5 things Sacramento can do to save the planet
Will Sacramento’s new Sustainability Master Plan become more than another feel-good document? The answer is yes … if the city and its citizens step up.
It’s a bumper-sticker slogan, a cliché: Think globally, act locally.
But around the country, cities are doing just that.
In Chicago, city leaders passed a “climate tax” on electricity bills, using the money to combat global warming. Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson was the first U.S. mayor to sign the Kyoto Protocols. And Seattle levies a “parking tax” to dissuade citizens from driving.
The notion that individual municipalities can do anything significant to tackle big problems like global warming and peak oil may seem quaint. But consider that 80 percent of all people in the United States live in cities. The way they develop, and the urban policies they enact on housing, transportation and energy, makes a big difference in the quality of the environment.
A year ago this week, Sacramento’s mayor, Heather Fargo, signed on to the United Nation’s Urban Environmental Accords, and our town joined hundreds of other cities around the world pledging to clean up environmental problems and do their part to combat global warming.
And on April 3, just a year after joining the U.N. initiative, the city embarked on its own Sustainability Master Plan.
The plan borrows the United Nations definition: “Sustainability meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
It’s been a challenge for the city bureaucracy to get its head around making something as broad as sustainability. “It’s really like trying to think of everything all at once. It touches everything we do,” said Reina Schwartz, director of the city’s Department of General Services.
There are about 50 targets in the master plan. Some examples: The plan recommends that Sacramento find ways to make sure more of our food supply is grown locally, an ambitious goal to plant five million new trees in the region and a target to drastically reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.
It also catalogues a lot of things the city already is doing right, something city leaders don’t think gets enough attention.
Some of it is small stuff, like repaving a long stretch of J Street from Midtown to CSUS with rubberized asphalt. The recycled road material lasts longer, rides quieter and has saved thousands of used tires from going into a landfill. And the city recently switched to “green” janitorial chemicals. These little accomplishments may not seem all that sexy, but they count.
And small things may be exactly what you can expect as the city moves forward with implementing the plan. “This is really a generational plan,” said Keith Roberts, the city of Sacramento’s energy manager. Don’t expect Sacramento to turn into some sort of ecotopia next year, or the year after that.
Right now, city staff is gathering feedback on the plan from a long list of community organizations, and the City Council this summer will consider specific recommendations and programs.
In the process they’ll probably hear a lot from people, like Graham Brownstein with the Environmental Council of Sacramento, who hope that the Master Plan will become more than another feel-good document.
“I’m very pleased that the city is trying to tackle this stuff,” Brownstein explained, but he noted that local governments have a way of embracing environmental goals on paper, but then not following through. “We have all these laudable goals, all these great words that we throw into these documents. Then we just sit around in meetings and congratulate each other.”
Here, we’ve taken a look at some of what we consider the “big ideas” in the Sustainability Master Plan. We hope it will help you understand what the city is up to, and prompt you to offer your own opinions—to SN&R and to city leaders.
1 Go on a low-carbon diet
Here’s what global warming means to Sacramento: “In Sacramento, the number of days per year over 95 degrees Fahrenheit will increase from an average of 18 days/year to as much as 110 days per year,” so reads an alarming statement in the city master plan that got there thanks to Roberts, one of the main architects of the sustainability master plan.
For Roberts, the challenge is to figure out how to get city operations, namely its fleet vehicles, buildings and energy use, as close to “climate neutral” as possible.
We can cut down on greenhouse gases by using cleaner energy, and by using less energy. One suggestion in the master plan is to increase the city’s use of renewable energy by about 10 percent. At the same time, the master plan suggests that the city can reduce its energy use by about 10 percent. The plan doesn’t specify a timeline for the energy reductions—but it does set a goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from city operations by 25 percent by 2030.
“We’d like to cut our greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent today. That’s just not doable,” said Roberts.
Right now, Roberts estimates that city operations total about 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
And city operations account for only a fraction of what Roberts figures is 5 million tons a year of carbon dioxide a year—a very rough estimate—emitted by the rest of us, private citizens and businesses in the city of Sacramento. Simply reducing the city’s energy consumption will be nice, symbolically, but barely will make a dent in the city’s overall impact on the environment.
