Cincinnati Zoo paves the way in green and sustainable efforts

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden was named the greenest zoo in America in 2010. Since then, the zoo has pioneered green initiatives, projects and programs that make it a leader not only in the animal conservation field, but also in the sustainability community.

“The Cincinnati Zoo has certainly been at the forefront of this topic within our industry,” says Michelle Curley, communications director for the zoo. “Due to our significant array of various green infrastructure, zoos and aquariums from all over the world have come to us to learn how they might engage in similar practices. And it isn’t just within our industry, as over the years, thousands of engineers, architects and planners have come to see how we have been able to pull off what we have. These professionals are then taking this knowledge back to their various clients and pushing them to pursue similar projects.”

The zoo’s green status was first earned through construction projects. Between 2006 and 2016, the zoo earned numerous LEED certifications, including two LEED Silver, four LEED Gold and a LEED Platinum.

“For the gorilla exhibit, we will be achieving at least LEED Gold,” Curley says. “It incorporates a really creative storm water catchment system under the new addition, as well as various energy efficiency enhancements that will keep the environmental footprint for this project as low as possible.”

When the Painted Dog exhibit opened in Africa last year, the Zoo took green buildings to an entirely new level, becoming the first zoo in the world to receive recognition from the Living Building Challenge. The LBC applies rigorous standards to how a building actually performs, requiring spaces not only be energy efficient, but also to have a positive impact on the community and environment.

“The LBC is, by far, the most difficult and aggressive green building standard in the world,” Curley says. “After many years of taking on the LEED rating system with great success, the zoo was looking to take things to the next level and the Painted Dog exhibit felt like the time to make the leap.”

In addition to green buildings, the zoo’s sustainability efforts focus on water, renewable energy, solid waste and energy. Anyone who has driven past the zoo’s Vine Street parking lot has seen the solar array that shades cars and provides electricity to the surrounding zoo.

“We are also working on developing a micro-grid at the zoo by utilizing battery technology and large-scale generators, in conjunction with our substantial solar assets, to make the zoo resilient and dynamic when reacting to what is happening to the electric grid in our region,” says Curley. “This cutting-edge concept would be a first for our area.”

Baby Fiona may be the new star of the Africa exhibit, but the zoo and the sustainability community are fans of the exhibit because it includes a storm-water run-off system that keeps 13 million gallons of water out of the local sewer system each year.

“We are working hard on the next phase of our storm water initiative, getting us closer to our goal of having zero rain water leave our zoo, which in turn helps keep water out of the combined sewers that contribute to pouring billions of gallons of sewage out of the river and our neighbors basements,” says Curley. “We currently capture roughly a third of the rainfall that hits the zoo’s property and the goal is to be at 100 percent by 2025."

Although most of the zoo’s sustainability efforts are hidden behind the scenes, the zoo offers special programs at the Go Green Garden Exhibit, collaborates with the community and provides sustainability tips for individuals and families to engage the public in its environmental efforts.

Read more articles by Julie Carpenter.

Julie Carpenter has a background in cultural heritage tourism, museums, and nonprofit organizations. She's the Executive Director of AIA Cincinnati.  
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