Where Does the City Stand in Its Plans to Go Green?

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Alice Dreger for ELi

A mature Norway spruce adorned by East Lansing humans with a face and a birdhouse.

In April 2012, the City of East Lansing adopted a Climate Sustainability Plan to pursue the City’s efforts to go green, and now, a decade later, the Commission on the Environment – originally charged with working in conjunction with several other City departments to complete and evaluate an emissions inventory – is working to update the plan.

This Earth Day, East Lansing Info examines the plan’s history, its successes, and what work remains to be done.

Work on the 2012 Climate Sustainability Plan began 17 years ago, in 2007.

Alongside 1,065 U.S. mayors, the City of East Lansing joined the ranks of the signatories of the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement (CPA) in April 2007 under then-Mayor Sam Singh. 

The CPA is a scheme created by a subgroup of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, representing cities with populations greater than 30,000 that are dedicated to reducing carbon emissions. The CPA outlines goals for carbon emission reduction per the Kyoto Protocol, a 2005 international agreement that urged nations to take action against global warming. 

Although the United States never officially bound itself to the Kyoto Protocol, the scientific conclusions and recommendations that came from it jump-started action for organizations like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, allowing sustainable activities to find their place among local municipalities. 

After signing on to the CPA, the City of East Lansing formed its own Climate Sustainability Plan, which called for improving waste and water management, developing programs to promote energy efficiency, expanding renewable energy, and encouraging non-motorized transport.

While the City’s Climate Sustainability Plan is a living document, the document itself appears to have no updates since its 2012 creation date.

East Lansing’s Environmental Specialist Cliff Walls told ELi over email that “We’ve [the City] explored, made progress, or completed all items,” listed in the U.S. Mayors CPA, which includes increasing rates of recycling, maintaining healthy urban forests, increasing fuel efficiency of the municipal fleet, and more.

But given the more dire warnings over climate change during the last decade, it is hard to determine what arising environmental issues are not getting the attention they deserve in this plan. Walls made clear to ELi that one of the Commission on the Environment’s first steps in maintaining the City’s Climate Sustainability Plan (CSP) is understanding current emissions levels. 

Walls told ELi that the City continues to update its carbon dioxide emissions inventory, first collected in 2007, and that the City is working toward standardizing emissions accounting and reporting in order to work better at a regional level. 

Has the City become more sustainable over the last decade?

In 2021, several ELi readers expressed concern over what they saw as a shrinking tree canopy in the City. Since the City tracks tree canopy changes in five-year cycles, it was hard to determine if the canopy had indeed shrunk. 

ELi was able to verify that 450 trees have been removed in the City between 2017 and 2021, but the City only planted 250 new trees during that time. Then-Environmental Services Administrator Cathy DeShambo told ELi that contractors, developers, and residents had also planted new trees, but the City did not track those.

An East Lansing maple tree in all its fall glory.

Since ELi’s report in July 2021, the City has planted 25 trees, with plans to increase that number to at least 65 after this spring’s Street Trees project, according to Walls. 

As for the City’s green fleet initiative, which ELi examined after the City invoked it to justify the purchase of three 2020 Ford Escape SUV SE Sport Hybrids to be assigned specifically to three workers, the only additional movement on building a sustainable fleet since November 2020 has been to purchase additional hybrid vehicles, such as a hybrid recycling truck.

In regards to other sustainability changes related to transportation, Walls told ELi that the City has been following their non-motorized transportation plan to make East Lansing more welcoming to bicycles, pedestrians, and public transit. 

Walls also pointed out that the City has worked to increase dense, walkable urban areas, such as passing a Clustered Development Plan to encourage making improvements to walkability, trails, and greenspaces. 

As the City works toward a cleaner future, they have made strides by developing a Community Solar Park at Burcham Park, installing a biodigester at the Water Resource Recovery Facility, planning a solar array installation at the Department of Public Works facility, and improving infrastructure to the Woodingham Pump Station, which has increased the efficiency of the system.

Dylan Lees for ELi

The new Woodingham Pump Station just off Harrison Road in East Lansing.

As far as recycling goes, the City has continued to offer curbside and drop-off recycling options, and in 2018, residents have been able to recycle styrofoam. Although the City’s Climate Sustainability Plan calls for expanding composting options and a 2021 survey showed resident interest in that initiative, no City-organized option yet exists. 

The Commission on the Environment has been looking to update the 2009 Green Building Policy for the City. While they continue to await input from the new City Attorney as they settle in, their plan is to incentivize energy efficiency – LEED-like systems according to the U.S. Green Building Council – utilizing facility energy baseline data collected between 2016 and 2019.

Although the Commission on the Environment reviews the Climate Sustainability Plan annually with City Council, the ten year anniversary seems to be spurring more serious considerations. 

Since the beginning of 2022, the plan’s ten year anniversary seems to have a large and looming presence as the Commission has begun making moves to make significant upgrades to the plan for the first time.  

“The plan may need to be updated to reflect recently announced goals and targets from the State in order to best position the City for funding,” Walls told ELi in an email after the Commission on the Environment’s April 19 meeting.

In February of this year, it was decided that the Commission would audit the goals for potential updates and review subcommittee activities to maintain a direction of progress for their goals.

Now, we see the Commission moving to increase community input – “seek[ing] equitable solutions to community climate vulnerabilities.” However, specifics in this direction have not yet found their way into the Commission’s discussions quite yet. 

This year, reviewing the CSP has the Commission busy debating recommendations for use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for sustainability goals or sub-goals that could use the financial boost. 

Gary Caldwell for ELi

This month, City Council approved allocating ARPA funds to install solar panels at the DPW station. Featured above is the Solar Park at Burcham Park.

The Commission left their March meeting with instructions to submit a letter to City Council to propose use of ARPA funds for the following three programs: (1) creation of a “resiliency hub” at Hannah Community Center, (2) revisit the City’s Climate Sustainability Plan with community input, and (3) develop a Green Stormwater Infrastructure Plan to combat flooding.

Other environmentally sustainable plans for ARPA funds recently passed at a City Council meeting in April to improve retention ponds and drains to reduce risk of flooding, replace worn sidewalks, and install a solar field at the Department of Public Works facility. 

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