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Sustainable Cleveland 2019: A Community of DreamMakers Creating a 'A Thriving Green City on a Blue Lake'

02/21/2014 09:11 am ET | Updated Apr 23, 2014
  • Michele Hunt Strategic Advisor, author of DreamMakers: Putting Vision and Values To Work

The people of Cleveland are mobilizing around a compelling vision to transform their communities into a flourishing city. They have the courage to dream a magnanimous vision for their city in the face of tremendous challenges. Their mission reads:

"Sustainable Cleveland 2019, is a 10-year initiative that began in 2009, that engages people from all walks of life, working together to design and develop a thriving and resilient Cleveland region that leverages its wealth of assets to build economic, social and environmental well-being for all".

Last October, David Cooperrider, invited me to attend the 5th annual Summit of Sustainable Cleveland 2019. David is a Professor at Case Western Reserve University and the founder and Chair of the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value. I serve on the Fowler Center Advisory board and I have been fascinated by the stories David has shared with me about Cleveland's cross-sector community transformation journey.

At the Summit, I was surprised to see hundreds of people from diverse sectors of Greater Cleveland working together. They came from the local neighborhoods, businesses, government, education, nonprofits, as well as advocacy groups from the sustainability community. They were highly engaged, enthusiastic and clearly committed to transforming their vision into reality.

From November through January, I went on a quest to learn more about Cleveland's sustainability movement. In November, Rich Cochran, CEO of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, invited me on a two day "Urban Immersion" to talk with people in the neighborhoods who are highly engaged in this work. Then again in January, I returned to Cleveland for a meeting and continued my inquiry by talking with any and everyone I could about the sustainability initiatives in their city. The waiters, housekeepers, taxi drivers and business folks I talked with all had something positive to say about this movement. It was then that I decided to write about Sustainable Cleveland 2019 to shine a light on this very important work.

This movement appeared to gain momentum shortly after Mayor Jackson signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement in 2006. Over 1,060 mayors from all 50 states have committed to "...strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their communities". Mayor Jackson took this commitment to heart.

That same year David Cooperrider invited Mayor Jackson to give the welcoming address at the first Global Forum on Business as an Agent for World Benefit, which was jointly sponsored by the Academy of Management, Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead School of Management and the United Nations Global Compact. The Forum is a catalyst for a powerful movement to shape a world in which "...companies prosper, people thrive, and nature flourishes". Although Mayor Jackson agreed to give the welcoming address, he made it clear that he wanted to come to the Forum as a learner to more deeply understand the sustainable value concepts and practices. He emerged from that Forum realizing that there are huge economic benefits to sustainability and that the best companies in the world were figuring out how sustainability can be used as an innovation engine.

In that Forum they talked about Business as an Agent for World Benefit. The one thing I took out of that Global Forum was that our economy is based on exploitation and that there is another way to do this. There is a way to allow for greater prosperity and greater wealth creation that is not exploitative. I realized that way is the sustainable approach to life. This other thing we have been doing is short term. The sustainable approach is going to create green jobs and will help us to greatly improve our quality of life. It is also going to help us to achieve social justice.

Mayor Jackson was also attracted to the power of an inclusive, integrated approach to achieving sustainability that includes all of the stakeholders. On the last day of the Global Forum the Mayor asked David:

Can we bring a whole city together? Can we do planning and create a new leadership model that is not just top down from the city leadership and it's not just bottom up from the grass-roots communities but it is the whole system coming together?

Inspired by the Global Forum, Mayor Jackson invited the sustainability organizations and representatives from from different sectors of Greater Cleveland to the first Sustainability Summit held in 2009. Dr. David Cooperrider and Dr. Ron Fry from the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value at Case Western facilitated the Summit. Dr Cooperrider:

At the close of that 700 person, high-energy sustainability summit, the Mayor turned to me and said: 'It is clear to me that the people of Cleveland have been bottled up and they are ready to burst forward. We are going to do this every year for the next 10 years'. In that moment he saw the common vision that people held and Cleveland's assets from businesses to grassroots. He spontaneously announced, 'Based on the highest quality collaborations I have ever seen in our city, I am going to make a commitment, as long as I am capable, that we will do this every year for the next 10 years'. The people stood up and gave him a ten-minute standing ovation. That was a very special moment.

