Eco-friendly city branding

Sacramento on-the-verge of becoming green

On September 21, two parking spots in Sacramento transformed into urban parks to demonstrate the importance of open space.

On September 21, two parking spots in Sacramento transformed into urban parks to demonstrate the importance of open space.

Courtesy Of lj urban


A 10-year-old boy approached the group early in the morning as they laid out sod, positioned some potted plants and trees, and arranged a chess set on a table placed on a parking spot at the corner of 14th and J streets. A round sign encouraged passersby to “Sit here and dream big.” The boy wanted to know what was going on. The group of adults told the boy that they were temporarily transforming a parking spot into a public park for a day. As the boy watched, the group asked him a question, “What would make Sacramento a better place to live?”

“Put one of these in every parking spot,” the boy said. “Because then people won’t have anywhere to park and then they’ll quit making cars.”

On a Friday in late September, people across the United States reclaimed parking spots, turning them into public space, to draw attention to land-use issues and the importance of urban parks on our health, communities and ecosystems. The concept for Park(ing) Day began in 2005 with Rebar, a San Francisco art collective. The Trust for Public Land sponsored this year’s event, which spread to about 30 cities, including Sacramento, who participated at two spots: the one on J Street (hosted by LJ Urban, a real-estate-development firm and about a dozen other individuals), and one on the corner of K and 20th streets (hosted by architect firm Mogavero Notestine Associates).

Eighty miles away, I experienced my own Park(ing) Day in San Francisco, where 25 sites around the city had become makeshift parks. At one spot, a group of young women created a miniature version of a green roof, complete with a solar panel, lawn chairs and chicks in a cage.

“We’re promoting healthy habitats. We want to promote open space and not encourage additional parking spaces,” said Cynthia Comerford Scully, a program planner with San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.

They even had a bicycle-powered blender and, before I left, a young woman eager to demonstrate the contraption pedaled for a few minutes and handed me a strawberry smoothie, wishing me well as I went on my way.

Meanwhile, back in Sacramento, dozens of other residents suggested what would improve their city, scribbling ideas onto Post-It notes. Most responses centered on making Sacramento more bike-friendly. Others said we need a higher density of people living downtown, or we should convert vacant lots into community gardens, require developers to incorporate food-growing space into all projects, complete more infill building and limit sprawl. We may already be the City of Trees, but one person thought we ought to plant even more. And my personal favorite: Bring green infrastructure into the built environment (well, I have to say that). Someone said we should increase the cost of parking, using these revenues to fund public transit and bike walk facilities.

“Cities are about people, not cars! Redesign Sacramento for people,” echoed another note.

Reading through these messages, a thought crossed my mind: it sounds like improving a city and quality of life goes hand-in-hand with protecting the environment. Who would have thunk it?! Oh wait, someone’s handing me a memo—well, looky there, turns out many Sacramentans figured this out and have been rethinking our city, trying to transform it into a hotspot for the green movement. You know those “Top 10 Greenest Cities” lists? If all goes as planned, our city will make it on that damn list. The question has now become: Just how are we going to do it?

Austin has music. Seattle has rain. San Diego has bio-technology, and the funny thing about that is the city barely even had any biotech companies when they first stuck a flag in the ground and declared it so. And what happened? The biotech companies followed. Clean technology has now become the Next Big Thing with Portland, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Boston and others vying for top-dog status. Sacramento’s right in the mix, too, with people hyped on the idea that we’re poised to become a green hub. I’ll let you in on a little secret: We’re surprisingly close. OK, this information is so not new. Where have you been? In July, a Fast Company magazine report listed Sacramento as a city “on-the-verge” of becoming a green powerhouse worldwide.

“There was this feeling with Sacramento that we hadn’t set our star. What are we going to go after and go after in a really big way? This region has to model and embrace a focus on sustainability,” said Kristine Mazzei, a managing partner at Valley Vision, a regional nonprofit organization.

