Years ago—long before cities had sustainability departments–I had a friend in Washington who was so upset about idling vehicles that she made pink slips of paper, which looked like city tickets, and slipped them on the offenders’ windshields. She’d be happy to know that some cities are now punishing idlers—with real tickets. In Salt Lake City, for example, the mayor’s office has proposed an idle free ordinance that would be a city-wide prohibition of idling more than two minutes.
The city’s sustainability director, Vicki Bennett, told me yesterday that Salt Lake is also starting to look at climate adaptation, which means finding solutions for a climate that is still changing and affecting cities, no matter how much we try to reduce greenhouse gasses. Excerpts of our conversation are below.
Overall, how is Salt Lake City doing with sustainability initiatives?
Sustainability-wise, really well. When I compare ourselves to other cities, the big difference is that maybe we don’t have the advertising budget.
How long have you been in this position?
The sustainability director’s position has been in place almost two years, but I’ve been with the city for 10 years. I started as the environmental manager. It’s been a step-by-step process, starting with things like recycling programs, water quality and water conservation. We did simple things like changed the light bulbs in City Hall and saved $33,000 a year in electric expenses.
You just came back from the Urban Sustainability Directors Network conference in Boston. What did you learn?
We talked about specific issues, but also things along the lines of climate adaptation. We compared how our offices are set up, what works the best, how you can fund a sustainability division, how to show the benefits, how to educate the public on what you’re doing, what’s working, what isn’t.
What did you bring home that you’d like to implement?
One thing we want to do more solid thinking about is climate adaptation. There’s talk about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which is nice because you save energy and save money. But greenhouse gases are still going up and weather patterns are changing, so we need to do what is essentially risk management.
Look at all the potential climate scenarios in the future, and say, OK, if we have this much temperature change, it will translate to this much reduction in snow, which means a reduction in water. So we think about where else we can go for water. But it’s not just water, it’s also air quality. So maybe we need to think of programs to get people to drive less.
What climate changes have you already noticed?
We’re having a shorter [winter] season on average,. Our ski industry is really worried.
Are Salt Lake residents responsive to new sustainability programs?
Yes. The Salt Lake public is very progressive. They’re usually the ones asking for it.
What have they asked for?
Glass recycling has always been on the top of their list. We’ve tried to get it into our mixed recycling. But we looked at cities that had it, and they said don’t go there, because if the glass breaks then glass shards get into the white paper. So instead we were able to come up with a bunch of glass drop-off locations.
They’ve also asked for an idling ordinance. If you idle more than two to three minutes, you’d be ticketed after one warning. It’s interesting how many cities already have that. In that case, you really do have a health issue.
How bad is your traffic?
In most places it’s not horrendous. The problem we do have is that about two-thirds of the air pollution is coming from vehicles. So that’s where we need to cut back. We don’t have any big smokestacks to point at anymore. We have one copper mine, but they’ve done some major revisions. You can always do more, but we’re at the point where we need to look at cars. We’ll have to look at incentives for people not to drive as much, which is harder because you’re looking at individual habits.
I had a delegation from the Ukraine in this morning to talk about issues. They said, “Can’t you just [schedule] odd and even days for driving for vehicles?” I wish it was that easy.
Yeah, other countries do that, and it seems to work. I think it would be very difficult here. Have you had success making other difficult changes?
There’s an education process, no matter what you do. We started with everyone having a 90-gallon recycling bin, and at first they didn’t know what to do with such a big bin, but then people started recycling. Now we are in the process of distributing 90-gallon bins for yard waste. We’ll collect it and take it to the composting facility to make mulch, which residents then buy. Some of them are complaining about having this new bin.
No matter what you do, there will be people who can’t handle the change as well as others. But in general, we try to get it to the public through our website and get them to comment and see what the overall trends are.
Where would you like to be a year from now?
I’d like to get a more complete sustainability plan—get the goals more entrenched in day-to-day operations. And start to look at the climate adaptation stuff. We’re realizing that we’re going to have to start paying attention to the changes in the climate.
What are other cities doing on the sustainability front? Find out here: