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Traverse City Promises to Cool It

Officials cite efficiency, better planning as ways to cut greenhouse gases

February 22, 2007 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Traverse City is the eighth Michigan city to promise to fight global warming by reducing municipal greenhouse gases.

TRAVERSE CITY—Buoyed by strong public support and backed by overwhelming evidence that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activity, the mayor of this northern Michigan town has signed an agreement promising that the City of Traverse City will reduce its municipal greenhouse gas emission over the next five years.

Traverse City Mayor Linda Smyka signed the document, known as the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, in late January,after the Traverse City Commission unanimously voted to approve it at a public meeting on January 15. The vote followed months of education, outreach, and campaigning by local citizens and environmental advocates.

By signing the climate protection agreement, the City of Traverse City promises to reduce its greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. That matches goals set by the Kyoto Accords, the international climate change treaty that the United States government steadfastly refuses to sign. Hundreds of American communities have signed; organizers hope that, even if many of the signatory cities are having problems getting started on their emission-reduction programs, the burgeoning campaign will help convince Washington to finally start combating climate change,.

Traverse City Manager Richard Lewis said at the January 15 meeting that saving energy, cutting costs, improving quality of life, and doing the right thing is more important than attracting attention.

"If we’re going to sign this agreement, I want to do it right," Mr. Lewis said. "Otherwise, I’d just as soon not sign it."

Interviews with city officials indicate that they are well aware of the most obvious emission-cutting techniques listed in the agreement: switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, windows, furnaces, and service vehicles; contracting with "green" power providers to supply municipal electricity; and providing more public transportation.

But the officials also said they support some of the agreement’s less obvious but equally effective techniques, particularly Smart Growth planning and zoning practices. Those practices, which include blending residential and commercial projects into mixed-use developments and allowing more people to live in established neighborhoods, make it far easier for residents to leave their cars at home and walk, bike, or bus to where they shop, work, study, and socialize—and dramatically cut their own greenhouse emissions.

Where to Start?
As of Feb. 14, 402 American communities had signed the climate protection agreement. But, so far, just 173 have formally requested technical assistance from the group conducting the campaign, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), for measuring—and reducing—greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Glen Brand, the director of the Sierra Club’s Cool Cities Campaign, which encourages local governments to sign the agreement and offers guidance once they have,some communities have not asked for help because they are probably using universities, city staff, or consultants. But it is clear that many towns have done little beyond signing the agreement.

One thing that is holding up many cities, according to Mr. Brand, is a lack of technical capacity to measure emissions. With zero support from both state and federal agencies, many officials simply do not know where to start.

Many signatory communities may not even be aware that technical assistance is readily available through organizations like ICLEI. For example, staff from the City of Southfield, which signed the agreement months ago, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that they are not sure how to go about measuring the city’s emissions or who to approach for help. Small staffs, tight budgets, and heavy workloads may be seriously slowing some municipal actions against global warming.

In Michigan, eight communities—Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Marquette, Southfield, Berkley, Ferndale, Traverse City, and Lansing—have now signed. But Ann Arbor is the sole city that has measured its 1990 emissions. That will make Traverse City, which has indicated it will soon begin digging through old records to figure out its 1990 emission level, only the second Michigan community to figure out its actual, 1990-based goal and identify the easiest, most cost-effective ways to begin slashing emissions.

Beyond Number Crunching
Nevertheless, many climate-conscious cities are now saving energy, switching to renewable energy, and reducing their greenhouse emissions.

Even before it signed the climate change agreement, for example, Traverse City had adopted common-sense cost-saving measures that move it toward Kyoto’s goals. In recent years the city installed super-energy-efficient LED light bulbs in its traffic signals, updated its wastewater plant to use the methane gas it produces to help heat the building,forbidden city employees to leave their vehicles running when they are not in traffic, and steadily increased the fuel efficiency of its vehicle fleet.

Municipal governments in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids are promising to buy more of their electricity from energy companies that use renewable sources such as wind turbines or solar panels; both towns will also push their residents to do the same.

Several West Coast cities have become national leaders in the campaign by employing a wide variety of tactics. Portland, for example, has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels. The city’s aggressive plan includes more convenient public transportation; doubled bicycle commuting; land use policies that encourage walking, biking, car pooling, and bus riding; and stringent energy efficiency standards for its municipal buildings, vehicles, and traffic lights, which save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

In Seattle, where a greenhouse gas inventory showed that half the city’s emissions come from transportation, the city is expanding transit, doubling the amount of bike lanes, upgrading sidewalks, and phasing in a commercial parking tax. The city is also using Smart Growth policies to encourage more compact and mixed-use redevelopment that compliments its transportation effort by making the entire city more walkable.

Walking the Talk
Traverse City Commissioner Matt Schmidt pointed to Smart Growth tenets at the January 15 meeting when he challenged the community to translate its overwhelming support for climate change protection into support for an updated master plan and zoning rules that support compact, walkable development.

"What I heard over and over during public comment is that people support the agreement and they want to help," Mr. Schmidt said. "The agreement calls on us to promote compactness as an urban community, and the city commission could really use some public support on this issue. Folks, this is your opportunity to help."

Several such opportunities are arriving soon. On March 1, for example, Traverse City begins updating its master plan, which will guide the city’s growth patterns and the look and feel of its neighborhoods for years to come.

Also, the Traverse City Commission is considering a new ordinance that would re-legalize what was once a common practice: allowing homeowners to rent auxiliary dwelling units—often referred to as "granny flats"—that are in their houses or over their garages and meet stringent design and parking requirements. Granny flats not only increase the supply of moderately priced housing while helping homeowners meet their mortgage payments, they also allow more people to live in established neighborhoods, where they can walk more and drive less.

Another opportunity for planning to combat warming should arrive later this spring, when the Grand Traverse Area Land Use and Transportation Study Coordinating Group expects to launch a six-county regional visioning process. Hundreds of residents will meet at a series of community workshops that will produce long-term plans for regional growth. If participants embrace Smart Growth tenets, the entire region would effectively become part of the battle against climate change.

A New Attitude
It remains to be seen whether citizens’ wholehearted support for the climate agreement—every citizen who spoke at the January 15 meeting urged the city to sign it—helps the city update its master plan and ordinances in ways that not only reduce global warming, but make the city more attractive and economically successful.

It’s clear however, that community members want to help the city fight global warming.

"I’m confident that the citizens, businesses and nonprofits will help with any matter the community needs to address in signing the agreement, conducting the greenhouse gas inventory, and other decisions the city will need to make," said Pete Muñoz, the founder of SEEDS, a Traverse City-based nonprofit environmental group, t the January 15 meeting. His organization has already offered technical support to the city.

Traverse City resident Dean Sheldon said he believed that global climate change calls for an entirely new attitude.

"I’ve tried to change my mindset about my default transportation model rather than just hopping in the car automatically," said Mr. Sheldon in an interview after the meeting. "Weather permitting, I try to ride my bike to get groceries or come to meetings in town. Why should I add to the pollution load when I can do the world and my body some good by getting there on my own power?"

Mr. Sheldon added that he would like to see a more efficient transportation system in Traverse City, with expanded bike lanes and smarter traffic planning. Both he and Donna Hornberger, who lives on Old Mission Peninsula, expressed strong support for the city commission’s vote.

"I’m just really happy they voted for it 100 percent and I’m behind them," said Ms. Hornberger. "If the country isn’t going to do something, we in the cities need to do it."

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org

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