One program that appears to be on the fast track for approval by the City Council is a proposal to eliminate city construction fees for installing rooftop solar panels on local homes. The council could waive these fees later this summer when it reconsiders the sustainability master plan.
Some developers in the new-home-construction industry are trying to include rooftop solar panels in their new home products. Lennar Homes has begun building solar rooftops into new homes in a new subdivision in Roseville. But these kinds of projects are still the exception. You might see Sacramento and other cities start requesting, even requiring, developers to look at building solar into their new projects. Council member Bonnie Pannell, whose district includes an 800-acre development project called Delta Shores, said it would be great if the new homes being built there were solar.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District also is working on a new program that will allow customers to calculate their own “carbon footprint,” and then help find ways to reduce it. The SMUD idea is similar to “TerraPass” and other Internet-based services that allow consumers to make up for their environmental impact by contributing to projects that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases going into the air.
But unlike those programs, which support environmental-restoration projects around the world, SMUDs program is intended to do its carbon offsetting locally. For example, SMUD citizens might be able to check a box contributing to “dairy digester” projects on south county dairy farms, which trap methane from cow manure and use the greenhouse gas as a fuel for generating electricity. SMUD’s John DiStasio told SN&R to look for the new program sometime in the next couple of months.
2 Get on the bus
Forty percent of greenhouse-gas emissions come from our cars and trucks. And in areas like Sacramento, the nitrogen oxides in tailpipe emissions can make the air dangerous to breathe for some residents. And most experts agree that alternative fuels can’t entirely substitute for oil and gas.
One idea in Sacramento’s sustainability master plan borrows from the U.N. Urban Environmental Accords, which suggests affordable public transportation within one-quarter mile of every Sacramento resident.
Regional Transit boasts about 84-percent coverage of the city now. “But a lot of areas don’t have that kind of coverage,” said Azadeh Doherty, with the city’s Department of Transportation. And just because you have a bus stop near your home doesn’t mean it’s safe, or that the buses come frequently, or that they will get you where you want to go. “It really needs to be improved,” said Doherty.
But right now, the system is severely cash strapped. RT is now considering going to voters with another quarter-cent sales tax to keep going.
Many transportation advocates say that the region needs to make major changes in the way the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, the regional transportation agency, distributes transportation funds around the region.
Brownstein with the Environmental Council of Sacramento lamented: “We have a real serious situation in existing neighborhoods where large numbers of people are dependent on public transportation. But if you look at the money, only about a third of it is going to transit. It is absolutely essential that we shift much more money away from roads and highways and into transit.”
Aside from providing more transportation options, the city can use other means to discourage driving.
“You can regulate parking so that it promotes alternate modes,” said Linda Tucker with the city’s Department of Transportation.
But Brownstein said that parking isn’t being used as effectively as it could be as a sustainability tool.
One possibility is to eliminate the requirement that new businesses in the central city provide parking for customers. In the meantime, parking laws should be strictly enforced, Brownstein said. These are things his groups suggested last year as the city’s parking master plan was being written—the City Council rejected them.
“There’s too much parking. There are huge areas of downtown that are dedicated to storing cars from El Dorado County or from East Sacramento for that matter. It’s insanity.”
3 Grow your own
More than TiVo, air conditioning and gasoline, we need food. Despite the fact that Sacramento is surrounded by farmland, most of our food comes from far, far away. Usually it’s trucked to stores. All of that transportation energy emits tons of greenhouse gases. And in the event of a serious energy crunch, the “peak oil” scenario, it could be difficult, and extremely expensive, to stock store shelves.
In the master plan’s section on “Public Health and Nutrition,” the city’s sustainability experts suggest that we “identify the most basic food products … and promote business growth to ensure that products are grown locally or regionally.”
