Greensboro sustainability committee draws input

by Jordan Green

The mayor’s message to upwards of 100 Greensboro sustainability advocates was short and sweet when they met at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Nov. 13.

“How are all my green people?” Yvonne Johnson asked. “I’m just so excited that we are here, and the committee is here, and that so many people are passionate about our green movement. I know I am.”

The Greensboro City Council voted to create the 14-member Community Sustainability Council in January as an advisory group to help the city improve its environmental stewardship. What concrete initiatives the city — famous for its accommodation of business interests and cautious when it comes to innovations in land use — might undertake remain to be seen.

Joel Landau, a two-time candidate for city council and member of the city’s planning board, co-chairs the sustainability council with Bob Powell, a professor of architecture and engineering at NC A&T University, who enlisted his senior-project students as recorders at the conference. Landau was in high spirits as he described early discussions with city staff.

“Bob Powell and I met with city department heads and Yvonne Johnson,” he said. “We wanted to get input from them, and let them know that we’re not here to attack them. The city manager has been very supportive. He gave us a strong introduction.”

There were skeptics in the room.

“It occurs to me that the city commission’s not going to put in bike lanes, because if they were willing to, they would have already done it,” said Sheldon Herman, who rode his bicycle through the cold mist to get to the conference. “We need to develop the political clout to make them do it.”

The city’s addition of bike lanes along Spring Garden and Florida streets have been too modest and too slow to suit Herman.

“A third of Greensboro residents don’t drive: Children, old people and poor people,” he said. “It’s clearly discriminatory. We pretend they don’t exist.

“When our government makes people who drive bear all the costs of roads, that’s when things will change,” he added. “We subsidize road building. What would happen if we subsidized bicycle transportation or public transit?”

Policy decisions comprise only half of the impediment to implementing more sustainable transit networks, and Herman did not spare people who continue to demonstrate a preference for automobile transportation from criticism.

“I’m a fat guy in his fifties who rides a bicycle,” he said. “If I can do it, anyone can. They have no excuse. They’re just too lazy.”

Marlene Sanford, president of the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, who holds one of the two seats reserved for business interests on the 14-member council, said if people changed their lifestyle preferences, her members would adjust their practices accordingly.

“Developers and builders will build anything that people will buy,” she said. “We have seen in the last couple years that both for commercial and residential construction, people are looking for energy efficiency. It’s becoming a pocketbook issue, not just ideology.”

Participants divided into several small groups to discuss specific themes. The group tackling “alternative transportation options that reduce dependence on single-occupant car use” set an ambitious goal.

“The big thing was we wanted to make every street crossable, and we want to make every street accessible to bikes and pedestrians,” said Democratic Party activist Malcolm Kenton, who reported back for the group. “We wanted to increase public transportation by reducing the threshold by which the city decides if they have a certain population per square mile they’ll add bus routes.”

Powell acknowledged that the community sustainability council will have to cull through the numerous ideas generated at the Nov. 13 meeting and sort them according to which ones would be best implemented respectively by municipal government, nonprofits and individual households. The sustainability council is tasked with bringing a set of recommendations to city council by March.

“One way or another we hope this will happen,” he said. “Our committee is charged with giving the city council recommendations. Our task is to make sure there is follow-through.”

He added, “I don’t know if there’s going to be regulation. I don’t know if there’s going to be incentives, or free market. One of the questions we have to ask is, what are the obstacles?”

For now, the sustainability council appears to be more engaged with possibilities.

“Together, we can put the green in Greensboro,” Landau said.

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