The first year of Charlotte's first city-sponsored "green roof" at Discovery Place was not an unmitigated success, to put it mildly: A persistent drought kept the roof's keepers on a continual quest to keep it green — not brown.
Still, city staff hope to apply the lessons learned to other government buildings and reap the environmental benefits of the rooftop gardens. A recent analysis found the Government Center would not be a good candidate, said City Councilman Edwin Peacock, who heads the council's environmental committee. But the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department headquarters, due for a new roof at the end of 2009, might.
Peacock cited a few of Charlotte's recent environmental achievements:
• The city is close to completing a revision of a plan to protect Charlotte's tree canopy.
• Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have completed a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, said Peacock. Now, the council has authorized City Manager Curt Walton to pay UNC-Charlotte about $50,000 to do a backup report.
• Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has won many awards for conservation.
• Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities' environmental services building is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified and is working to achieve an even more stringent "silver" LEED designation.
These measures may seem unsexy, even of little consequence, at a time when economic woes prevail. Cities are massive energy consumers, however. And their economic power to make environmental shifts -- whether through purchasing, planning or, less palatably, taxation -- can't be ignored. "Local governments and municipalities are the ones that set the framework ...," said Peacock. "It's very important that the city lead by example."
Their willingness to embrace green ideas can be massive money-savers. Raleigh, for instance, has found that the installation of energy-efficient LED lights -- already in use in some Charlotte streetlights -- will pay off handsomely: The installation of light-emitting diodes in one parking garage is expected to save Raleigh more than $700,000 over the lifetime of the fixtures, according to city documents.
Charlotte could take a cue from other cities. In September, an environmental Web site dedicated to "bringing green to the mainstream" ranked Charlotte 35 out of the 50 largest U.S. cities in terms of their sustainability. SustainLane.com noted Charlotte's struggle with air quality and the difficulties posed by pollution blown-in from neighboring states, but gave the city higher marks for green building and land use (14th and 16th, respectively).
It may be difficult, if not impossible, to keep winds blowing our way from the Tennessee Valley Authority region, but here are a few measures from other cities -- some burgs commonly considered green leaders, and some not -- that Charlotte could adopt as its own.
Get back to the tap
In May, Takoma Park joined legions of cities that have cut single-serve bottled water from their budgets. The move put the Washington, D.C., suburb among at least 60 cities, large and small, that have scaled back on bottled-water usage, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Austin, and Fayetteville, Ark. San Francisco was the first, said Sara Joseph of Corporate Accountability International's Think Outside the Bottle campaign, which has lobbied to reduce their use.
The environmental impact is far from minimal, according to a U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution. U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on bottled water, which travels many miles from its source, resulting in use of massive amounts of fossil fuel use and the release of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Plastic bottles produced for water require 1.5 million barrels of oil each year, enough to generate electricity for 250,000 homes. What's more, the mayors' organization found that local governments were paying an estimated $70 million to clean up waste from the bottles -- money that could be used investing in public water systems.
In June, the mayors' conference passed a resolution encouraging cities to phase out government use of bottled water. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, with signatures of more than 1,100 mayors.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, however, introduced a rival resolution that The New York Times reported, "emphasized maintaining the nation's water infrastructure and the importance of recycling."
"It's no secret that Charlotte has a major bottling plant," Deborah Lapidus, a national organizer with the Think Outside the Bottle campaign, told CL.
Few lists of eco-conscious cities omit Portland. Chatham Olive, a Sierra Club Central Piedmont board member, cites the Oregon city as a "gold standard" of environmentalism. SustainLane.com gave Portland top marks as well, noting that the city "has a well-established sustainable development mind-set, which was developed through learning from other cities' efforts around the world."
While Charlotte has begun its first green roof, Portland is serious about the structures: it has nine acres of them, according to its Office of Sustainable Development. Also known as ecoroofs, they range in complexity but are essentially roofs with vegetative layers. Some are unsuitable for pedestrians, while others serve as park-like structures. Regardless of use, the Environmental Protection Agency said these roofs have several benefits:
• Cooler buildings below
• Reduced energy use
• Reduced air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions
• Improved stormwater management
• Improved wildlife
"It's a really clever idea," said Josh Thomas, chairman of the Sierra Club Central Piedmont. As of June, 8.5 million square feet of ecoroofs have been installed, or are in progress nationwide, according to the EPA.
Portland last month began offering $360,000 in total grants to construct new roofs -- which cost as little as about $10 per square foot to install -- as part of its effort to add 43 acres of new green roofs in five years, according to the city's Office of Sustainable Development. And Washington, D.C. has offered up to $12,000 to residents who build green roofs on their homes.
Charlotte leaders have looked at building more green roofs, but no money has been budgeted. And with sales tax dollars down, budgets in 2010 and 2011 will likely be tighter; budget requests may be more likely to get marked out. "There's going to be a very sharp pencil," Peacock said.