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City's sustainability blueprint offers glimpse of a more livable St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 28, 2012 - St. Louis is one step closer to codifying a definitive approach to sustainability with a plan released for public comment earlier this month outlining strategies in areas ranging from arts, education and infrastructure to ecology, employment and diversity.

“It’s not just your traditional environmental plan,” said Catherine Werner, the city’s sustainability director. “It’s much more well-rounded and comprehensive, holistic if you will, about the realities of life in an urban area.”

Slated for approval by the mayor’s office in January, the 260-page report is not a formal piece of legislation. A public draft of the document reveals an ambitious blueprint focused on a “triple-bottom line” approach balancing economic, social and environmental benefits. Funded by a $3.7 million block grant that was part of the 2009 federal stimulus package, the multi-layered framework breaks findings down into more than 300 strategies that aim to spur innovation, cultural growth and ecological development.

“Those are further broken down into techniques and tips,” said Werner. “So there are at least a thousand different sustainability ideas.”

The plan also reflects the city’s participation in a larger planning grant effort funded jointly by three federal agencies to develop regional ideas and tools for sustainable development. That process kicked off last spring with public meetings around the area.

In addition, the city is one of 10 pilots for the STAR Community Rating System, a national benchmarking standard that deals with sustainability data.

Werner said such a system is needed, even among interested parties at the local level, since finding a “common dialect” in the emerging field is difficult.

“We found out we were doing a whole lot of really cool things both under the city auspices and with our partners,” she said. “But not everyone was defining it in the same way as sustainability. This is very much an effort to get everyone on the same page.”

The plan identifies strengths the city already possesses such as a central location, a population of young, well-educated professionals, demographic diversity and a fiscally responsible budgetary situation.

Working across seven target areas, the blueprint outlines 50 objectives from reducing homelessness to promoting more transit-accessible arts and cultural districts to developing better storm water management measures.

“When I’ve been talking about the sustainability plan, the analogy I’ve been using is that it’s like a sustainability wardrobe,” Werner said. “It’s the closet that you go to decide what you are going to wear.”

One key metric was a survey of the city’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Werner said the assessment indicated that nearly four-fifths of GHGs came from structures rather than vehicles.

“That tells us something,” she said. “It tells us we have a real opportunity to make a significant difference if we make a concerted effort to address the energy efficiency in buildings. We are likely to have a significant impact on energy use, emissions and probably cost reduction.”

The survey indicated emissions had dropped by 5.6 percent between 2005 and 2010, a fact which Werner indicated was a positive development. But it did not go far enough to meet the city’s targets.

Commercial activities accounted for more than 42 percent of GHGs, while industrial concerns represented about a tenth of the total. Roughly a quarter of the pie was residential emissions, the only segment to actually increase over the period.

A community survey to assess priorities also figures prominently in the document. The top words to emerge at the technical work session and community forum when describing what people thought of St. Louis’s future included “vibrant, progressive, integrated, prosperous and diverse.”

Unfortunately, the top responses in describing St. Louis now were “fragmented” and “segregated.” Education reform and investment in the city ranked at the top of the list for bold actions that could be taken.

Strategies in the report varied by category.

A section focused on urban vitality and ecology suggested creation of a “smart grid” of fiber optic cables and Wi-Fi hotspots as well as incentives for transit-oriented development (TOD), an emerging concept that was highlighted in numerous categories across the document. Other suggestions included better access to public spaces and the creation of a trail system that puts all residents within half a mile of a greenway. Mixed use, variable-income housing in neighborhoods was also lauded.

The “Arts, Culture and Innovation” section called for better marketing efforts to use city strengths to retain young professionals and a “creative class” along with affordable artist housing and venues. Other suggestions included an expansion of the Zoo-Museum District and creation of “innovation districts” that offer “a concentration of intensive knowledge-based activities” as well as an overall commitment to a “culture of innovation” in the city.

The category on empowerment and diversity offered ideas on everything from placing polling locations closer to public transit to providing more affordable after-school and summer enrichment programs while calling for measures to improve access to healthy food for families and “aging in place” opportunities for seniors. Rent, mortgage and utility assistance, as well as debt counseling were recommended as ways to reduce evictions and foreclosures.

The health section recommended the development of “no car” zones around the city as one way to reduce airborne toxins while offering lead hazard clean up kits to families with young children at risk of paint exposure. The report boosted the prospect of urban and community-supported agriculture programs while suggesting capital improvements to health facilities in disadvantaged areas.

The infrastructure portion spotlighted bicycling amenities and shared-vehicle programs and suggested establishment of a renewable energy standard for government operations. Streetlights could be upgraded to energy-efficient bulbs, and composting initiatives could be piloted to divert food and yard waste which makes up about 30 percent of garbage.

“Education, Training and Leadership” recommended more professional development and cross-training of teachers and staff in schools as well as more college counseling and career mapping for students. Strategic planning processes were suggested to strengthen neighborhoods to attract prosperous residents.

The final section on employment and opportunity recommended publicizing the availability of former “brownfield” properties, often abandoned industrial sites, to encourage growth while incentivizing small-scale redevelopment efforts for parcels of land that can’t accommodate bigger projects.

“In the plan, there is no finger pointing,” said Werner. “It’s not so-and-so must do this and so-and-so must do that. It’s not an unfunded mandate. No single entity could possibly do all of them.”

That means any effort to implement the ideas suggested would have to be broad-based, involving community organizations and individuals, as well as public and private entities.

“Getting involved at the neighborhood level is really essential,” she said. “Certainly there are some top down projects that are successful. But at the same time, grassroots-led efforts have been successful in pockets around the city and we can learn from each other.”

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