Following the Summit, Mayor Jackson made sustainability a priority of city government by creating the Office of Sustainability, which is a cabinet level position as well as the Sustainable Cleveland Advisory Council. Numerous Working Groups also emerged from the Summit. From communities to businesses, government to nonprofits, these groups are working to co-create an actionable response to climate change built upon collaborative problem solving. Jenita McGowan, Chief of Sustainability:

The Mayor's Office of Sustainability role is to help facilitate this entire journey and community organizing. We don't set the agenda; the people set the agenda. It takes courage to lead by stepping back because you have to relinquish some control and you have to trust the wisdom of the crowd.

During my interview with the Mayor, he emphasized that Cleveland's sustainability journey belongs to the community. The people own the journey; they are making it happen. He sees the role of government as mainly catalytic.

The role of leadership is to create the environment to enable things to happen then get out of the way to allow things to happen. You have to get out of the way because once people believe their voices will be heard and that their work has value, they will get it done. As long as they stay within the framework of the vision, you let people plug in where they have passion.

Passion certainly resonated throughout the Summit that I attended. I was given the opportunity to ask the participants to step into the future and imagine the headlines the global media will be reporting about Cleveland's Sustainability results in 2019. What they came up with demonstrated that these folks had the courage to dream big:

"Beyond Our Dreams, All Clevelanders are Living in a Healthy, Vibrant, Thriving City"

"Cleveland Recognized as the Greenest City in the US; Population Skyrockets"

"Cleveland's Local Food Cycle, The Most Sustainable in the World"

"Cleveland Leads the World in Sustainability and Wins the World Series"

"Cleveland is Emerging as a 'City of EcoDistricts', Focusing Sustainability in its Neighborhoods"

"From Abandoned To Re-imagined - Vacancies Turned into Farms, Alternative Energy Hubs, Art Spaces and Recreational Assets"

"Cleveland's Tenacity Pays Off: It didn't take a $100 million dollar project, it took a million $100 Dollar projects"

These are not merely dreams, five years into their journey Clevelanders are delivering on their vision. Their results are impressive:

• Last year the 50-member Climate Action Advisory Committee, published the Cleveland Climate Action Plan, which has six focus areas, and 33 actions Clevelanders can take to strengthen the economy, clean up the environment and improve health and wellness.

• There has been a 50 percent increase in recycling since 2006.

• LEEDCO (Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation) is building the first offshore freshwater wind project in North America in Cleveland. LEEDCO is a regional nonprofit economic development organization. The Offshore Wind Turbine Project called "Icebreaker" will help bring the region clean renewable energy and will serve as a catalyst to build the offshore wind industry in Ohio. It is also projected to produce 6,000 long-term wind energy jobs by 2025.

This will position Cleveland as a leader in the sustainable economy of the future. This project is a clear demonstration that economic growth and environmental concerns are not in conflict.

• The city has joined the Better Building Challenge and the Cleveland 2030 District initiative, "To facilitate partnerships that will create high-performance, sustainable building districts throughout Greater Cleveland..."

• The city of Cleveland is providing 100 percent renewable electricity at 21 percent below market to 65,000 residents and small business customers through municipal aggregation.

• Over 200 community gardens and local food initiatives have grown up around the city. Two notable highly innovative, community-based food initiatives are Rid-All Green Partnership and Green City Growers. Rid-All is an urban agriculture and youth education initiative whose mission is "to transform communities by providing them with accessible nutritionally rich food items to improve their over all health" They also provide educational and training experiences that promote environmental stewardship.

Green City Growers Cooperative is a "custom-designed 3.25 acre leafy greens, Hydroponic greenhouse located in the central inner-city neighborhood in Cleveland. It is the largest food production greenhouse in a core urban area in the United States".

• Partnering with Western Reserve Land Conservancy's Thriving Communities Institute, Cleveland is transforming abandoned buildings and vacant lands into green spaces, local parks, urban gardens, as well as restoring homes.

Sustainable Cleveland 2019 is a community-wide movement that is embracing the concept that "It takes a village". Their journey to create "A Thriving Green City on a Blue Lake" has the potential to be one of the most fascinating transformations of our time. It is powerful example of what people can do when they mobilize around a compelling shared vision and are liberated to contribute their ideas, talents, and skills to make their dreams come true.

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