June 27, 2012

Being green

Coordinating sustainability efforts to achieve a greener Louisville

Brent Fryrear knows the key to sustainability is making connections. His work as director of Partnership for a Green City has put him in contact with urban gardeners, green educators and avid cyclists — all with a different plan for increasing sustainability in Louisville.

“The idea of herding cats has come up more than once,” Fryrear says.

Anyone involved in sustainability initiatives can rattle off the names of five or more people working on projects like their own. The hard part is coordinating all those efforts into a model of sustainability for the entire city.

“Different people have different perspectives on sustainability,” he says. “Some people are stuck on economic models, some focus on social justice, and some people say it’s only related to the environment.

“True sustainability is at the center of all three.”

And that’s where Maria Koetter comes in. As Louisville’s new director of sustainability, she has spent her first three months making sure people know she exists and that sustainability is something the city takes seriously. Koetter will likely spend the rest of her tenure trying to organize the city’s varied sustainability initiatives into a cohesive movement that involves numerous players.

The key to successful sustainability is finding a way to move forward as a community, rather than as individuals, and Koetter is starting with government to make that happen.

“We have a responsibility as Metro Government to green ourselves and lead by example,” she says. “I’m trying to drive it in our culture so people do see we’re walking this walk.”

Mayor Greg Fischer created the Office of Sustainability and has implemented a number of programs aimed at “greening” the city, from increasing the size of recycling bins through a pilot program aimed at residential areas to adding the first green roof to a government building at the Metro Development Center.

Fischer himself drives a hybrid vehicle, recycles, and has a vegetable garden in his backyard. His goal is to start at home — as a citizen and mayor of Louisville.

“You can’t tackle everything at once,” says mayoral spokesman Chris Poynter. “People focus on the big things like the light rail system. We don’t have the money right now to do that.”

But some outspoken sustainability advocates believe only the big things will make a difference, and that recycling and new light bulbs are not enough. Biking activist and former mayoral candidate Jackie Green sees the current situation as untenable.

“On every hand we’re making the same mistakes we’ve been making for 60 years,” Green says. “Do you think this is something we tinker around at the edges with or something where we need to go big and fast?

“The measures we need to take are going to hurt — but if we don’t do it, they’re going to hurt a lot more.”

Green says suburban sprawl, highway construction, and a lack of adequate public transportation — including roadways that discourage biking — are getting worse, not better. At his most extreme, he says the city needs to be completely petroleum free. At the very least, he says the city needs to slow down traffic to encourage biking and concentrate development in downtown Louisville to discourage sprawl.

“We need a revolution,” Green says. “Those who have ears, let them hear.”

But not everyone is ready to make the kind of sacrifices Green advocates. John Gilderbloom, a University of Louisville professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Planning, agrees with Green’s motives but says the city must take some smaller steps first. Most importantly, he says it takes a community-wide effort, not the work of one man.

“A major problem is the self-appointed leadership in the green community — they simply don’t relate well to the majority,” Gilderbloom says. “Jackie Green is a brilliant thinker but ran a horrible political campaign. Ditto for Tyler Allen (mayoral candidate) and Sara Cunningham (state Senate candidate). Too much preaching about sacrifice is a turnoff. Why not present green living as a way to increase your wealth? People forget that the cost of owning a car averages around $8,000 a year.”

Nearly everyone involved agrees changing the way we think of transportation will make the biggest difference in the city’s sustainability. Specifically, Gilderbloom advocates slowing down traffic and decreasing one-way streets, which encourage speeding. Jackie Green advocates for better public transportation and fewer highways, as well as pilot projects to turn one-way streets (like First and Brook) into two-ways to revitalize neighborhoods by making it safer to walk and bike.

“The elected leadership seems to buy into the old-school model of sprawl,” Green says. “The real question is, ‘Can Louisville survive when so many other cities are simply way ahead of us with active transportation systems of walking and biking, downtown revitalization, urban gardens and forward-thinking green programs?’

“Instead the area is entrenched in the fiasco of costly bridges instead of bike lanes.”

Another solution is “road diets,” something city planners like Louisville Metro Transportation Engineer Dirk Gowin are implementing to increase sustainability and decrease motor vehicle traffic.

“We’ve got a lot of education before we can capture what is a relatively easy win,” he says. “It’s not about hurting capacity for motor vehicles, but adding accessibility for bikes. It’s an inexpensive solution.”

A road diet involves converting a four-lane road, like Frankfort Avenue, into two lanes of traffic, a turning lane, and using the extra space to add bike lanes. At about $10 a foot, it’s a cheaper solution than the alternative — adding bike lanes to existing roads at 10 times that cost.

“But it takes public involvement,” Gowin says. “It seems to take so long to pull the trigger on things because of the political process … It can be very frustrating.”

In 2010, Louisville created a Bike Master Plan that envisions the city as a gold-level bicycle friendly community — as determined by the League of American Bicyclists — by 2015. The city’s plan includes completing the Louisville Loop, a 100-mile paved bike trail that encircles the city roughly along the boundaries of the Watterson Expressway.

The Loop will ultimately be a part of the city’s bicycle corridors — roads that are 35 mph or less and have relatively light traffic, giving residents easy access to a safe means of bicycle transportation.

“Ideally, one of the goals is to place every resident in (Jefferson County) within 1 mile of a corridor,” Gowin says.

But Metro Government officials can only do so much if the majority of the community refuses to take part.

Of the city’s entire carbon footprint, approximately 30 percent is generated through residential utility use, according to Partnership for a Green City. Another 29 percent comes from transportation, and not the public kind. So while more bikes and fewer cars on the road will certainly make a difference, learning to live in a house a little less like the Arctic would make a considerable difference as well.

Everyone has an opinion on how to improve sustainability in Louisville. Road diets, recycling, biking, green roofs, and new trees are only a few. Maria Koetter wants to take all those people, and all the ideas that come with them, and develop a sustainability plan that works for the entire city. Her goal is to connect people like Gilderbloom, Green, Gowin, developers like Gil Holland, and other sustainability advocates to create a network of individuals that can help influence and encourage every citizen.

At a time when the carbon footprint of the average Louisvillian ranks fifth in the United States — 3.2 metric tons annually versus 2.2 for the 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to a Brookings Institute study. When on average a pedestrian in Louisville gets hit by a car every day — 404 pedestrian collisions occur annually in Jefferson County, according to the Kentucky State Police. When most people can no longer afford the high cost of gas and insurance, and the city cannot afford the cost to build and maintain more highways, sustainability is more than a hot button issue.

It’s a necessity.

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