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A hundred million little issues: an interview with Minneapolis sustainability coordinators

March 2007

Gayle Prest

SustainLane Government chatted up Gayle Prest and Daniel Huff, who coordinate the sustainability program for the city of Minneapolis. They discuss the integrated strategy employed by their city, which accomplishes sustainability management without a centralized, dedicated staff.

Daniel Huff

SustainLane Government (SLG): What is Minneapolis’ experience with sustainability? How did it all get started?

Gayle Prest: Starting in 2001 we had a major changeover in policy makers, and that’s when a lot more emphasis was put on environmental issues in general, not just sustainability.

We have what’s called an Environmental Coordinating Team, which is made up of key department heads. It meets quarterly. In 2001 the policy-makers started attending that for the first time. They started asking a lot of good questions about performance measures and results, and key focuses. We set up key teams within the different departments in areas that we wanted to look at, and came up with the first environmental report card.

In 2003 we adopted a resolution that started the Minneapolis Sustainability Plan. We integrated [sustainability] into our Comprehensive Plan. We also created sustainability indicators to determine how we measure progress.

We had a couple of roundtables with interested citizens, and based on their input, the city adopted 24 indicators and directed staff to go back and set up numerical targets. We’re not just about reducing Global Warming or increasing [high school] graduation rates. We want [departments] to actually set up targets on these, determine baselines, and report on these issues every year on what we’ve done to meet them.

SLG: How are you structured?

Daniel Huff: One of the conscious decisions made was that, rather than setting up a department of sustainability or department of the environment, the structure is such that it pushes the responsibility back down to each departments.

So, Gayle and I coordinate the sustainability program within the departments, but we don’t manage it or direct it. We work with departments to see how they will respond to the council direction of incorporating sustainability into their departmental business plans and departmental work plans.

Gayle: I think it forces departments to look outside their silos. When I talked to other sustainability directors across the country, I think there’s an agreement that when you are talking about sustainability, you’re asking people to get outside the silos of their department. Probably the best example that we can give that people can relate to is: trees.

Daniel: Lots of different departments touch trees in some way or the other. Planning and zoning, in their ordinances, can require more trees. Public works–whenever they repave streets, redo sidewalks, put in stormwater facilities–can begin to look at how can we use trees within that. How do we align the utilities that we’re putting down on the sidewalk now to accommodate trees later? So, it’s a matter of making sure departments are integrated.

Gayle: Like the Fire Department–usually you wouldn’t think the fire department was involved with trees. But when it’s really dry they can go out there and water them. We have a forestry division on our Minneapolis Park and Recreation board, but what we were trying to do is let everyone know that they have an effect on trees. So that’s forcing the outside-the-box thinking: what can your department do about the city’s desire to increase the urban tree canopy? It also gets down to what kind of chemicals are our field services crew using, and how does that affect trees?

SLG: Fire and Police…. ?

Daniel: The Police Department doesn’t have a lot to do with trees. However, they do have a lot to do with fuel use, so anything with air quality, renewable energy, global warming. Our Police Department just came up with an idling policy for police cars.

Gayle: And you wouldn’t usually tie the Police Department to Global Warming or Air Quality. We were pretty up front with departments, saying, you may not have a touchpoint with every one of the 24 indicators, but we still want you to think a little bit outside-the-box on what you can do.

Daniel: And the Fire Department is looking at part of their business planning, looking at flex fuels and hybrid vehicles.

Gayle: I think that other big cities are kind of amazed at our staff size. It’s just Dan and I–and an intern every once and a while. We really want every department to see their connection to this. We’re finding champions all over the city. One of the most surprising–and fun for me–was a guy in the Equipment and Services Department who just took on green fleets with such passion that it was just extraordinary. We’ve got another guy in Property Services who was just featured in a local newspaper as “Mr. Sustainability.” It’s not Dan and I that they are calling the sustainability guru’s–it’s individuals within the city. And that’s the way it should be.

Daniel: The process has freed up some people’s thinking. One example is in our Regulatory Services and Inspections Department. In talking to their environmental services staff on brownfields, they ask, what can you do to help the brownfields?Well, one of the things we need to do is prevent the brownfields from happening. We should do an inspection program. We have all these companies out there with all these chemicals and manufacturers. What would it take to do that? So we put it in the plan. The department made the correlation between health and safety. We need to go out there proactively and inspect every company for every chemical they’re housing, storing, etc.

SLG: What are some of your flagship programs?

Gayle: Minneapolis stands for “many lakes.” We’ve got 22 lakes in our city, and we’ve got the Mississippi and lots of other streams and creeks in the city. Since 2001 we’ve more systematically tackled our combined sewer overflow program. In 2000 we had 58 million gallons of untreated water entering the Mississippi River during heavy rainfall. We were able to show data and make a compelling argument geared toward policy-makers so they could dedicate literally millions of dollars. Last year we had it down to 43 million gallons–we haven’t completely eliminated it, but we have greatly reduced it.

