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Sustain Charlotte encourages green in the Queen City

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Sustainability is a big word with a broad meaning. Too often, people use it — and overuse it — to appear environmentally friendly. They'll talk about having a salad made from local greens or riding their bikes to work but still order fast food or drive gas-guzzling SUVs. What will make these wannabes drop the façade and get real about going green in Charlotte?

Shannon Binns, founder of Sustain Charlotte, hopes a shindig will do the trick. Saturday evening, the nonprofit's First Annual Community Sustainability Awards recognized 70 Charlotteans who are keeping the city green. Twelve people from that esteemed group received awards in categories including air quality, food and social equity. About 200 attended the event, which was sponsored by Wells Fargo & Co., UNC Charlotte and Packard Place, among others. Tickets were open to students, nonprofits and the organization's members and nonmembers.

Sustain Charlotte's board of directors, volunteers and members voted for the winners. They based their criteria on "Charlotte 2030: A Sustainable Vision for Our Region," a plan that outlines 10 areas of urban sustainability. Robin Emmons, who won the food category for her nonprofit Sow Much Good, works to eliminate "food deserts" in urban and rural areas that don't have access to fresh produce. She grows food on her 9 acres of land in Huntersville and sells her wares at farm stands in low-income Charlotte neighborhoods. "It's really about access, education, and empowerment," she said.

Kacy Cook, a land conservation biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Commission, was the event's featured speaker. North Carolina's decline in amphibian numbers, she said, is an indicator of problems with natural ecosystems. Thankfully, various counties in the region are joining her program, Green Growth Toolbox, which incorporates careful land-use planning and incentives to conversations about land usage. "Tonight is about reaching out," she said.

Sustainability education is also growing. UNC Charlotte associate professor José Gámez, who teaches in the Architecture and Urban Design Program, advocates retrofitting existing community structures instead of building new cities on the outskirts. "It's where our society really needs to invest," he said. Dylan McKnight, one of the graduate students in Gamez's program, hopes local officials continue to become advocates of green development. "It really is something to think about, especially if you're a voter," McKnight said.

Shannon Binns founded Sustain Charlotte in 2010 with the support of Mayor Anthony Foxx, then-Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts, and business and nonprofit leaders. The project has been a labor of love for Binns, who volunteers 20-40 hours a week. This month, he will finally start getting paid part-time thanks to Wells Fargo grants. He says sustainability has to be a broad concept, since "it's really about maintaining the quality of life we have today for future generations."

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