Ohio Environmental Council, December 17, 2020
Looking forward to the 2021 citywide elections, organizations have released a candidate education platform and comprehensive set of policy recommendations aimed at solving some of Cleveland’s most pressing and complex environmental issues facing Cleveland residents.
The Cleveland Comprehensive Environmental Policy Platform details actionable objectives and locally-designed policy recommendations for issues including: environmental justice, water, land and green space, infrastructure and transportation, as well as energy and air quality. The platform was developed over the past six months in consultation with more than a dozen organizations including local and regional nonprofits, community development corporations, and quasi-governmental institutions.
Cleveland played an integral role in the birth of the modern environmental movement, and today its leadership is vital to the continuing struggle for environmental justice and environmental protection. The burning of the Cuyahoga River in 1969, a seminal event in the national environmental movement, would not have captured the nation’s attention were it not for engaged local citizens and the leadership of Mayor Carl Stokes, the first black mayor of a major American city. Mayor Stokes and his brother Congressman Louis Stokes would also contribute greatly to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. Additionally, the delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in October of 1991 drafted and adopted the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. Since that time, these principles have served to inform the growing environmental justice movement and have further amplified voices of color through the Principles of Climate Justice and the Principles of the Youth Environmental Justice Movement.
In the aftermath of the river fire, active citizens and local political leaders combined to form a powerful force for the healing of Cleveland’s waterways. The joint efforts of Cleveland’s elected leaders and members of the community built the lasting change needed to protect people, ensure a safe environment for our children, and solve complex environmental problems through collaboration and the will to do the work.
This legacy of local leadership continued on and is evident even today in the city administration as they have deployed ambitious and impactful sustainability goals and actions to combat climate change and advance environmental justice. Notably, Mayor Frank G. Jackson established the city’s first Office of Sustainability and elevated this office to a cabinet level position. Specifically, the Sustainable Cleveland Summit, the Cleveland Climate Action Plan 2018 Update, and the Complete Streets Plan have collectively made tremendous progress and laid important groundwork to take sustainability to the next level in Cleveland.
As local advocates for a cleaner environment, greater environmental justice and better policies to serve more of our neighbors, we seek to build a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable Cleveland for all. The lead-up to the upcoming 2021 citywide elections is a ripe opportunity to educate candidates on the issues (environmental justice, water, land & green space, infrastructure & transportation, and energy & air quality) and how to solve them in the best way possible for all Clevelanders. What we need now, more than ever, are leaders boldly acting to make Cleveland more resilient for the sake of our health, our families, and our future.
We have drawn from multiple disciplines and perspectives to ensure our recommendations are practical and actionable for the City of Cleveland’s next cohort of elected leaders (Mayor & City Council) within four years. Because the platform makes connections between intersections of race, health, income and wealth, climate change, drinking water, healthy waterways, transportation, food access, housing, and land use, it can be used to comprehensively address some of Cleveland’s most pressing and most complex issues.
The policy platform is the culmination of over 6 months of planning, meeting, and collaboration. The content of this document is from 2 months (September & October 2020) of intensive meetings with a 7-member Steering Committee and 20+-member General Committee. The process was facilitated by the Institute of Conservation Leadership (ICL). The participating members represent community development corporations (CDCs), larger environmental anchor institutions, regional environmental non-profits, local environmental non-profits, and quasi-governmental institutions.
We believe Cleveland must become a more sustainable, diverse, and equitable place for all people — regardless of color or background. All residents deserve a city that: values their lives and trusts their lived experiences; invests in communities; acts intentionally to be inclusive and sustainable; and listens and responds to all people.
We are united around the common purpose of a cleaner, greener Cleveland, and the belief that we can use our collective impact to ensure communities and residents who are not typically heard have a forum to address the environmental injustices present in their daily lives.
We believe that citizens empowered by real access to and influence in decision-making at every step yields only positives, which include: greater and deeper understanding among policymakers about the pressures and problems impacting people; creative and innovative approaches perhaps not contemplated before; and collective ownership over and investment in solutions.
