NLC’s City Showcase Program Prizes Innovation in Green Cities

February 13, 2012
by Sandi Burtseva

The City Showcase exhibition, held annually at NLC's Congress of Cities and Exposition, highlights some of the most successful and creative programs from cities and towns across the country.

Winning programs represent a wide range of geographical locations, city sizes and topic areas, and are selected for their innovative practices. In 2011, the 24 City Showcase participants highlighted the Congress of Cities' concurrent conference topics: infrastructure, green cities, economic development and your city's families. Below are the six green cities programs featured in the 2011 City Showcase. [See the February 6 and January 30 issues of Nation's Cities Weekly for descriptions of the six infrastructure and six economic development programs featured at the showcase.]

Virtual Supermarket - Baltimore

The Virtual Supermarket Program allows low-income residents with limited access to supermarkets, vehicles and the Internet to place and receive grocery orders at their local library without paying a delivery fee. Residents place orders at Virtual Supermarket sites - or from any computer - and receive their groceries weekly at the library or elementary school in their neighborhood. Residents can pay with cash, credit, debit or EBT (food stamps).

About 20 percent of Baltimore City is a food desert, which means that 20 percent of the residents - a little over 100,000 people - do not have access to healthy and affordable foods. Luckily, libraries throughout Baltimore are located centrally within neighborhoods, allowing most people using the Virtual Supermarket program to travel less than a quarter mile to the pick-up site.

The program is operated in conjunction with independent grocery store Santoni's. While Santoni's already had an online ordering infrastructure in place, the local grocer agreed to waive both the $50 minimum order and the payment-upon-ordering requirement, allowing the Virtual Supermarket to become the only program in the country that uses online ordering while accepting food stamps. Since it is illegal to enter EBT card numbers online, the program allows residents to pay upon receipt of delivery, swiping their cards at the site.

The program "take[s] the already existing technology of online food ordering, but applies it in a low-income population," explained Baltimore Program Coordinator Laura Fox. Virtual Supermarkets provide healthy food demonstrations on-site and give shoppers a $10 coupon toward healthy food purchases with every fourth order.

To date, the Virtual Supermarker has facilitated more than 700 orders from 150 different people, totaling $26,000 worth of groceries. The program started in two library sites, and has now expanded into a third, as well as into an elementary school. Organizers plan on moving into public housing and senior buildings next.

Active Living Rochester - Rochester, Minn.

In 2007, Rochester's "Active Community Planning" initiative brought rarely represented stakeholders in land use and transportation policy discussions to the table. The interdisciplinary partnership that developed, Active Living Rochester - which includes the Rochester-Olmsted Planning Department, Rochester Public Works, Olmsted County Public Health and a grassroots organization within Mayo Clinic known as Healthy Living Rochester, devoted to supporting cardiovascular health in the community - continues to collaborate in supporting physical activity in daily routine and community design.

"What we've done is try to marry the interests of public health and physical activity into how our communities are designed and built and maintained. And so our effort is really focused on supporting safer walking, bicycling and transit use in our community," said Rochester Senior Planner/Coordinator Mitzi Baker.

Transit plays a key part in this program, since people who use public transit get more walking in their day by virtue of short walk trips to and from their transit stops and destinations.

Through the program, Rochester focuses on preventing heart disease and other health concerns associated with a sedentary lifestyle. The city aims to foster an environment where people will naturally choose to walk, bike and use transit as a part of their daily routine, building exercise that facilitates heart health into the structure of their day.

Thus far, Active Living Rochester has facilitated changes in the city's public infrastructure, specifically how the city is building and treating its streets. Streets are becoming friendlier for bicyclists with the addition of bike lanes. The program promotes biking not only as recreation, but as a viable mode of transportation. Pedestrian areas, especially crossings at intersections, have also been improved.

The program's most recent campaign - "See. Safe. Smart. Rochester." - aims to build a culture of support, tolerance and mutual respect around different types of transportation and mobility.

"Our goal is to have an environment where it is safe and convenient for people to choose walking, biking and transit, whether they are on foot or using a mobility aid, and whether they are 90 years old or 9 years old," Baker explained.

Solar Beaverton - Beaverton, Ore.

The Solar Beaverton program is a community program designed to produce renewable energy in the community, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, simplify the process of installing solar, create jobs, support local contractors and manufacturers, educate the community about solar and help residents take advantage of state and federal financial incentives.

The program began with a pilot project aimed at gauging the interest of Beaverton residents in installing solar panels on their homes, wherein Beaverton partnered with a company called Solar City to create a set standard, a set price and a set process for installing solar. In that initial stage, Beaverton also sought out state and federal tax credits, which reduced the price of solar panel installations by about 80 percent.

In exceeding its goal of installing solar panels on 50 Beaverton homes by an additional 12, the pilot program demonstrated community interest in solar energy. The program was then expanded to the whole city.

