:Chattanooga; :Nov 16, 2008; :Perspective; :70

Chattanooga won’t abandon environmental initiatives

Ron Littlefield Mayor of Chattanooga

People ask whether, now that the city has secured new investments from Alstom Power and Volkswagen, and considering the world financial crisis, Chattanooga will put aside its aggressive environmental initiatives.

    The short answer is no.

    Our environmental story — the transformation of Chattanooga from the dirtiest city in America to one of the cleanest and most livable — is what put us on the short list of progressive communities. We intend to stay on that list. Our environmental story gave us Alstom Power. During negotiations, the company made access to our Riverwalk a “deal maker or deal breaker.” Further, it invited County Mayor Claude Ramsey and me to Europe to see how its manufacturing operations were clean, green and sustainable.

    Our environmental story gave us Volkswagen. In the recruitment process, company officials were clear about their interest in environmental issues. After the selection was announced, they told us it was our quality of life that placed Chattanooga among the finalists, and it was those characteristics that kept us in the competition until we could make the financial numbers work.

    Recently, the Chattanooga Manufacturers Association had Daniel Esty as keynote speaker at its annual meeting. Mr. Esty is author of the book “Green to Gold.” It is subtitled, “How smart companies use environmental strategy to innovate, create value, and build competitive advantage.” The substance of his speech was how today’s manufacturers are finding that doing good for the environment translates into doing well for the company’s bottom line.

    The very next day a report was released by the local Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies outlining how Chattanooga has achieved great success in addressing environmental sustainability but still has much to do. The greater question is, how do we reduce our carbon footprint when our community is growing both in terms of population and economic strength? We are the fastest-growing large city in Tennessee and, if you will, our carbon “foot” is growing.

    Chattanooga has made a commitment. We were quick to sign the U.S.
Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and we have joined almost 1,000 other communities worldwide as a member of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. We have taken a stand and others are taking note.

    So, what specific things can we do to live up to our pledge to reduce greenhouse gases? One example is something we have seen in other cities: the use of methane from old solid-waste landfills as an energy source. We have two large landfills within a reasonable distance of Enterprise South. Some of the industrial plants to be located there can reasonably and practically use methane as an alternative to conventional natural gas. The greater positive effect is a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

    A second example involves regional mass transportation. The Ochs Center report cites the lack of mass transit throughout the Chattanooga region as a major deficiency in our efforts to be more environmentally sustainable. One response to this need is the project presently under way to build a regional facility for Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency and Special Transit System transit services at the Farmers’ Market property on East 11th Street. This facility will enable regional transit services in Chattanooga to link effectively with similar hub facilities in Dunlap, Jasper, Cleveland and North Georgia. Mass transit is an important part of delivering workers from throughout the region to jobs and other needs, and we are taking steps to make this most important service more available.

    There will be more. The “Take Root” initiative will be planting more than 500 trees during this coming winter season. We are holding to environmental practices in the construction and remodeling of public buildings, and we are encouraging the adoption of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification practices throughout the local construction industry.

    Finally, the mayor’s Green Committee is preparing a final document — a lengthy shopping list of actions that we can take to keep Chattanooga on the leading edge of environmentally sustainable practices.

    Another challenge is regional cooperation and coordination. Good things are happening here — but not all good things will happen within the specific boundaries of Chattanooga and Hamilton County. We must think and act and grow as a region.

    It is a fortunate fact that County Mayor Claude Ramsey and I work very well together. The recent cooperation between city and county forces at every level was a significant factor in attracting new economic development. Now, the challenge will be to learn to get along as a region. All of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia — cities and counties within the greater Chattanooga region — must begin to march in step. Success will no doubt lead to jealousy, and it will be difficult to maintain a healthy level of coordination without things breaking down.

    For many years we talked of growth as if it were an unattainable goal. As a planner, I often envied other communities that were dealing with the “problem” of growth. Now it’s our turn. But dealing with growth can be a challenge — particularly when you are dealing with 13 counties in two states.

    We need a plan — a regional plan.

    Infrastructure is a regional issue. Streets and highways, water and sewer and other such necessities for economic growth are regional issues. Air and water and quality of life are also regional issues — not just matters of local concern.

    The recent trade mission to Germany by so many regional leaders was an important bonding experience. Now we need to move to the next level of regional togetherness. We need a plan. And a good plan is not a product, it is a process.

    The Southeast Tennessee Development District and Council of Governments has offered to help fund and facilitate a regional planning effort. To get the most out of the significant opportunity that we face, it’s time to take up that offer.

    And so finally, in the context of Chattanooga’s greatest opportunity in decades, we find ourselves faced with new challenges: financial, environmental and regional.

    We have earned the title of most transformed city in America, and our progress continues. But as we love to say: The best is yet to come.

    Ron Littlefield is mayor of Chattanooga.