We believe the most successful leaders in our community will be committed to our shared value of affirming all human life, and moving Cleveland towards a refreshed set of policies that restore clean air, clean water, and public green spaces. We believe the key to a sustainable future is policy making driven more by the value of human and natural life and less by short-term economic gain.
All people, regardless of race, ethnicity or national origin, have the right to live, work and recreate in a clean and safe environment. Clevelanders deserve equal protection from environmental harms caused by power plants, lead paint, waste facilities, poor and unhealthy soils from urbanization and industrialization, and degraded air and water quality exacerbated by a warming climate. But history, and today’s reality, shows that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) make up a majority of residents living close to hazardous facilities. It is a well-founded fact that these communities, as a result, suffer shorter life spans, higher infant mortality, poorer health, diminished economic opportunities, and an overall degraded quality of life. The City of Cleveland can build upon its recent declaration that racism is a public health crisis by acknowledging that environmental racism persists in the community, and set in motion the actions that will end it.
Too many of Cleveland’s neighborhoods are areas of concentrated poverty, with upwards of 40 percent or more of neighborhood residents living in poverty. Systemic racism and state and federal policies from the past, like slavery, Jim Crow laws and redlining, created this problem. Similarly, state and federal policies, going forward, are needed to solve it. The community would benefit greatly, along with city budgets and resources, if Cleveland’s local elected leaders used their platform to advocate at the state and federal level for policies that would remedy many of the environmental problems that affect residents.
Clevelanders today are presented with opportunities to weigh in at various points in the development and vetting of policies, but there are real barriers impeding community engagement on these issues. If the City addresses gaps in its engagement of impacted people, we will be better positioned to realize environmental and quality of life goals for the Greater Cleveland community.
Clevelanders live within miles of one of the world’s richest freshwater resources, yet some residents face challenges to accessing clean, safe, and affordable water. Residents have seen sharp water rate increases in recent years and changes to billing cycles (quarterly to monthly). Low-income residents are disproportionately affected by these changes. The global pandemic has highlighted the call for clean and safe water as a basic human right, with many metro areas placing moratoriums on water shut-offs due to inability to pay.
On top of water affordability concerns, surface water quality challenges are posing public health threats. While the Cuyahoga River and other local waterways have seen steady water quality improvements due to federal protections and crack-downs on industrial pollution sources, many threats remain. Invasive species, algal blooms, and severe rain events caused by climate change strain our aging infrastructure, drive erosion and sediments into our waterways and cause combined sewer overflows. These issues ultimately end up generating health risks, beach closures, and impact the overall health of Lake Erie.
Improvements to drinking and wastewater infrastructure are necessary to abate lead contamination and to protect Cleveland’s vital freshwater resources from growing environmental pressures. The challenge for advocates and leaders is how to balance the need to fix failing infrastructure with the need to ensure water is affordable. Cleveland Water’s upcoming rate restructuring process should provide an opportunity for greater equity in water rates for Cleveland’s residents.
As a large, sprawling metro area, Cleveland is fortunate to have beautiful parks and greenspaces where people can rest, rejuvenate, and recreate.The city’s Emerald Necklace, Lake Erie, and our extensive walking and biking trail systems provide a strong foundation on which to build. However, more should be done to expand the regional tree canopy and connect local greenspaces through urban farming and gardening. Doing so will build climate resilience and serve community health needs. Additionally, racial trauma associated with open space has led to the perception that green spaces are not for minority communities creating a disparity between perceived ownership and a sense of belonging in parks.
Growing the connectivity and quality of Cleveland’s green spaces must prioritize placing new parks in underserved areas, improving walkability and ADA-compliant access to green spaces safely, and ensuring that public transit and multi-modal transportation systems better connect people to vibrant outdoor spaces. In achieving this purpose, increasing public-private partnerships and support of the Cleveland Tree Canopy Plan will ensure a vibrant region that lives up to its “Forest City” moniker.
