The Future of Sustainability in Baltimore: An Interview with David O'leary

The Future of Sustainability in Baltimore: An Interview with David O'leary

David O’Leary holds the Energy and Global Warming Chair for the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club. He communicated with Umar Farooq by telephone and e-mail on June 25 and 26, 2008. Umar: What are a few of the environmental issues in Baltimore you see as vital to the city’s future sustainability? David O’Leary: How do we bring everybody along, when some are green and sustainable, and some are still living with toxics and other issues, especially in areas with industrial development? How do we transform the whole city to bring everyone along? The fact that Baltimore County and Baltimore City are so integrated in terms of the way people live: crossing this boundary, people back and forth. it hasn’t been clear to us so far that there has been much cooperation between the county and city . How to improve the transportation network? How do we help people get around and provide more transportation options? There some … long-term plans that provide direction: there’s effort to provide MARC access, and light rail access on the radar screen, but it’s taking a long time, given all the transportation funding are we going to have funding to build large transportation projects in time to meet our needs, or are we going to be chronically behind? The city is spending a lot of money on roads still, and shifting over to transit, not just building expensive Red Line type projects, is needed. A number of other cities have had city offices devoted to the environmental sustainability issue for several decades. Although Baltimore ranks in the top 15 green cities according to the on-line green marketing service SustainLane’s survey, some believe it is late in creating these special positions in its government. Do you have any thoughts on what has changed politically in the last two years to allow the creation of this office? It’s probably true that Baltimore is behind. But how functional have they been? It has been a strong movement in the last few years; while Baltimore is not a leader, it’s not dreadfully far behind either. Governor O’Malley, when he was mayor, had a bunch of challenges, he did some positive things…. Certainly he could have done more. From the environmental perspective, he’s not everyone’s hero, but he did some good things in that role. We are pretty happy now with the establishment of the Office. One of the things we like that is different from other cities is that the Office is independent. Sometimes is in the Parks, Facilities, or Transportation Office, and when they think of sustainability everything goes through that lens. How do feel about the choice of placing the Office of Sustainability in the Department of Planning? I believe that this is a good choice, as it provides an opportunity to see across all of the other functions and departments within the city. However, given the urgency of the problem, it is very important that clear implementation steps are identified, that we don’t spend all the time thinking about and planning for the future. We need to have early successes. Do you feel that the Office of Sustainability is gathering adequate input from the grassroots level? Do you feel grassroots activists have been given enough time, and that the Commission on Sustainability has good representation? These things do take a while. I’d rather see kind of a regular reporting, even if the initial reporting is not as complete as we like, to allow reaction and feedback. If it takes a few rounds, that’s fine, and that’s the reality of the situation. Sustainability isn’t something were you say, “We wrote a plan and implemented a plan, and we are sustainable now.” It’s something we will have to pay attention to … at the city level, at the metropolitan level, at the state level, at the federal level, and in everyone’s personal life and business. It is good that it’s an office, not a task force. Regarding make-up of the Commission, while it is not completely clear from reading the names and affiliations of the members, as they are listed, several are active with the Maryland environmental community, or they are closely coordinating with some of the state environmental groups. It is my hope that, since there are many players at the table including developers, industry, etc., everyone will recognize that this issue is broad, important, and urgent. We need near-term progress and long-term broad-based plans for continuous improvement. If a plan came strictly from environmentalists, then the next step getting buy-in from businesses anyway. From the environmental perspective, I view sustainability to be broader than just environmental sustainability: How are we treating people? How are people being paid? We can focus on water quality, but environmental sustainability is throughout society. Will these “green jobs” provide a living wage? There are efforts underway, like Civic Works, and it’s great. But how do you change from a model of grant-funded and AmeriCorps type positions to a living wage? One of the things of value we will see other jobs I would consider green jobs like architecture and a variety of other things that are already high-paying…. There’s plenty of housing stock in Baltimore that needs to be renovated and updated to make it more green, which is not necessarily a good thing, but everything that comes along with it, like renewable energy water quality, is. Currently, the Office of Sustainability is only accountable to itself, and any document produced from the Commission on Sustainability would constitute a non-binding recommendation to the City Council. Do you feel that this is an adequate degree of accountability, or should some outside group be established to see that policies reflect recommendations arising from the current community dialog? One of the big challenges we have … is how do we change form being a fad, where an office gets funding and writes a report, something else hot comes along and funding goes away. During Green Week Jim Kraft held a hearing … and offered legislation. The Office was just getting to speed and didn’t have formal input, but we will see more engagement between Office and the Council. At the state level, the governor’s Climate Change Commission was established, and they are finishing their final report now. They don’t craft the legislation, but they lay out a plan: “Here’s the overall goal we want to accomplish, and things we need to do to get there, and here are legislative approaches we need to take.” The reality is, the mayor, the council, the other departments and agencies are going to have to buy into any recommendation to be successful…. If we are going to legislation, the City Council would be the place that’s going to happen. Many of the issues the working groups want to deal with depend heavily on cooperation from the private sector. For example, only a small percentage of the land in local watersheds is owned by Baltimore City, the vast majority of it is owned by private entities in Baltimore City and the surrounding counties. How strong do you think any future legislation would have to be in order to regulate the private sector on issues like water quality? The challenge is how to develop programs that are mandates or incentives that are going to be effective to implement these things…. Having the private sector involved early on designed. So we are going see useful outcomes at the end, not programs that are never going to be implemented. If we are successful it will not only affect the quality of life in a positive way, but how people live life.