Inside Knoxville's Sustainability Efforts

In facing environmental issues, can a medium-sized city really make a difference?

Thinking Green: Oak Ridge-raised, Yale-educated Erin Gill, in her first year on the job, heads up the city’s Sustainability Department.

Photo by Tyler Oxendine

Thinking Green: Oak Ridge-raised, Yale-educated Erin Gill, in her first year on the job, heads up the city’s Sustainability Department.

Everybody wants a sustainable city; it certainly sounds better than the alternative. Making Knoxville a sustainable city has been a priority for Mayor Madeline Rogero ever since she first ran for office, and she worked up some momentum with the issue as director of community development for the Haslam administration. The fact that an overt environmentalist won the race for mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., in 2011 on a green platform has been cause for wonder and comment in the national media, especially in a recent feature article by ClimateProgress editor Zack Beauchamp, “The Crazy True Story of How a Handful of Climate Advocates Painted a Red Town Green.”

When Rogero became mayor, she established an office that would have likely have caused some consternation on pragmatically conservative city governments of a generation or two ago, but it’s a symbol for the initiatives for which Rogero is best known. Knoxville has a Sustainability Department. It’s not a big office, and in fact is one of the city’s smallest. It has a full-time staff of only two, and a budget of $175,000, all from the city’s general operating budget. Most of that figure is devoted to its two salaries and benefits packages, allowing just a little for some education-related travel. But the mission keeps its director busy.

Her name is Erin Gill. “One of the things I love about this job is that it’s different every day,” she says in her simple, modern office on the sixth floor of the City County Building. Her big window looks over the Tennessee River, and the south shore, which has been a source of both inspiration and perplexity for the city in recent years. From a green point of view, the south side presents Knoxville’s most astonishing new assets, in terms of urban-wilderness development. But from here, none of that progress is obvious.

Sustainability is a big issue to start with. It implies keeping pollution down to healthy levels and being careful with limited resources of land, energy, water, and air, in ways that avoid leaving worse problems for generations of the future. That’s the heart of sustainability.

But as Gill defines it, sustainability’s even bigger than that. To her, and to the Rogero administration in general, it implies an economic component, in terms of making the city more competitive with other cities. “We’re proud of the fact we look at this through an economic lens,” she says, adding that her office works closely with the Chamber of Commerce. And to her, at least, it has a social component, concerning equity and treating citizens fairly; that, she admits, is a new but perhaps emerging way of looking at sustainability.

If it is indeed that broad a concept, maybe, the whole idea of government can be seen as a giant Sustainability Department. But in Knoxville, Gill and her project manager, Jake Tisinger, do their best with what they’ve got.

Though still fairly new to the job—she started at the post just last fall, after the original director, Susanna Sutherland, left to pursue a Ph.D.—Gill seems immersed in the subject, and passionate about it. Originally from Oak Ridge, she attended the University of Notre Dame, where she studied environmental history (“I think I created that major,” she laughs) before proceeding toward a masters of environmental management at Yale. In there somewhere, she worked a bit back in Knoxville for the Haslam administration, on the Solar America grant, and later moved to Atlanta to work for Georgia Power. She can seem idealistic about what can be accomplished in Knoxville, but she does not come across as a blue-sky dreamer. Her daily job involves dealing with contracts and contractors, lately in installing solar panels at the Knoxville Convention Center, and considering the same for the Jacob Building at Chilhowee Park. And then there are the contractors in charge of maintaining the city’s 24 electric-vehicle recharging stations. Much of that was commenced with federal Stimulus money, but now Knoxville’s going to have to sustain them on its own. She’s formally requested permanent funding in the city budget.

Gill speaks rapidly, quick with facts and figures about how one project or another is already saving the city money, or might someday save the city money. She talks about how the city is reviewing saving some of the federal government’s $4.8 million, administered through the Community Action Committee, in assistance to low-income households by way of a weatherization program offered by an IBM Smarter Cities challenge grant.

