GreenTown: The Future of Community | Creating Healthy, Sustainable Communities

Interview with Cleveland Director of Sustainability


Now five years old, Sustainable Cleveland is half way to achieving its ten-year plan to engage people to work together to create a “thriving and resilient” Cleveland. Its goal: to transform Cleveland to a bright green city of a blue lake. Driven by Mayor Frank Jackson, Sustainable Cleveland focuses on four foundational categories of a sustainable economy: Personal and Social Environment; Natural Environment; Built Environment and Business Environment. Each of these foundations, according to the Sustainable Cleveland web site, has priority areas being addressed by strategy and action within City government and in the greater Sustainable Cleveland community. 

GreenTown spoke with Matt Gray, director of sustainability for the City of Cleveland, about the progress made to date in Cleveland and the work ahead.

What’s a typical day like for you?

There isn’t one.  We work across the spectrum of sustainability topics: energy, land use, transportation, local food, etc. We work in policy. Develop programs. Work on individual projects. Convene groups of people.

We also work closely internally with city operations. We have more than 150 buildings and a large fleet, so a lot of what we do is lead by example by working with capital projects, public safety, public utilities,the airport, and other City departments. Then we do the larger community work.

We are convening a larger conversation. We lead. We participate. We do a lot to get the word out. We had a quarterly event recently in Great Lakes Brewing, and we have these annual summits in September that bring together hundreds of people to work together and make progress on a variety of issues. We also have celebration years in which we shine a light on sustainability topics. 2011 was energy efficiency, for example. 2012 was local food. Last year was zero waste and 2015 is the year of clean water. We have over 30 organizations working regionally working on water issues. We are developing a Cleveland tree plan, which Davey Tree has been hired to help write. We need a unified vision of planting and maintaining trees.

We have already gotten two grants to plant 1,300 trees. We have seen the community coalesce around trees because they provide tons of benefits, such as increasing property values, improving human health, reducing heat island effect, retaining stormwater, and creating community cohesion.

Another example is Solarize Cleveland, which is a one-stop shop for residents and small businesses to put solar on their roof. If you reside or work in Northeast Ohio you can get a free assessment at and receive discounts on installation. Financing opportunities are also available. The third thing example of work we are doing is kicking off the Cleveland Climate Action Fund. This Fund, in tandem with neighborhood workshops, will be used to create projects at the neighborhood level that build off a community’s strengths and help address its concerns, while alsoreducing Cleveland’s carbon footprint. We’ll be doing that in at least six neighborhoods in 2015.

What successes have you achieved so far?

A lot has been done. We have had over 30 volunteer working groups since we started. Eight turned into independent organizations. That bottom up leadership is critical and necessary. We only have seven people in our office, so we need everyone working together to meet the goals in the Climate Action Plan.

What we need to work on is scaling up. The community has implemented successful pilots throughout the city across the full spectrum of sustainability. But how do we replicate those projects? Solar is a great example of that. There is a lot of great solar projects in the city but it’s not at the scale we need. Bike transportation is another area. We’re ramping up. We added 13 more miles in the last year and plan to add more than that in 2015.

Zero waste is another example. We need to get the word out and scale it up. Our curbside recycling program has been rolling out the last few years, and will be completed in 2015. Every resident will have it in the city. Now we need to make sure every resident knows how to use it, and that businesses and apartment building owners take more of a leadership role in making recycling available, even with relatively low tipping fees. We as a community need to do a lot of education.

One success we have had is with our events. The last two summits have been zero waste events. Earthfest followed suit in 2014, managing to create only seven bags of trash for a 10,000 person event. We‘re getting a zero waste event guide together. PNC Bank went zero waste downtown and rolling it out to more buildings. It’s not rocket science, but you need that leadership from that CEO, building owner, community leader, and so on. Any behavior change takes time.

The issues you’re talking about are global, and regional collaboration can help drive long-term change. How do you feel about moving ahead as a region?

The timing of GreenTown is great.  The next two years we are focused on water and mobility, and both are regional issues, so GreenTown’s regional focus is timely. Water is largely a watershed issue. It’s not marked by city boundaries.

While we can do a lot in the city to make progress on transportation, at its heart transportation challenges require some level of regional collaboration. Public transit can’t be transportation of last resort. How do we make it easier to use? Car sharing, bike sharing, walkability and public transit–it has to be integrated or it won’t fully succeed. Some of it has been done but there is a lot of opportunity.

We all need to be engaged systematically.


Four years in to executing the 2019 plan, where do you think you are?

My hunch is that we’re moving up. Most work in Cleveland has at least some tie to economic development. The Climate Action Plan has 33 actions, each of which are also economic drivers. It’s good for the environment, good for people, but it has an economic driver. We want to create a place where people want to move, to locate their business. It’s all about creating a sustainable economy.

In terms of population growth, downtown is growing and occupancy rates are upper 90 percent. More condos and buildings are being built, and others renovated. Detroit Shoreway, Tremont, Ohio City, St. Clair Superior, Collinwood and others are making strides, and doing so in a sustainable fashion.

The positive momentum is greater than we have had in a long time, yet there are a lot of neighborhoods that still need investment. Trees can help. Energy efficiency and renewable energy will help. Complete streets, or streets that are friendly for walkers, bikers, transit and cars, will help. We have seen many positive trends but there is so much more work to do.



For more information on Cleveland 2019, visit