That’s one thing about our Sustainability Annual Report: when you read it, it’s not all good news. I think a lot of cities are afraid to show bad news. I think also at a staff level there was some hesitance. As I see it, when there’s bad news out there, that’s an opportunity to have a conversation, not to kill the messenger. If we don’t like where the numbers are going, let’s talk about what it’s going to take to change it.

SLG: Can we talk about your Light Rail System?

Gayle: Our Light Rail System is very new. I think the ridership has far exceeded the state, county and many policy-makers expectations.

Daniel: In its first year it had 40% higher ridership than was anticipated. Last year it grew by another 16%–9.4 million riders in 2006.

Gayle: And we only have the one line that’s about 11 miles long. We’ve got a long way to go to get an integrated system into Minneapolis. I think that the astonishing success of this one line is really pushing a lot of others to leap on board and say, how do we get more transit? So the next line will go between Minneapolis and St. Paul. It will go through the University of Minnesota, which is a huge University with a lot of users.

SLG: What were the main challenges with that? A lot of big cities have been built out with cars.

Daniel: There are a hundred million little issues of how do you align the streets, what streets can it go down, how do you move or reinforce utilities that are underneath the street so they don’t get squashed by the light rail? How do you time your lights better?

We were fortunate: we have a divided highway that goes through part of the city, and a number of years ago they wanted to expand that, but policy makers at that point said that, you know, we’re not going to expand for cars, we’re going to set aside land for light rail. And that was when it was futuristic to do light rail.

Gayle: In Minnesota, congestion is seen as a huge issue. It’s been on the top three issues for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. Environmentalists have seen it as an issue. Suburbs and inner cities have seen it as an issue. The conversation has changed. When we talk about money for transportation, it’s no longer talking about money for highways.

In Minnesota you probably think we have 10-12 weeks of good weather a year, in terms of the summer months. We have people that bike in the city all year round to work. Even today, with all this snow out, there are bikers out. There are a thousand people who do that. We are investing a lot in bicycles. We have a bicycle advisory plan. We’ve made a commitment to 44 new miles of bike lanes and paths in the next ten years–very, very aggressive.

SLG: Let’s go back to the sustainability management process. So you say that you work with different departments to get them to fulfill the City’s mandates however they see fit.

Gayle: Yes. We try to act as consultants to them and make sure they get a lot of the credit because they have to do a lot of the work. When the glory of the press is gone, they actually have to go and implement it.

SLG: So I guess each department would be reaching out to the public in its own way?

Gayle: Yes. You see that with the bikes–that comes from the public works department. If you look at our combined sewer overflow program–we have a Rain Leader Disconnect Program–you’ll see people on different staffs and different departments taking control of that program.

We do have a Communications Department here, so that if something goes out to over 200 people, Communications will review. They also help us with our website work. So there is some consistency in terms of voice and look across the city, but its up to the staffers to do a lot of work.

SLG: How does your city work with other cities–for example, St. Paul, or other cities in the area?

Gayle: Dan and I have a combined 27 years in the environmental field. We have a lot of friends. I’ve known folks in Saint Paul for 15 years. The Mayor’s aid on Environmental Issues and I went to college together. The two Mayors in Saint Paul are thinking along the same lines, so we’re working together more and more. Hennakin County, great staff–they sit on our citizen environmental advisory county. There are emails and phone calls happening on a regular basis.

Daniel: A good example of cooperation between Minneapolis and St. Paul is the Minnesota Energy Challenge, which was designed by a local non-profit. The city really took on promoting the program. It’s a “carbon calculator.” For example, you agree to replace a certain number of light bulbs, and it calculates how much CO2 you’re going to save–and how much money you’re going to save. It’s a competition. The Mayor of Minneapolis and the Mayor of St. Paul had a joint press conference to challenge each other in kind of a friendly way on energy.

SLG: Competition is helpful.

Gayle: Yes, even if it’s among yourselves: what did you do last year, and what have you done this year? That’s what the Sustainability Report is all about–measuring progress, or lack thereof.

Daniel: We highlight recent activities. So, even if we did this great thing two years ago, what have you done for me lately?

SLG: Speaking of progress, would you like to mention anything from your upcoming annual report?

Daniel: We’re very excited to have exceeded two of our targets in our “permeable surfaces” category. Those are 2015 targets for the rain gardens and also our small-area underground treatment chambers. It’s not always sexy, but it’s essential.

Gayle: I think some of the things we’ve been doing to green the fleets has been really exciting, in terms of getting rid of cars. Are you familiar with car-sharing? There is a non-profit that started a car-sharing program here and they’re using hybrids. We convinced some environmental inspectors to use it last year, and we have other departments that are interested in using it now. That way we don’t have to pay for one.

Daniel: So, if I have to go to a city meeting, I just check out a car, and I pay for the time we use.

Another exciting thing last year: the city and all of its partners planted over 6,000 trees and seedlings in the city. There were probably more, but those are the ones we can count. We did a new program last year: for $15 residents could get an $80 tree (big regular sapling) and plant it in their yard. And they care for it and tend to it; that’s a way to increase the canopy that becomes a private homeowner responsibility.

