Once upon a time — about 100 years ago — a city’s environmental responsibilities centered on timely trash removal and flushing sewage away from communities as fast as possible. In the 21st century, some mayors and mayoral candidates say local government is the national engine of environmental innovation while states and Washington flounder over budget problems and smack into stalemate on green policies like renewable energy. In this year’s Lansing mayoral race, the environment has played a minimal role — but that’s not to say the incumbent and his challenger have no thoughts or vision on the matter.
Mayor Virg Bernero and At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, in fact, agree on at least one thing — the mayor’s office and the city can do much to improve residents’ quality of life, save money and protect human health through environmental leadership.
Wood says environmental issues are “extremely important in this day and age, especially as you look at the reuse of the urban core areas and the saving of green space for long term benefit to the whole environment. Where our opportunities lay are in upgrading our public, commercial and residential infrastructures for energy efficiency and alternative energies. We have the opportunity to create jobs.”
Bernero’s take on it is this: “Environmental concerns are of paramount importance to the job of mayor. A healthy environment is vital for our citizens and to protect our natural ecosystems and watersheds.”
The Bernero portfolio
Bernero’s signature initiative is Greater Lansing Go Green, which the city describes as “a comprehensive effort designed to establish and promote a ’green’ ethic and raise awareness about environmental issues throughout the region’s communities, businesses, and schools.” In announcing the program, Bernero said, “It’s not only the economical thing to do, and the morally right thing to do, it’s the best thing to do to grow the economy.”
He added: “You know, all these youngsters that we have that are graduating from Cooley, MSU and LCC, we know, and research shows, that kids today want to go to cities that are going green. They understand the importance of this for the future.” Walkable, livable communities are “hip and cool,” he observed.
“Going forward, we’ll continue our strong partnerships with LCC and the BWL to reduce vehicle emissions by purchasing hybrid vehicles whenever possible and by electrifying our fleets, installing solar panels on the roofs of city-owned buildings and making energy efficiency improvements to city facilities,” the mayor says. Lansing is establishing a $1.2 million Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant targeted at small business energy efficiency improvements.
Bernero announced a Greater Lansing Green Jobs Alliance in this year’s State of the City address. He said the Alliance would retrain blue-collar workers for green jobs; adopt more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly green building practices; and attract green technology companies to the Lansing region in areas like wind, solar, biomass, geothermal and hybrid vehicles.
The Wood agenda
Lansing could do much more in partnership with environmental scholars and scientists at MSU and LCC and other experts in guiding policy priorities and conducting joint research projects, Councilwoman Wood says. She adds that as mayor, she would give environmental issues a greater institutional role in city government, including regular roundtables, liaison from her cabinet, and other measures.
“We need to be first in the state in implementing best practices, not lagging behind cities with more progressive policies like Grand Rapids,” Wood says. (Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, now in his second term, has won national recognition for green urban design, clean energy and lead pollution reduction. In 2007 the United Nations named Grand Rapids a “Center of Expertise” in sustainability.)
Adds Wood: “We have a tremendous opportunity to obtain funds for research and implementation in energy efficient practices and alternative energies, working with our state government, LCC, and MSU partners to become a test site for Michigan. And those opportunities can be expanded to include residential properties and commercial properties throughout the city, not just in the downtown.”
She says none of her green initiatives “would be imposed on residents, but rather developed inline with the visions and input of those who live and work in Lansing and want to see us become a progressive, healthy community.”
The Bernero green record
Mayor Bernero cites the following initiatives:
• In 2007 Bernero signed the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, which committed Lansing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. An executive order that year also established a renewable portfolio (standard) of 10 percent renewable energy use by 2010, 15 percent by 2015, and 20 percent by 2020.
• The combined sewer separation project begun in the early 1990s has helped reduce sewage dumping in the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers, and under Bernero, the project has expanded to include Michigan and Washington Avenue rain gardens, which filter stormwater pollution and help beautify the city landscape. • Bernero says he is working with Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann to convert the old Red Cedar Golf Course into a stormwater retention and recreation area to help reduce pollution in one of the most polluted drains in the county.
• The Bernero administration launched in 2007 a three-year, $3 million Lead Safe Lansing program to identify atrisk housing and remediate lead paint and related hazards. Lead exposure can cause permanent, serious harm to the brain and nervous system of children.
What Would Wood Do?
Environmental ideas Wood says she will pursue if elected mayor:
• Reduce urban heat islands by promoting rooftop gardens, preserving green spaces and “right-sizing” parking lots.
• Do more with green sidewalks, using more permeable surfaces to eliminate runoff.
• Deal with the “urban deforestation” crisis occurring in many cities by having a plan in place to replace dead trees with types that will improve our air quality and have less negative impact on sidewalk repairs.
• Do more to cultivate local food sources and jobs that go with them. Wood says the city should promote community gardens and entrepreneurial farming on vacant land and in green spaces. “We can work with the local school district to implement farm-to-table programs and encourage purchase of produce from local vendors,” she adds.