A lot of their initiatives are inexpensive and, to the consumer/citizen at least, painless. Nobody minds much if you put new recycling barrels in all public parks, as the city has been doing this spring. Curbside recycling, which started late in the Haslam administration, has been called a success. One-third of all Knoxville households—22,500 in all—are voluntary participants. That proportion is about the realistic industry standard, Gill says, as is the 85 percent biweekly compliance rate of those who are signed up. Mostly due to the curbside-pickup initiative, the total tonnage of recycled materials collected has increased 29 percent. “It was designed to be cost-neutral,” Gill says, and nobody’s making a profit on the small monetary value of recycled materials, but it does help pay for itself. For the city, Gill says, the biggest economic gain may be in the reduction of ordinary waste, and the avoidance of about $200,000 in annual landfill fees.

Rogero and other city officials have lately been citing improving emissions counts, a 7.75 percent reduction since 2005. Gill acknowledges that city government has little direct impact on those figures. Some have suggested that the decline was partly due to slowed activity during the recession, but Gill says a 2012 reading, after the worst of the recession, confirmed it—and that during that period industrial energy usage actually increased.

Gill attributes the reduction to newer and more efficient automobiles and to TVA’s initiatives to reduce its own coal-burning plant emissions. “TVA has done a phenomenal job reducing carbon emissions,” she says. Whatever the source of the reduction, it’s good news for a city that not long ago was getting dismal scores for air pollution.

The Sustainability Department’s near-term projects are likely to be modest and subtle in their impact, but there are long-shot goals that may make a major difference in how Knoxville builds itself in the future.

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The city’s been working to make its own buildings more energy efficient. According to the city’s own data, efforts toward better insulation, lower-cost lighting, smarter heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems have yielded significant results, a 13 percent reduction in energy costs since 2005. That’s an impressive fraction, and proof that initiatives are working, but it just applies to the city’s government-controlled buildings, a tiny percentage of all those in Knoxville.

Rogero’s most ambitious proposal would affect a lot more than that, and might have been something akin to a ground-shaking revolution.

A year ago, engineers and developers were abuzz about Rogero’s desire to effectively make Knoxville a national leader in pushing green-building codes. In the past, building codes have focused on safety, concerning fire hazards, load-bearing walls, etc. The 21st century has seen a push to require new buildings and houses to be energy-efficient, by law.

In 2012, the International Code Council unveiled its International Green Construction Code (IgCC; for some reason, green is lower-cased), suggesting a new standard in designing and building, available for adoption in communities that chose to enforce it.

“The IgCC is the first model code to include sustainability measures for the entire construction project and its site” goes the ICC’s own description of its proposal, “from design through construction, certificate of occupancy and beyond. The new code is expected to make buildings more efficient, reduce waste, and have a positive impact on health, safety and community welfare.” Its complex and wide-ranging provisions demand new standards for heating and cooling efficiency and encourage use of recycled materials, stormwater management and erosion control, minimizing construction waste, etc.

Despite its name, which for people outside the construction business might provoke international-conspiracy theories, the International Code Council is an American organization. In fact, two of its four current chief officers are building inspectors in Southern cities not too far from here. (ICC Vice President is Guy Tomberlin, building codes services manager for Fairfax County, Va., and ICC Secretary-Treasurer is Alex “Cash” Olszowy, building-inspector supervisor for Lexington, Ky.) The ICC was formed 20 years ago from the combination of three regional codes councils that had been around for most of the 20th century.

A year ago, Knoxville contractors and engineers were regarding the Rogero administration’s initiative to embrace the IgCC with some awe. Some building-industry businessmen were dreading it, due to likely costs. Green-building advocates, even those in the private sector, were delighted.

Few American cities have adopted IgCC—and those that did so have adopted it with caveats that allow for some voluntary compliance. Gill says she’s heard little discussion about the IgCC in Knoxville’s peer cities.