The fate of abandoned and vacant lots is a critical factor in fostering greater equity in Cleveland. The City of Cleveland is holding at least 30,000 vacant lots in its land bank. Depending on the need of the community, these abandoned areas could be made available for growing food, installing solar energy, planting trees, building playgrounds, or creating new green gathering spaces. Converting these vacant lots to be more useful to local residents is a time consuming and arduous process that could be served better by a more innovative, inclusive, and streamlined approach.
Infrastructure, public transit, and housing are crucial to take Cleveland to the next level. An individual’s ability to move around freely and easily is the single most important factor influencing social mobility and access to jobs, training, healthy foods and health care. In this light, transportation is not just a minor issue of convenience; it shapes the opportunities available to each person in Cleveland and impacts their health. Transit routes, housing density, and integrated and smart technologies are not often the most enthusiastically discussed topics, but they are foundational needs for a climate-resilient city.
Historically, transportation policies and budgets have prioritized the mobility and convenience of motor vehicle drivers over more affordable transportation options, such as public transit, and the safety of vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. Disadvantaged groups including Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC), the elderly, and people with limited mobility are far more likely to rely on active transportation as well as suffer from transportation-related injuries and fatalities. With streets designed for 1+ million people, we have to rethink usage of transportation systems, and build towards more integrated and inter-modal ways to move people to and from their destinations. Implementing transportation policies centered on people, not cars, can help to overcome some of the structural challenges that perpetuate disparity in our city.
Lowering the carbon footprint of how people move around is essential to improving air quality and responding aggressively to climate change. Investing in electric vehicle fleet upgrades and charging infrastructure is critical to improving Cleveland’s climate resilience. The challenge for policymakers and community advocates in Cleveland is how to balance the need for improved infrastructure and safety with affordability. Better state and federal funding for these purposes is required.
As a clean energy revolution takes hold across the globe, Cleveland is poised to cement its status as a leader in responding to climate change, and accelerate its transition away from fossil fuels. Cleveland made its mark as one of the first major Ohio cities to go 100% renewable in its community choice aggregation plan, and the city holds a tremendous resource in Cleveland Public Power (CPP), our municipal electric utility. City leaders have already created strong policies, administrative buy-in, and community support for taking action to address the impacts of climate change Cleveland residents experience today.
Despite the city’s leadership and bold action on climate change, Cleveland residents face challenges with local air quality issues caused by forces that are largely out of the city’s control, but nevertheless, demonstrate why action at the local level is so important. Many low-income families in Cleveland live in close proximity to major manufacturing plants and industrial processes, leaving citizens and local health officials frustrated at state and federal laws that fail to protect them. Highly-trafficked roads, Ohio’s over-reliance on coal-fired power plants, and a warming climate worsen air quality. Degraded air quality exacerbates pre-existing conditions such as allergies, asthma and other lung illnesses. In the 2020, American Lung Association State of the Air Report, the Cleveland Metro Area is ranked 31st for high ozone days and 11th in annual particle pollution. For 2020, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked Cleveland the 5th worst city for asthma sufferers, and the burden is highest for poor and minority children.
Utilizing the city’s most important assets in combating climate change and air pollution — a municipal utility, a smart climate action plan, and a community choice aggregation initiative — we can build upon the city’s progress, and embrace even greater innovation along the way.
Public ownership of CPP affords our city autonomy to set utility policy that works best for households, businesses, and nonprofit users. Rather than sending millions of dollars out of the city each month to buy power from dirty, distant coal plants, CPP can drive economic growth and create good jobs as it begins to invest in local renewable energy that employs local residents to build and maintain solar arrays on currently vacant land. Equally so, taking the city’s municipal aggregation plan to the next level will create opportunities to address the needs of non CPP households, and can be used to promote what’s necessary at this moment: A just transition to a clean energy economy in Northeast Ohio. Under the aggregation plan, the city can explore the benefits of long-term power purchase agreements with renewable energy developers and prioritize labor standards and union preferences to ensure good paying clean energy jobs are grown in the city and region.
A broad and cohesive vision for this transition includes a bright future for CPP and for the city’s aggregation plan, with growth opportunities in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, energy efficiency and local renewable development.