Eight months after Mayor Karl Dean’s Green Ribbon Committee unveiled a list of sweeping goals and recommendations to help push environmental progress, there are some early successes.
Task forces, citizen-led panels and strategic master plans are predictable facets of any mayoral administration, and Dean’s is no different. But instead of losing steam after the committee completed its work, green initiatives seem to have found an important place inside the Mayor’s Office, headquarters for the effort to transform Nashville, in Dean's words, into the “greenest city in the Southeast."
“No one is the city is going to forget that we need to be a greener, more sustainable city,” Dean told The City Paper during a recent interview, stressing plans for sustained efforts from his administration.
Perhaps the most telling indicator of Dean’s commitment is the newly created Office of Sustainability headed by Sharon Smith, who left a position at the Metro Public Works Department in July to take the job as Metro's environmental conscience of sorts. With her office situated just two doors down from the mayor’s, the two stay in constant communication.
“My job right now is to make sure that we move the city forward in an aggressive manner as possible,” Smith said. “The mayor has a lot to do, but I do know this is something that he has spent a lot of time and energy on.”
Under the guidance of both Smith and the “internal green team,” comprised of staff from other Metro departments, as least parts of the Green Ribbon Committee's 16 goals either have been completed or addressed. They include broad aims such as reducing Metro’s greenhouse emissions, building a culture of sustainability and embracing sustainable living.
The Mayor’s Office has measured progress through “quick-win” achievements, which include simple, cost-free feats such as creating a citizen’s environmental pledge and establishing green advocacy programs within Metro departments. But more substantial early achievements include expanding Metro’s curbside recycling system and the Metro Council’s approval of a new fee to pay for upgrades to the city’s aging stormwater infrastructure.
More daunting tasks that have received attention but still lack full implementation usually are characterized as “midterm” goals. They include retrofitting 10 existing Metro buildings to attain the coveted LEED-silver certification –– which should receive a boost with $6.2 million in stimulus cash expected to be announced next month. Under the initiative, new developments like the Fulton Complex on Second Avenue and the McCabe Community Center, neither of which is required to be LEED-certified, will be constructed according to those standards.
On a separate front, Dean said some of his highest praise came after this fall’s completion of renovations to downtown Deaderick Street, which transformed the corridor into the city’s first so-called “green street” because of its breadth of environmentally conscious features.
“Government does best when it leads by example instead of imposing regulations,” Dean said. “So, we do LEED-certification. We’re doing it ourselves. But the private sector has also been great in stepping up.”
Looking ahead at long-term green goals, Dean’s greatest role could be as an advocate for greater mass-transit options. The Tennessee legislature last spring approved a request to find a dedicated source of funding for mass transit. Dean himself recently forged a coalition of Middle Tennessee mayors to begin the discussion abput regional transportation.
“Every mayor of every county and major city surrounding us recognizes that we have to have a mass-transit solution,” Dean said.
For the mayor, who makes a point to take the bus to work once a week, Bus Rapid Transit is still the preferable way to make mass transit faster and more accessible in Nashville. In September, the Metro Transit Authority began the first installment of BRT along Gallatin Road in East Nashville, a new high-tech bus route highlighted by six new hybrid buses but lacking its own BRT lanes. The idea, Dean said, is to make system more sophisticated over time as the city can afford to do so, with light rail being an option in the future.
“It’s not lost on me that cities that we compare ourselves to like Austin and Charlotte have been developing light rail,” Dean said. “We need to be moving aggressively down that path. The key thing for us is that when we first got started on this we didn’t have a means legally to have dedicated funding. Now we have the means to do it. Next we’ve got to find a source for dedicated funding, and then we’ve got to move forward as a region to plan and open mass transit.”
Dean is also distinguishing himself by encouraging more “infill development,” a phrase the mayor utters at virtually every public appearance.
Dean's envisions inactive corridors such as Murfreesboro Pike, Charlotte Avenue and Nolensville Road to be home to future mixed-use developments, especially on the commercial end. That goal is the subject of an ongoing study by the Urban Land Institute’s Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership in Land Use, which recently launched a fellowship program in Nashville connecting land use experts with Dean and other city leaders.
In addition, the Conservation Fund, a national land conservation agency, is expected to begin work soon helping Davidson County produce an open space plan, as recommended by the Green Ribbon Committee.
Protecting open space is in part why Dean advocates developing the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds, slated to shut down by the end of 2010. “There’s development potential there that could include a park and green space, things that are good for that particular community,” Dean said. “It’s also good, positive development using existing infrastructure. It’s not sprawl. It’s not taking land that is open space now.”
Let’s suppose the fairgrounds are developed, a light rail system is installed and barren parking lots are replaced with LEED-certified buildings. When will Nashville know if it’s the region’s greenest?
“I don’t know whether someone’s going to come and declare us the 'greenest city in the Southeast,’ ” Dean said. “But, it’s like education. If you set expectations and goals low, you’re going to be able to meet them. If you set expectations high, I think you’ll be able to meet them too. It just takes a little bit more work.”