So a group decided to go after clean technology, forming the Clean Energy Technology Action Team, an initiative out of Partnership for Prosperity, a 34-member collaboration led by Mazzei. The team wants to brand the region as a national leader in the clean-energy field. More than 60 clean-tech companies are currently based here. True, some of these are two or three people operations, but others are biggies. Folsom-based Jadoo Power is the largest supplier of portable fuel cells in the world and international companies are establishing themselves here, expecting significant market expansion.

Along with the Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance, which connects venture capitalists with start-up clean-tech companies, Five-Star Bank introduced a financing vehicle that earmarks money for clean energy companies and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design construction projects in the area. Two huge pension funds, CalPERS and CalSTRS, initiated a “Green Wave” investment program, placing $500 million in private equity, venture capital and financing in environmental technologies.

The CleanTech action team is banking on three factors to shape Sacramento’s green leadership: intellect, innovation and influence.

We have the intellect. Using a $25 million grant from Chevron Corporation, UC Davis is researching renewable fuels. Last year, the university introduced the Energy Efficiency Center, a one-stop shop for research and commercialization projects with a focus on wind, biomass, transportation, agriculture and lighting.

Our region’s three major electric utility providers—Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Pacific Gas & Electric and Roseville Electric—are on the cutting edge of clean-energy developments and implementation, said Mazzei, who called the utilities “our champions.” California utilities receive billions of dollars that they are mandated to spend on energy efficiency.

The city council wants in on the action, too, unanimously approving a resolution to market the Sacramento Army Depot and surrounding area in south Sacramento, designated as an enterprise zone, to clean-energy firms, which qualifies these companies for financial incentives, employment training funds and employment tax credits.

Training a work force will facilitate the sector’s growth, Mazzei said. Los Rios Community College District recently launched its GreenForce initiative. A certificate program for a solar technology technician, green-building design and construction, and energy management systems in HVAC building commissioning will soon be offered at American River College, Cosumnes River College and Sacramento City College, respectively. Recognizing the economic potential of clean energy, the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce pledged to create 20,000 new jobs in the sector.

“Isn’t it just the right thing to do, to protect the environment?” said Matt Mahood, CEO and president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, during a recent meeting with SN&R.

This whole it’s-the-right-thing-to-do vibe has spread to some of our local politicians. Last April, Mayor Heather Fargo signed the United Nation’s Urban Environmental Accords, a list of 21 actions related to energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health and water. Signing the accord fell in line with the city council’s decision in 2005 to add sustainability to its top three priorities—affordable housing, safe neighborhoods and economic development—and it serves as the foundation for the city’s Sustainability Master Plan, which calls for the city to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions from city operations 25 percent by 2030.

Councilman Rob Fong said Sacramento needs to become a consumer of green goods and services, and re-evaluate how it runs its fleets, create incentives for employees that go beyond bus passes, and devise a regulatory framework and fee structures that make it easier and less expensive for businesses to pursue green projects.

A while back, Fong visited Chicago, known as a top green city under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Chicago and other green cities may have a lot going for them, but they’re missing one key component: They’re not the capital of a state known for its aggressive environmental initiatives and open-mindedness.

“One of the interesting things about California is that our population is willing to do things,” Fong said.

If the city wants to set the sustainable example, now is the time for the mayor and council members to prove it.

One way would be for the city to set up a department of sustainability, as many other cities have already done.

In terms of the county of Sacramento, way back in late July, SN&R met with Supervisor Roger Dickinson to pick his brain about the tipping points for Sactown’s super-dope green movement (and that’s exactly how we phrased it to him, too). One thing we’re going to need to do, he said, is focus on reducing air pollution in our valley, where dirty air likes to roll in and hang out. Although air quality in Sacramento has improved over the last decade, the region is designated as “a severe ozone non-attainment area” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and fails to meet both state and federal standards for ozone during the summer months. One idea for reducing pollution? Continue to expand Regional Transit, which currently covers more than 80 percent of the city. We also need to comply with conventional eco-wisdom that affordable public transportation be available within one-quarter mile of every resident.

