Karl Dean has thrown down the gauntlet to his newly formed Green Ribbon Committee.
The mayor has called on the committee to identify goals and develop a plan of action that would help Nashville to first become the greenest city in the Southeast, and later one of the greenest cities in the nation.
Dean’s not referring to color, of course, but to an environmentally sound city of clean air and water that’s committed to energy conservation. He issued an executive order last week to form the new committee and created a brand-new position within his office to oversee the group’s progress.
The goal of the committee’s work is anything but modest.
“The purpose was to issue an executive order to find out on a policy level [just] how Nashville can become the most environmentally friendly city in the southeast and certainly aspire to be one of the most environmentally friendly cities in the United States,” Dean said.
Asked where he believes Nashville currently finds itself on the proverbial ‘green’ spectrum, Dean admitted there’s work to be done.
When it comes to Nashville being green, Portland, Ore. we’re not. In fact according to many national rankings on the matter, Nashville routinely trails the likes of Huntsville, Ala. and Charlotte, N.C.
“Certainly we would not rank up at the top with Seattle and Portland. One of the things we need to do, and I would expect the commission to do it, is to get a handle on where we are and what our goals should be,” Dean said. “Just like with any city in America we are a long ways off being where we need to be. I think there’s a will and a desire in the city to do that.”
Many hurdles to clear
If Nashville intends to become the greenest city in the region or the country, there are serious issues to be addressed first.
Any talk of improving Nashville’s environmental standing probably needs to begin with the water, stormwater and sewer infrastructure. Water and sewer infrastructure are grossly outdated, with components that date back to the Abraham Lincoln administration, according to officials.
The stormwater infrastructure needs an $84 million overhaul, according to a report released earlier this year.
In the meantime, because of the shortcomings contaminants are finding their way into Davidson County waterways. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation released a draft of the 303(d) report last month. The list included some 60 bodies of water, which fell under Category 5, the most severe level of contamination.
Reports indicate the sewer system dumps approximately 16 million tons of sewage into the Cumberland River each year.
There has been progress.
More than 30 miles of the Cumberland were removed from the 303(d) list in 2002 and the overall state of the river has improved in the years since. Despite the remaining contaminated waterways, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found Metro’s drinking water met and exceeded its standards in a report released last week.
“In this area, the remaining contaminated [bodies of water] are a result of a combination of urban runoff and the remaining sewer issues,” said Paul Davis, TDEC director of the Water Pollution Control Division.
If water quality is the top environmental area of weakness for Davidson County, air quality is probably a close second.
A report released in May by the Brookings Institution, in conjunction with the Southern Environmental Law Center, placed Nashville at No. 6 on the national list for cities with the highest per capita global warming emissions.
There are those, such as Dean himself, who point out the Brookings audit excluded industrial impact and focused primarily on residential and car emissions. This is why Nashville is nowhere near the likes of Pittsburgh and Los Angeles on most carbon imprint lists.
But finishing No. 6 on the dubious list (the state of Tennessee was No. 1 in its category) is hardly a proud badge to wear for a city hoping to be the greenest in the southeast.
“There’s obviously work to be done,” Dean said.
In April, Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, gave a report on Nashville’s environmental policies. Seldman said he was taken aback at how far behind the curve Nashville is on solid waste management.
Seldman recognized the budgetary constraints facing Metro, but described the local Curby recycling program as “piecemeal and uncommitted.”
The Curby curbside recycling program run by Metro Public Works currently only offers pickup in the Urban Services District. The broader General Services District is left to find drop-off centers.
And Public Works Director Billy Lynch hardly gave a ringing endorsement for the future of Metro recycling when he said the department may have to scale back service to areas that currently aren’t utilizing Curby in high numbers.
About 37 percent of those in the USD utilize the Curby program. That number is about average for a city, which uses a voluntary recycling program. The actual number of those who utilize Public Works recycling is higher because of citywide drop-off centers.
It is District 23 Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans’ belief that Curby needs to be bulked up, not trimmed down, if Nashville is committed to its solid waste management program long term.
“We have to say as a city, ‘We are committed to this. We are going to do this and we are here for the long haul,’” Evans said. “There’s not a lot of short-term satisfaction. Our main problem is the fact we seem to not have the long-term commitment, by which I mean decades from now.
“It’s going to take commitment and it’s going to take education to improve our solid waste program,” she said.
Seldman said there are blueprints other cities have used that Nashville could follow to improve its solid waste management program.
Some cities, such as Los Angeles, offer incentive programs for corporations who invest in solid waste management programs. In places like Portland, a surcharge is applied for trash pickup, which covers the cost of the program.
“In places that do it best, you charge for waste and you reward for recycling,” Seldman said.
Fulfilling a campaign promise
Dean said the No. 1 issue for Nashvillians under age 35 is improving the mass transit system, which he views as an environmental issue and a quality of life issue.
When Dean ran for office last year, the centerpiece of his environmental policy was improving Nashville’s mass transit system. However, when his operating budget was released in March, it did not include the new Bus Rapid Transit system that’s catching on in other cities.
A BRT system would operate on highly trafficked roads like West End and Gallatin Pike with buses running in dedicated lanes. It allows for quicker, reliable urban mass transit, which is found in cities like Chicago and New York in the form of a train or subway system.
Dean said he regretted BRT’s exclusion from this year’s budget, but remained committed to improving mass transit in Nashville.
“It’s an area I really intend to spend as much time on as possible in the months ahead,” Dean said. “The public demand is there.”
Besides public transportation, another initiative that improves quality of life and the environment is green infrastructure. District 9 Councilman Jim Forkum, whose district is in Madison, said adding green space is the top environmental issue to his constituents.
“I looked over Mayor Dean’s executive order and agreed with the issues like water quality and air quality,” Forkum said. “For me, the one I agree with most is the green space. I think it’s an important issue. Preserved open space and green space is something I know people want to see more.”
Evans pointed out that green infrastructure — more trees and green space in urban areas — helps with issues like stormwater runoff in addition to limiting carbon emissions.
And one of the newer advances in urban environmental issues is self-sustainable building practices. Metro has required all new city government buildings be certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards.
Additionally, earlier this year Metro Council formed the Green Permit Task Force, which developed a method for buildings to be Green-certified with the Codes Department.
Just as Dean has time and time again referred to improving Metro Schools as an economic development issue, so to is improving Nashville’s green standing, he said.
“Obviously younger folks … find it desirable to live in a green city,” Dean said. “I’d put it in terms of livability and quality of life. If you’re going to live close to a city, you want to live there because of amenities that make it appealing.”
Besides the Green Ribbon Committee, Dean has appointed long-time Metro employee Jenna Smith to the new position of Environmental Sustainability Manager. The mayor said it would be Smith’s job to enact the recommendations of the committee and to hold Metro departments accountable for its findings.
Additionally, Dean said evidence for how important the issue of making Nashville the most environmentally friendly city in the southeast is to him could be found in one key appointment to the committee. His wife, Anne Davis, was appointed as one of the committee members.
“The main reason I appointed her is she’s a heckuva lot brighter than me. She knows a lot about the subject, is passionate and cares about the subject,” Dean said. “More than anything else I can do, it underscores the emphasis I’m going to put on the quality of life and environmental initiatives in Nashville.”