For a few months it looked like Knoxville was destined to be a surprise leader in green-building requirements. However, the city convened a task force to consider the nitty-gritty details of the IgCC, and how it would apply to real-world Knoxville. On the task force were about 10 builders, civil engineers, and architects who knew their business. Some were true believers in the green revolution, some were more practical-minded construction guys. They spent some months looking at the IgCC inside and out, how it was worded, how it might pertain to real-world contractors in Knoxville.

Glenn Richters, of the architecture and construction firm Benefield Richters, is one of Knoxville’s green-building leaders. He’s presently chairman of the East Tennessee chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, and he was one of those who were pushing for adoption of the IgCC. And he was on the 10-member task force that assessed the IgCC for Knoxville, and last summer, presented their findings to City Council.

“Our conclusion, I have to admit that when we went through it,” he says, referring to the code itself, “we realized it’s not very well thought out. It has a lot of issues. It would be difficult to implement, and it’s not clear how you would implement it.” Richters says cities that have adopted IgCC have mainly included it as an option to other perhaps equally difficult codes or requirements, like LEED standards. Knox County passed it as “optional.”

“The intent was to go back to Council and have it adopted as optional,” Richters says. “But it would be meaningless if it did.”

Richters says the task force recommended the city should better implement the codes it has now—and focus on green-building education. Then wait until the next iteration of the IgCC, already scheduled for 2015, in hopes that it will have improved.

“We just decided this is way too new,” agrees Erin Gill. “We’re not gonna adopt these codes overnight. So let’s table it. As a new code, it deserves quite a bit of research. Even the writers of the code said it needed some more refinement.”

Gill is optimistic about eventually adopting a green-building code in Knoxville, and resists using the word “shelved” to describe the IgCC’s current status here.

“In 2015, we’ll be in a better position to reassess and reevaluate” she says. “We know that now is not the right time.”

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Rogero’s attempts to green the city of Knoxville have earned some national praise, well beyond that ClimateProgress story. In November, our mayor became one of 26 appointed to President Barack Obama’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. As a result of that association, David Agnew, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and Michael Boots, acting chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, toured Knoxville’s south side last week, which has become in the last 10 years, a little unexpectedly, a green spectacle, the area’s most impressive example of environmental stewardship. Rogero and the city support the sometimes astonishing efforts of Ijams Nature Center and the Aslan Foundation’s High Ground Park.

Later, the White House group conducted a closed-door conference involving several regional mayors and community leaders at the Baker Center. In a brief press conference, Boots praised Rogero’s “initiative, leadership—and pragmatism” about climate change. He had a bit of an inside-joke smile when he mentioned pragmatism. As she advocates for green projects, Rogero consistently sounds the bell of potential taxpayer savings, attractiveness to employers, and economic growth.

Agnew, who’s from South Carolina, admitted that his task force trip was his first visit to Knoxville since the 1982 World’s Fair, and he spoke with apparent awe about Knoxville’s south-side wilderness development as very unusual so close to a downtown. Agnew said “we hope more projects like we saw today can happen across the country.”

At that conference, Rogero spoke of the effects of climate change on East Tennessee, especially the increased frequency of storms. Changes in climate “also threaten our prized Tennessee natural resources—in particular the fragile and diverse ecosystem of the Smoky Mountains and other Tennessee natural areas,” she said. “This in turn might create impacts for fishing, hunting, and the local tourism industry.” She emphasized the city’s preparedness for the possibility of climate-change problems, including upgrading stormwater infrastructure and improving urban forestry, which stabilizes soil, decreases pollutant runoff. Urban forestry also helps in “mitigation of the heat-island effect”—a jargony new term to describe something our great-grandmothers understood. Trees provide cool shade in the hot summer.

Though most of the idealogical initiative and financial support for the south side’s wonders—like Ijams Nature Center’s unprecedented tripling expansion, the Aslan Foundation’s investment in High Ground Park and Log Haven, and the grass-roots bicycle-trail project known as the South Loop—has come from the private sector, more than from city government, they’re attractions the mayor can tout as assets of the city, and Rogero has stepped in to preserve those gains, especially on one dramatic occasion.