Dickinson said voters need to show their local representatives that they appreciate when politicians take a pro-environment stand.

“What’s missing is the perceived political majority,” Dickinson said. “You have to show elected officials that you get loved when you do something different, not hated.”

Slightly behind the city, the county is only now in the process of developing its own sustainability plan, to be presented to the county Board of Supervisors early next year. The county recently established a sustainability cabinet that will look at reducing the carbon footprint of city operations, green building and development, community outreach and legislation, according to Carl Mosher, director of facility planning, architecture and real estate for the county.

Although it’s hard to tell, this is actually the Green House column, so please observe as I now expertly transition to writing about green buildings in the city. named the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters building, located on I Street in downtown, as the second-greenest building in the world. Soon, Cal/EPA will be one of dozens of green buildings in Sacramento, as local architects, engineers and developers bone up on the subject.

“You feel good about what we are doing. You feel like you’re making some good choices for the town you’re living in,” said John Thompson, a mechanical engineer with Turley and Associates who is LEED-accredited and signed onto SN&R’s green-building project on Del Paso Boulevard (we’re renovating a building to become our new office late next year).

Within the city’s Sustainability Master Plan is an area focused on urban development, land use, green building and transportation. And under this focus is where you’ll find Jamie Cutlip, an assistant city planner who is currently serving as the green-building coordinator for the city. She’s spent the last four months researching what other cities have been doing in terms of green building, and in early December she’ll present the city council with a menu of possible incentives and programs to help promote green building.

“Expedited processing is the number one incentive,” Cutlip said, noting how San Francisco gives planning entitlements and permits for green-building projects priority.

Our city already offers storm-water runoff credits and other credits that promote low-impact development, and Cutlip is looking at density bonuses, minimal parking requirements, and other rebates that encourage developers and consumers to go green. It’s crucial that Sacramento get a handle on green building, as the city is projected to grow by more than 200,000 residents over the next two decades, meaning the city will need to address how to accommodate that growth and set policy for future development, housing and transportation (and the whole global-warming thing makes it crucial, too).

While some may see this as a challenge, real-estate developer LJ Urban sees it as an opportunity.

“The city is the greenest thing we have available to us. Cities should rise to the top policy-wise and funding-wise if we want to make this world a better place,” said Jason Presley, a partner with the firm.

If you think you’ve read this line before in SN&R, you’re right, because LJ Urban has been pushing the message that we need to think holistically and out-of-the-box about cities if we’re going to make real change ever since the firm surfaced on the scene four-and-a-half years ago, later coining the phrase “eco-urban” to describe its mantra.

“What has brought us here today won’t take us where we need to go tomorrow,” Presley said.

Let me get this straight: We have industry, local government, economic organizations, educational institutions and eco-urbanists all singing green?

“We have all the building blocks,” Mazzei said. “Now we need to put them together and move.”

If you know me, you know two things: I love Sacramento and I’ll embarrass myself defending its honor. I used to be as guilty as anyone, citing the city’s one claim to fame to be its proximity to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. But I’ve evolved. I now sell Sacramento on its green potential, and especially on our beautiful autumns when our lovely trees change colors. Hopefully, we’ll have even more—the city’s Sustainability Master Plan calls for us to plant 5 to 6 million trees in the region. Currently, we have about 15 to 20 percent urban canopy coverage and the plan aims for 35 percent. This works out perfectly for me because whenever a visiting friend compliments on all our trees, it makes me proud.

And maybe, in the end, that’s what this is really about. Maybe it’s not about getting on a “Greenest Cities” list, but about feeling pride and love for the places we live, raise our families, hang out with friends and call home.

If we’re going to create a cohesive identity around Sacramento as a green hot spot, it needs to be grounded by people or it’s not going to work. Not just by the young professionals who buy downtown green lofts and ride bikes to eat locally-grown food at hip restaurants, but by people living near the Florin Road landfill, elderly residents affected harshly by bad air days and by a 10-year-old boy who sees the value of turning a parking spot into an urban park, if only for a day.