Baltimore details progress in move toward sustainability

Recycling is up in Baltimore, water consumption and home electricity use down. Thousands of trees have been planted in the past year to green up the urban landscape, while new bicycle lanes and bus and water taxi service offer residents cleaner ways to get around town.

But the city's waters remain too filthy to swim in, and the streets are still littered with trash and illegal dumping. Nor is it clear just how many "green" jobs have been created.

A little over a year after the City Council adopted an ambitious plan for improving the environmental, economic and social welfare of all its residents, Baltimore is making incremental progress toward sustainability on a number of fronts, while progress remains elusive on others. That's the upshot of the city's first annual sustainability report, released today.

"Sustainability becomes increasingly important to us as a city, a state and a nation because we recognize that our global resources are finite," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement issued this morning. She announced the report's availability at a press conference in front of City Hall.

"By making smart decisions about how we use resources and involving residents in the process," Rawlings-Blake added, "we can save money, improve quality of life, and position Baltimore to benefit from growing investment and job creation in the green economy."

Besides releasing the sustainability report, Rawlings-Blake accepted a "smart, green and growing" award to the city from the O'Malley administration for finishing a three-mile leg of the Jones Falls Trail connecting the Woodberry light rail station with Penn Station.

Despite the city's fiscal straits, government, schools, businesses and a variety of nonprofit and neighborhood groups are pitching in to tackle the 29 goals laid out last year in the city's sustainability plan, said Cheryl A. Casciani, chair of the city's Commission on Sustainability.

"There's a lot going on in this town," Casciani said.

Among the plan's more daunting aims: eliminating street litter, doubling the tree canopy, reducing the city's carbon footprint and making Baltimore a hub of "green" jobs and businesses.

The 52-page report represents a starting point as much as a report card on those efforts, Casciani and others said, because it's challenging just to quantify some of them, much less track progress.

"It sets a baseline and puts it out for public consumption," Sarah Zaleski, the city's sustainability coordinator, said of the report. "Moving forward, we'll be able to tease out trends."

Progress is apparent in some areas. Since the city went from biweekly to weekly recycling pickup last year, there has been a 55 percent increase in the weight of plastic, cans, paper and other recyclables collected, while the tonnage of trash collected for disposal in a landfill or incinerator dropped by 25 percent.

But it's not clear whether the recycling push, which saved the city money on trash collection, has helped or hurt its bid to clear the streets of litter. The number of complaints about dirty streets phoned in to the city's nonemergency 311 hotline shot up last year, while there was a drop in the debris swept out of the gutters.

The spike in complaints could mean the streets were more cluttered, or that residents became more vocal about wanting them cleaned up. As the city switched from twice-weekly trash collection to once a week, inspectors cracked down on improper trash disposal and littering, handing out more than twice as many citations.

The city moved to take control of more vacant lots, often magnets for illegal dumping and litter. More than 200 had been turned over by year's end to neighborhood groups and residents to tend them as community gardens.

The city also tallied Baltimore's greenhouse gas emissions, public and private, in preparation for trying to reduce them 15 percent by 2015. Toward that end, the city began supplying methane from its South Baltimore landfill to generate steam and electricity for the Coast Guard yard at Curtis Bay, while Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. erected a 155-kilowatt solar array on its property.

Baltimore's air quality improved remarkably last year, the report says, with a sharp reduction in the number of summer days when ozone pollution from vehicle exhaust, power plant emissions and other sources made it unhealthful to be outdoors. Fine particle pollution also registered new lows. The city's air quality is affected by pollution beyond its borders, but a federal grant last year targeted one local source — the port of Baltimore, with all the sooty diesel emissions from the trucks, cargo-moving equipment and ships that frequent its docks.

The harbor's water quality was declared impaired by trash by the state in 2008, the report notes, and there was no change in that status last year.

Water consumption dropped, as did residential energy use. Zaleski, the city's sustainability coordinator, said the water drop-off stemmed from increased conservation by residents and businesses. The energy trend is less apparent, as electricity use dropped while natural gas consumption ticked upward.

Other efforts were tallied, if not measured. The report estimates that more than 6,000 trees were planted last year on public and private lands, though it couldn't say whether that represented progress toward the goal of doubling the city's tree canopy.

Likewise, it noted efforts to provide locally grown and healthful foods to areas without many grocery options. "Hoop Village," a trio of greenhouses, went up at Clifton Park to raise produce for schools and markets. Two "virtual supermarkets" were set up at library branches to assist food delivery to underserved neighborhoods.

Public transit options expanded with the launch of the free Charm City Circulator bus and Harbor Connector water taxi service. Ridership on state-run Maryland Transit Administration bus and rail lines, however, remained flat.

Making all of Baltimore's public schools "green" gained incrementally, with grants given to 16 schools to develop plans to go green. Fourteen public, private and parochial schools are certified green. Meanwhile, more than 1,500 city public students helped raise fruit and vegetables at Kids Farm, an 33-acre organic farm set up by the school system.

The city also finished phasing in a green-building ordinance last year, requiring design and construction of private and public buildings to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly. But the city has yet to complete the regulations and standards spelling out how the law is to be followed. City officials have held off while they wrestle with concerns voiced by some developers and business leaders over the costs of meeting the requirements.

"It would be ideal if they were out," said Stuart Kaplow, a Baltimore real estate lawyer who is head of the city chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. He contends the standards would help provide more clarity and flexibility to builders.

Finally, the report details efforts to create "green" jobs in the city and to promote clean businesses. But there were few quantifiable results listed — other than noting that of 100 businesses listed on Maryland's "green registry," 43 were in the city.

Casciani, head of the sustainability commission, acknowledged that more information is needed to keep track of efforts to meet some goals, like the economic ones. But she said she was impressed by the persistence being shown to date.

"It's not like there's a ton of resources hanging around in this town that you can just go whole hog and implement all this stuff," she said. "Some cities have a tree budget that's bigger than our entire planning department budget. We have to be pretty creative about how we approach these things.

Chris Yoder, chairman of the Greater Baltimore group of the Sierra Club, said he thought the city had made a "good faith" start toward greater sustainability.

"Obviously, everybody would like to see more, but to date, I think the administration has shown they understand the long-term problem and are working to address it."

Likewise, Councilman James B. Kraft, a Democrat from Canton and a leading environmental advocate on the council, said, "they have accomplished some things, they're moving forward, they're getting their feet on the ground."

Casciani and Yoder both said they're pleased that Mayor Rawlings-Blake has embraced the sustainability effort, which was championed by her predecessor, Sheila Dixon, before her conviction and resignation.

"She's totally not walking away from this and that's terrific," Casciani said. "That would have been a bummer (if it had happened) because we are starting to pop up on national lists of cities on this." Indeed, Baltimore already ranks among the top 20 U.S. cities in some measures of sustainabilty by a private rating group, SustainLane.

"We have to continue to take the small steps while we work on the bigger things," Casciani concluded.

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