Gayle: Here’s a case where it’s cheaper for the homeowner to plant a tree than it is for the government, because they have to maintain it. This was an interesting way of using the money. We talk to people about where they can plant the tree. We’re careful to choose what species the trees are. We do outreach from a Global Warming perspective: how it cools your house, and how it provides daytime lighting during the winter.

SLG: Global Warming….

Gayle: Global warming is having a huge effect on the ecosystems in Minnesota. Trees are going to be one of them, because the bugs are going to live longer, and they’re not going to die out in the winter. We’re already seeing that happen.

Daniel: More rain in the spring and less rain in the summer and fall. Our rain used to be more spread out. So we have periods of flood, followed by periods of drought.

SLG: So these rain gardens are really going to improve your water table as well.

Daniel: The rain gardens have so many great benefits. They’re beautiful landscaping; they’re good for small wildlife birds and butterflies. The old philosophy was to pipe it, pond it, or get rid of it as soon as you can. The city has really changed its philosophy to “treat it where it falls.” Treat the snowmelt and the raindrop into the ground. Allow the natural processes to filter it and recharge our groundwater.

Gayle: One thing we’ve been getting international attention on is the city recently passed a low environmental impact cleaning resolution for all our city buildings and facilities. This resolution entails using Green Seal products. If the Green Seal products aren’t available, then the purchasing department can go through a process of evaluation and choose other products.

A lot of it has to do with indoor air quality as well as the safety of our employees. It’s been working out really well. In some cases we’ve been able to show some substantial savings, particularly in the floor coatings. As I say, our employees love it. Our convention center loves it, because greening of conventions is going to be bigger and bigger business, so they’re glad to be able to say that they don’t use any chemicals in their cleaning processes.

SLG: What else? What are some upcoming things?

Gayle: I think Climate Change is really an issue. Our policy-makers and our staff are very, very concerned. Our Mayor was one of the first 10 Mayors to sign the US Conference of Mayor’s Kyoto Protocol. We did our first look at Climate Change back in 1993. We put together an energy plan in 1996. Over the last few years we’ve greened our fleets. We’ve passed a resolution for new and heavily remodeled city buildings, including LEED training for staff. We’re committing more and more money to energy efficiency and energy re-commissioning and doing more outreach. I think that will be a big challenge.

We’re lucky that the State of Minnesota recently passed a renewable energy standard. The city has actually lobbied for it for several years now. We’re the only city in the state to do so. We’ve sued the state over transit issues. The city has understood that transit, energy, livability and global warming all go hand in hand. That’s going to be interesting to see what work we can do, and what partners we have to work with.

Daniel: The new state standard is 25% of the electrical source for Minnesota has to be renewable by 2020. I think this is the most aggressive in the country.

Gayle: The other thing we’re trying to do with St. Paul, the State, and the Unions–how do we take this paradigm shift and turn it into jobs?

With Minnesota, we have a phenomenal opportunity in the agricultural business, in terms of ethanol and biofuels in general–biomass, grass opportunities. We’ve got some great institutions like the University of Minnesota to help us. We’re definitely positioning ourselves to be winners with this new shift. In the SustainLane City Rankings, there are a lot of cities that are looking at that. Those that are in there looking at it strategically will definitely be able to see some results.

SLG: ….And the Sustainability Plan? The most recent Sustainability Report?

Daniel: The Sustainability Plan has evolved from the council direction initiated in 2003. Last year in March, our council finalized the 24 indicators with numerical targets. That’s what’s new. That is what is driving our work, and what I’m reporting on: here’s the target for this or that indicator, and here are the activities that we have done this year, and here where we are on it.

Gayle: What do you think we’re missing?

SLG: Green Buildings. We ranked Minneapolis 35 out of 50 on LEED buildings.

Gayle: When LEED first came out, the program was not conducive to the Minnesota climate. So we developed our own guidelines using the State and the University of Minnesota. They’re called B3–Building for Benchmarks and Beyond. That’s the standard we’ve been using and a lot of other government agencies in Minnesota have been using it, too, rather than LEED.

Last year, we threw up our hands and said, we’re using LEED. That’s because of these rating systems. No one really knows what is involved with the B3’s, which are very good. We still look at them and use them. The main thing is that people are using good design. That’s why we’ve always ranked so low, because there’s always an emphasis on the local guidelines.

SLG: Are you doing any Peak Oil analysis?

Gayle: We have a conference on Peak Oil on June 6th, and we’re the only city that’s been asked to speak on it. We’ll have a council member and myself speaking on it. We’ll talk about what the city’s doing now, and where we think we should be going.

We’ve talked to the Emergency Preparedness folks. It’s interesting that it hasn’t come up in their national discussions yet. But we’re raising it with them, in terms of what they are going to do. We’ve been following Portland’s work on Peak Oil. There is a Twin Cities working group on Peak Oil. I’m on that group.

I think it’s an opportunity to talk about local markets, local food production, and transit. There’s an opportunity so that it doesn’t become a far reaching, Mel Gibson, apocalyptic theory. We want to make it a pragmatic, Midwestern way of doing things.

2008 U.S. City RankingsVideo Footage of Mayors