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Q&A: Cleveland sustainability chief outlines plans for a greener city

Andrew Watterson, Cleveland's Chief of Sustainability. Photos | Jamie Janos
Andrew Watterson, Cleveland's Chief of Sustainability. Photos | Jamie Janos

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When Mayor Frank Jackson promoted Andrew Watterson from sustainability programs manager to Chief of Sustainability, a cabinet-level position, he illustrated in very certain terms his commitment to sustainability. HiVelocity borrowed a few minutes of Watterson's quickly vanishing spare time to check in on Cleveland's quest to become a "Green City on a Blue Lake."

In September of 2009, you were appointed Chief of Sustainability, Cleveland's first cabinet-level position focusing on sustainability. Will the promotion make it easier to get things done?

Given the hierarchy structure of the city, it helps to be part of the mayor's office in being able to implement this stuff internally. I report to the mayor. I don't need to go up the chain of command to decide what direction to take when engaging business and institutional partners. It also speaks to the level of importance the mayor places on sustainability.

Sustainability is a broad term. What aspects of the practice is the Jackson administration most focused on?

The mayor is really serious about sustainability being an opportunity for economic growth in the region. A way to redefine the city while helping it become more efficient in its operations. Sustainability is just a way of looking at a system a little bit differently. At some level we touch all aspects of sustainability making sure the city departments are educated and moving up the learning curve with us. At the same time, we are focusing on opportunities for economic development and helping to attract businesses here.

Does being an older "Rust Belt" city provide challenges to these objectives?

It presents both opportunities and liabilities. Being a city that was a major powerhouse during a massive economic boom means that Cleveland has a robust infrastructure. We have highways, railroads, airports and a port all travelling through Cleveland. That poses a huge opportunity for us. What holds us back is only ourselves. We have to be able to think big and act big in order to realize our potential.

Is the city's anti-idling policy, which mandates that city employees turn off their vehicles, an example of "thinking big"?

It is a small idea when implemented as a one-off. It is a big idea when everybody starts doing it. We're not looking for that golden project. Big ideas are those that happen systemically, moving throughout our community in ways that will transform the way Cleveland sees itself.

Is it also about changing the way others see Cleveland?

Yes. The question is, how do we create an environment to attract creative young professionals to move to the city, to live here and raise families here? Creating a more bike-friendly community not only helps reduce our carbon footprint and keeps people healthy, it is something that helps attract people to our city.

Is the recently enacted "Chicks and Bees" ordinance, which allows Cleveland residents to keep up to six chickens and one beehive at home, designed to reduce our carbon footprint or increase the city's green image?

A little of both. I don't know how we'd calculate the carbon reduction. It's really about helping to increase local food production while improving the quality of life for our residents.

Increasing local food production is a priority of this administration, is it not?

Local food is a huge opportunity to keep dollars in the region. People get excited about new parks and green spaces, but parks need to be supported by tax dollars. If we create community gardens that are managed and maintained by somebody else, it becomes a reduction in cost to the city and an increased asset to the community.

By all accounts, last summer's Sustainable Cleveland 2019 Summit, which the mayor initiated, exceeded all expectations. Roughly 700 people from various disciplines met for three days to help Cleveland become that proverbial "Green City on a Blue Lake."

The response was overwhelming. It wasn't just the amount of people in the room, it was the types of people present. This wasn't the usual sustainability choir, it was the community as a whole coming together around this. That's what was so powerful getting people to buy into the idea. To believe in a positive vision for our future can have a transformative effect on its own. I'm proud of the work we've been able to accomplish to date and am really excited about the possibilities of what's to come.

Despite the name, not to mention the mayor's jurisdiction, the Summit was designed to effect change well beyond the city limits, correct?

Our authority stops at the city boundaries, but our influence doesn't. The mayor wants a vibrant region. Having a downtown business center take a leadership position in these issues is important for helping the region as a whole move forward.

How do we keep the momentum of that success rolling?

The mayor formed a steering committee comprised of participants from the Summit. He also created an advisory council to help continue to move the agenda forward. Sustainability Summit 2010, to be held September 22-23, will be a sort of check-in to accelerate momentum with respect to creating jobs.

A recently completed feasibility study concluded that Lake Erie is an ideal site for wind turbines. What's the latest on Cleveland's race to become the site of the world's first offshore freshwater wind turbine farm?

This is a key year for the Great Lakes Energy Development Task Force to get financing together. The goal is to launch a six-turbine, 20-megawatt farm in 2012. We're in a space race. The first in the water will likely get the lion's share of the benefits because of the infrastructure needed to install even one turbine. You tend to get all of the intellectual capital in one place.

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