It’s not rocket science; people have been growing food in gardens for tens of thousands of years. Last year, city bureaucrats got dinged pretty hard by community activists for introducing a “landscaping ordinance” that prohibited residents from gardening in their front yards. It seemed that such front-yard gardens are considered a nuisance under city codes.
On April 3, the same night that the City Council considered the Sustainability Master Plan, dozens of Sacramento residents turned out to demand that the ordinance be amended to allow for fruits and vegetables to be grown, along with flowers and the least-sustainable crop, grass. The council was right there with them, voting 8-1 to overturn the ordinance.
The city also has a community-garden master plan, which says the city ought to have at least one community garden for every 100,000 residents.
Many residents don’t realize that they can ask the city to provide a community garden in their area, just as the city provides other amenities likes softball fields and playgrounds.
“We’d like to see one in every council district,” said Bill Maynard, community-garden coordinator with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The city could be doing more to encourage locally grown produce in the stores, too.
Dave Spaur, director of the city’s economic-development department, noted that the plans for redevelopment of the rail yards north of downtown call for a large, indoor, seven-days-a-week farmers’ market. By encouraging kitchen gardens and businesses that support local agriculture, Spaur said Sacramento can embrace the kind of “Provence lifestyle” that will prove more sustainable in the long run. Spaur also said he’d like to see schools provide meals that are made with locally, or at least regionally, grown fresh foods.
“If we grow locally, we can cut down on truck traffic and food processing, and improve air quality,” Spaur explained.
4 Become an urban tree hugger
As every second grader learns in science class, trees “breathe in” carbon dioxide and “breathe out” oxygen. One rule of thumb, offered by the city’s energy manager Roberts: Two trees will consume enough carbon dioxide to offset the emissions of one car or light truck.
And as anybody who lives in a home with a good shade tree knows, ample foliage makes a big difference in your comfort and your electricity bill.
Sacramento likes to boast that it’s the city of trees. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the city planted millions of trees. And, just like 100 years ago, it still makes sense to keep your streets and homes shaded. Sun heats homes, the air, and damages asphalt.
The problem is that a lot of those trees are in bad shape, and “we’ve lost a lot of our canopy over the last 20 years or so,” said Joe Benassini, the city’s urban forester.
For many years, people sort of forgot about planting trees. That has led to a big generation gap in the urban forest, with a lot of the older trees nearing the end of their useful lives and not enough younger but mature trees to take up the task of shading the city.
“In some areas, it will get worse before it gets better,” Benassini said.
Right now, Sacramento is at about 15 percent to 20 percent canopy cover. The master plan calls for 35 percent canopy cover, and planting 5 to 6 million trees in the region over the next 20 years.
5 Build it green
Jason Presley, a principal with the development firm LJ Urban, said that “cities are the greenest technology we have. If we can master building our cities right, that’s where we can have the biggest impact.”
That’s why LJ Urban bills its projects as “eco-urban.”
Presely’s firm is in Sacramento, but has been working with the West Sacramento City Council to develop a neighborhood called Washington Blocks. It’s eco-urban because the developer is trying to turn a run-down industrial section of West Sacramento into a walkable, transit-friendly neighborhood. And LJ Urban wants to use cutting-edge energy-efficiency standards, and eco-friendly building materials, to get it done. Presley said he’s excited that Sacramento is looking at adopting its own “green building” guidelines. The city’s plan suggests that the city could impose and encourage these kinds of construction standards on up to about 80 percent of new home construction.
Buildings that adhere Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, and other green-building standards give off about 50-percent less carbon dioxide than buildings with standard construction.
SMUD, accordingly, has given money to an organization called Build It Green, in hopes of creating new construction standards for Sacramento.
“That would be huge,” said Panama Bartholomy, with the California Energy Commission, adding that many builders don’t even comply with the law on energy efficiency, let alone stretch for green building.
Green building can also mean where we put homes and how we build neighborhoods. Sprawl is pretty inefficient. It undermines public transportation and eats up farmland and natural habitat. But growth controls always have been difficult to keep intact, in the face of economic pressure to develop and increase property-tax revenues, and constant lobbying by the development and construction industries.