When designing the citywide program, Beaverton hosted a competitive bidding process before choosing Livelight Energy solar installation. The company, itself local, also uses locally manufactured solar panels from Solarworld, one of the largest employers in Washington County, where Beaverton is located. The program exceeded its projected 220 solar panels installed for a total of 238.

Beaverton was able to spend very little money - only about $19,000 on staff and $10,000 on marketing - on the program simply by setting criteria and price, in exchange for endorsement of a particular vendor. Nonetheless, the payoff is significant. In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the community carbon footprint, the project generated 13 local jobs and more than $54,000 in revenues for the city's permitting department.

Alternative Fuel Vehicle - Kansas City, Mo.

The Alternative Fuel Vehicle Program focuses on cleaner domestic alternative fuels and alternative fuel vehicles, fuel blends, idle reduction and general fuel economy improvements in the city's fleet of vehicles and mobile equipment. The program's main alternative fuel is compressed natural gas (CNG) with more than 250 CNG vehicles in operation. Every year, the program displaces more than 500,000 gallons of conventional gasoline and diesel. The city currently operates five CNG stations and virtually all of its 3,000 vehicles use an alternative fuel or fuel blend.

The program began in 1997, when the difference between gasoline and diesel vehicles and the alternatives was vast, allowing the city to make significant improvements to air quality by switching to alternative fuels - primarily CNG. Although the city has looked into electric vehicles, and purchased one to be used by the parks and recreation department for tree trimming, their battery range and charging time remain a prohibitive factor for the city fleet.

"Natural gas is still the cleanest commercially available fuel for fleets like ours," explained Kansas City Fleet Administrator Sam Swearngin. "And this fiscal year ... we're on track to save about $1 million."

Kansas City is currently considering privatizing its compressed natural gas fueling stations in order to make the benefits that the city is enjoying available to citizens. "Again, natural gas is a great transportation fuel: It's domestic, it's cleaner, and it's cheaper," Swearngin said.

Clean Energy Works - Portland, Ore.

Clean Energy Works Portland (CEWP), a pilot program developed by the City of Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS), tested whether residents would be more likely to make energy efficiency upgrades to their homes when offered a comprehensive package of services and benefits. The program features low-cost, long-term financing to cover the upfront costs, assistance from an independent expert advisor and the convenience of repaying the monthly loan obligation through their utility bill.

CEWP started in the summer of 2009 with the goal of making energy efficiency improvements to 500 homes in the Portland area. The program began by identifying about 20 highly qualified, pre-certified contractors in the Portland region, who were pre-approved by the city to take the guesswork out of that process. Portland also paired with lending partner Enterprise Cascadia, who provided residents up to $20,000 in financing. Finally, the city paired homeowners with energy advisors to give individual guidance regarding what upgrades to make.

When a homeowner signed up for CEWP, they were pre-approved for the project and the loan. Once approved, they received a four-hour energy assessment in their home with both the contractor and the energy advisor. The residents were presented with a bid and made choices in what they wanted to upgrade in their home. The loan covered the full upfront cost, and once the work was complete, residents repaid the loan over 20 years, always through their heating/utility bill, saving them the hassle of having to write another monthly check. Moreover, energy savings from the efficiency upgrades helped offset the cost.

The pilot program exceeded its goals with more than 500 homes receiving energy remodels by the time it ended February 2011. CEWP paved the way for a "high-road" approach to creating green jobs: Portland required contractors to pass an eligibility screening based on their workforce and the ownership of their contracting firm, giving priority to women- and minority-owned firms, as well as firms that worked with underserved populations or veterans.

Based on the success of CEWP, the federal government awarded a $20 million grant to expand the program throughout Oregon. That effort launched in March 2011, and Clean Energy Works Oregon is now serving seven different counties, with a goal of performing energy remodels on 6,000 Oregon homes in the next three years.

Green Riverside - Riverside, Calif.

The City of Riverside, working with its municipal utility and a committee of interested citizens, solidified the city as a leader in clean and green practices and an innovative, sustainable urban center. The Green Action Plan maps out strategies for the city and its residents to work together on issues such as energy, greenhouse gas emissions, waste, urban design, urban nature, transportation, water and healthy communities.

Green Riverside was created in response to residents' need for a clearinghouse of information that could be used to very quickly and easily find out about green activities and events, ranging from solar projects to rebates from the utility department. The city, conversely, needed engagement and participation from residents.

Finding typical government websites difficult to navigate, project designers took care to make the Green Riverside website more consumer-oriented and user friendly. Residents can not only find out about green programs or neighborhood green events, but also post their own. The site boasts many interactive features - including a map of the green projects and events throughout the city - as well as plenty of dynamic content, such as videos. It is also connected to all social media outlets - Twitter, Facebook and YouTube - and provides an RSS news and events feed.

"The website was designed to communicate what we're doing, but also hear from the community about what they're doing, and I think we've achieved that," said Riverside Assistant General Manager and Sustainability Officer Michael Bacich.