2011 under the Collective Impact model, it was the first time our region agreed on a shared vision and success indicators for the environment. It was a key turning point, too, that our region was recognizing environmental sustainability as a significant path for making Greater Cincinnati a highly desirable place to live, play and work.

Working hand in hand with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and our two successful regional planning initiatives — Greater Cincinnati Chamber’s Agenda 360 and Northern Kentucky’s Vision 2015 (now Skyward) — Green Umbrella became the “backbone organization” that helps various organizations work together. Now we drive collaboration with 300 area nonprofits, businesses, educational institutions, governmental entities and individuals focused on the environmental aspects of sustainability across a 10-county region: Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties in Ohio; Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky; and Dearborn and Franklin counties in Indiana.

What kind of activities does Green Umbrella advance?
: We’re organized around “action teams” that bring together people who share an interest in a particular environmental topic. We have groups undertaking initiatives in numerous areas including energy, waste reduction, transportation, land management, water, local food and outdoor recreation. Our teams meet monthly to share best practices, exchange information and implement strategies. We’re all focused on driving progress toward our 2020 goals.

Green Umbrella serves as an essential catalyst in so many areas. The Foundation’s involvement has really broadened your impact, hasn’t it?
: We existed before the five-year Collective Impact program, but when we got together with regional planning agencies and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation it became a much larger scope. Now we’re the one organization that really focuses on all aspects of environmental sustainability.

The cross-sector collaboration fostered by the Collective Impact model is key because we all have a role to play. We can’t do it alone, and we can go farther and faster together with our 300 members. Bringing together small and large businesses, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, government and individuals is critical to making that happen.

When you have uncoordinated, duplicative efforts that are operating only in silos, that isn’t efficient. With Collective Impact, our community has come together around shared, time-bound and measurable goals, which saves time and money.

Are you open to individuals who’d like to join your action teams?
: Absolutely. You can go to our website to become a member and check out an action team that piques your interest and fits with your experience. You can communicate with the team chair to find out when the next team meeting is happening.

It seems like you’re paving the way for a sustainable future in Greater Cincinnati.
: It’s a big vision, and we’re achieving some great success. In the last year, our region has been top-rated for our nature centers, parks, our commitment to trees and our growth in bicycle commuting. Our infrastructure is growing, too — we have Red Bike, Tri-State Trails and a master trail plan, Taking Root(our region’s tree planting campaign), the Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Policy Council, MeetMeOutdoors.com and a series of free and well-attended community events that get our region outdoors and into nature to grow the next generation of environmental stewards.

Get involved in upcoming Green Umbrella events

2016 Regional Trails Summit: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Cincinnati Zoo (Frisch’s Theater); details here.

Great Outdoors Weekend: All day Saturday-Sunday Sept. 24-25 at various locations, offering more than 100 free opportunities for children and adults to sample outdoor recreation and nature awareness programs across Greater Cincinnati; details here.