Forty years ago, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught on fire from the gross amount of pollution it contained. It was a stark reminder of how America’s rapid industrialization was laying waste to the environment, and served as the catalyst for implementing the Clean Water Act. Today, the only burning rivers you’ll find in Cleveland are an eco friendly brewer’s award-winning beer (the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Burning River Pale Ale) and a green summer festival called the Burning River Fest.
Over the last four decades, Cleveland has mounted an impressive campaign to rid itself of its polluted past and emerge as an icon of the green movement. At a time when a vicious recession is ravaging this city and others throughout the Midwest, green jobs and green initiatives offer a light at the end of the economic tunnel.
The city is partnering with local businesses to implement green practices. Positively Cleveland, an organization that works to bring conventions and tourists to the city, created the Entrepreneurs for Sustainability Implementation Group in 2000. Its purpose is to bring together leaders from all business sectors interested in implementing sustainable businesses practices across their operations. The group uses a peer-based learning process spanning eight months, with participants discussing issues as diverse as waste elimination, energy efficiency, and sustainable procurement practices. The group encourages participants to adopt and spread the word to their peers and stakeholders about the “triple bottom line” of sustainable business goals: economic profit, social responsibility, and environmental conservation.
Hospitality is one of Cleveland’s largest employers, and several of Cleveland’s most high-profile hotels such as the Crowne Plaza have completed and are implementing the program’s recommendations. From waste reduction to recycling, from unplugging unused appliances to obtaining green building certifications, these hotels and other industry players are working hard to transform themselves into more environmentally responsible corporate citizens.
In other efforts, the Great Lakes Science Center welcomes you with a big wind turbine and solar panels that are clearly visible from nearby highways. The Center serves as a constant reminder of the city’s commitment to green living. Progressive Field, the stadium that’s home to the Cleveland Indians, is similarly decked out with forty-two solar panels installed on its upper decks (which provide enough power to run all 400 TV sets in the building during a game.)
Downtown, renovation continues apace at the historic Higbee Building on Public Square. The building’s owner is seeking nothing less than the amazing LEED Platinum green certification, considered the pinnacle of green building practices by the US Green Building Council. LEED Platinum sets very high criteria in requiring use of the most energy efficient, water efficient and sustainable materials possible.
At the Botanical Gardens, a work/study program called the Green Corps teaches teenagers how to transform vacant lots into lush urban farms. They grow and sell vegetables, fruits and flowers while learning valuable agricultural skills. Teens can participate for up to three summer seasons and can then move on to apprenticeships with green businesses, providing valuable employment connections in a difficult job market.
At the same time that surging foreclosures are creating blight in some areas, the Cleveland EcoVillage project is redeveloping a neighborhood near a transit stop. It is intended as a national demonstration project to showcase green building and transit-oriented development. It’s a pedestrian-friendly, community-oriented zone that allows residents to live near everything they need and adopt the most ecological lifestyle choices possible.
Making a strong commitment to mass transit, Cleveland’s RTA was named the best large transit system in North America in 2007 by the American Public Transportation Association. RTA operates an efficient network of buses that connect all major points including the airport, the arts and entertainment district, and downtown.
As for that original burning river? Today, more than 40 species of fish can be found in the Cuyahoga, including steelhead trout and northern pike. It is now one of 14 American Heritage Rivers in the US and the centerpiece of the Cuyahoga Valley, Ohio’s only national park. It is used recreationally by rowing clubs and boaters.
In short, Cleveland has become a model for how a community can come together and create a green, more sustainable future. Not only is the environment cleaner, but the demand for everything from wind turbines to green building materials is creating much-needed job opportunities.
If you ever have a chance to visit, be sure to check out the 75 ways the city is going green. (And don’t miss the historic West Side Market, for which I can personally vouch, and where you’ll find everything from local produce to handmade pasta!)