One of the most dependably quotable critics of the Knoxville area’s environmental record over the years is the University of Tennessee’s firebrand ecologist, professor John Nolt. “Madeline has been doing a wonderful job,” he says. “She’s exactly the right person for the job.”

He adds, “The most important thing she’s done is drive the final nail in the coffin of the James White Parkway extension.” The Tennessee Department of Transportation had planned, for several decades, to connect James White Parkway with Chapman Highway. Though the plan generated lots of opposition in South Knoxville, especially after the completion of the South Loop bike trail, which crossed the projected extension’s prospective route, TDOT seemed determined to revive the road-building plan a year ago, until Rogero, in an unusual defiance of an organization larger and more powerful than the city, nixed it.

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Green development, and the elusive state of sustainability, is a challenge to any city. Air and water pollution, and the conservation of limited resources, is a regional and often a global issue, almost impossible to even address on the micro level. How much can America’s 128th largest city help?

Knoxville’s a very difficult city to get a handle on, environmentally, and it’s partly because it’s not just a city. When Knoxville gets bad rankings in national surveys of air pollution, people think of the city itself, and magazines show images of downtown Knoxville and the Sunsphere, a symbol of an ostensibly ecology-minded World’s Fair, 32 years ago. But Knoxville is also the name of a metropolitan area of about 840,000 people, most of which Rogero and a generally progressive City Council have no authority over, and which is about five times as big as the city. Most of the driving, polluting, and landfill-filling in the Knoxville Metropolitan Area gets done outside Knoxville city limits.

“One city, acting alone, can’t accomplish a great deal,” says Nolt. “But a lot of the environmental programs working right now are at the local and state levels, because of the gridlock in the federal government, and Congress.”

Whenever the larger problems of our damnably big region come up, city officials tend to invoke a project called Plan East Tennessee (PlanET) as the regional effort that might get a handle on all that. The five-county project—Anderson, Blount, Knox, Loudon, and Union—has been holding community meetings across the region in an attempt to identify both values and possible solutions.

The handy relevance of that answer may be fading a little. PlanET was never more than a temporary “visioning process” to begin with, a 30-month project funded with $4.3 million from the Department of Housing and Development. The most active part of it officially ended in December, but the organization is officially still accepting ideas and offers via their website, planeasttn.org, but judging by the activity on the site, they seem to be winding down. Its website doesn’t show much recent activity. (Its Facebook page boasts “392 Likes,” which may not impress some teenagers. And that’s about $11,000 per like.)

But there’s more to it than that. PlanET just this week released their final report, the PlanET Playbook, a wide-ranging bullet-point style report presented partly in the second person, as if to emphasize the necessity of voluntary citizen participation. “YOU can conserve water and energy to put less burden on existing utilities infrastructure.” The Playbook is, for the most part, politely unspecific, but suggests general problems and possible solutions. “Promote Wellness,” they suggest. “Grow More Efficiently. Provide Adequate Infrastructure.”

The report’s full of good ideals. A Growth Concept for the region suggests a few dozen activity centers, from “Rural Crossroads” like Andersonville and Friendsville to “Large Centers”—exactly three of them, downtown Knoxville, downtown Maryville, and the Pellissippi Parkway / I-40 intersection. That last Large Center presents kind of a sprawl-control quandary. About 15 years ago, the prospective unconcentrated development in that general vicinity, like Turkey Creek, was cited as a major city-subsidized contributor to sprawl. But today, there’s no doubt that it’s there, an enormous amount of retail and health-care activity and even residences.

The report’s short definition of Large Centers includes the wording, “Here one would expect to find....premium transit service, such as bus and rapid transit.” But today, the only “Large Center” in metro Knoxville that offers any kind of regular bus service is downtown Knoxville.

“Nearly all of our travel is currently done by automobile, most often by people driving alone,” the report states flatly. That wording’s probably not much affected by a recent report that KAT buses take passengers on 10,600 trips every weekday, resulting in more than 12 million rider-miles per year—or the growing interest in bicycle and pedestrian commuting, which is most obvious to those who spend a lot of time downtown. Though probably several times what it was 20 years ago, the green-commuting minority may still not be big enough to register yet.

A few nudges here and there may get the attention of those who read it, like the prediction that we can expect 300,000 more neighbors in this metro area in the next quarter-century, a rate about twice that of the area’s growth in recent decades. And it points out the fact that “the average household spends 32 percent of their income on transportation”—which, the report doesn’t suggest, is very high compared to the nation at large. The handiest culprit is that most of us live far apart from each other, and our destinations.

But it’s not a report that’ll hurt anybody’s feelings. “Many residents of East Tennessee prefer a more rural or suburban lifestyle,” the report acknowledges cheerfully. “Our shared vision includes continued accommodation of these options, balanced with a host of other lifestyle opportunities...”

Is there any realistic way to deal with us? Despite its celebrations of the rural, East Tennessee is home to well over 2 million people (yes, still more than Middle or West Tennessee), and all of them may have to just acknowledge a paradox: We may be one of the world’s highest concentrations of people who live far apart. It’s been like that for a couple of centuries, perhaps a legacy of the small-farm pattern established in these foothills. And it’s likely nothing short of a catastrophe could budge it much.

The IgCC does recommend some sprawl-abatement measures for new construction that could eventually yield a noticeable effect. But whether Knoxville ever adopts the IgCC or not, the toughest environmental nut to crack, in Knoxville as in most American cities, is also the one that’s already most expensive to its citizens. Knoxville ranks as one of America’s sprawliest metropolitan areas. Sprawl reflects not just how people live, but where they live, and that gets personal.

Chattanooga provides a sobering cautionary tale. About 25 years ago, Chattanooga began touting itself as “the Sustainable City.” It made major progress in solving some very gritty problems, especially in terms of abating pollution and reviving its downtown. Some of Chattanooga’s green initiatives are working very well. Richters says the smaller city downstream boasts four or five times as many LEED-certified green buildings as Knoxville does.

However, one of Chattanooga’s major emphases in the 1990s was getting control of sprawl.

A comprehensive national Smart Growth America study released this month suggests that despite the millions spent and all the documentaries about the city’s initiatives, Chattanooga has made no gains that are obvious enough to show up in national studies. At #207 of 221 metro areas, that progressive-minded city is still one of America’s 20 worst, and worse even than Knoxville, which chimes in at 199.

For the record, Portland, Ore., which has become America’s most famous city in terms of rigorous and sometimes draconian sprawl-abatement strategies, was #80, which has prompted some gnashing of teeth on that coast. Sprawl may be about as easy to cure as cancer.

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Some participants admit they wonder whether PlanET was ever more than a genial regional conversation. Much of it echoes recommendations made up in a larger-scale visioning process, Nine Counties. One Vision., 15 years ago.

PlanET offers no carrots, no sticks, no incentives, no penalties, and doesn’t come with any sustained funding. When we first heard of “visioning,” in the ’90s, it was afoot in Chattanooga, and a major philanthropy was committed to making its recommendations work in the long term, with hundreds of millions of dollars.

But you’ve got to start somewhere. Richters, who has been involved in PlanET, says smaller, more specific organizations are trying to pick up some of the momentum PlanET started with. PlanET’s arguably sensible values may provide heft to mayors and governing boards across the region for some years to come.

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And it’s not wrong to find the green and praise it.

There’s no question Knoxville is a much, much cleaner city, and East Tennessee a cleaner region, than it was 40 years ago, or 80 years ago. In terms of air and water pollution, there’ no comparison to the days when dogwood season was sort of sad. By several accounts, 60 or 70 years ago, when the blooms were at their height, they were gray with soot. People talk about when the Tennessee River had a stench to it that no one wanted to be near.

When did this change happen? It’s hard to point to a date, or to a single hero, but lots of incremental, and mostly undramatic, bits of progress. Environmental advocates, whether they’re at the private or governmental level, often labor in obscurity.

But it’s different now, and better. Progress is possible, even if it’s not at the pace we’d like.

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