The City of Orlando is uniquely positioning itself to be a leader in a comprehensive approach to urban sustainability.
By Michael Candelaria
In 2007, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer vowed to “transform Orlando into one of the most environmentally friendly, economically and socially vibrant communities in the nation.”
Less than five years ago, Chris Castro arrived as the city of Orlando director of sustainability. Castro was a proven performer in the field, self-described as part eco-entrepreneur, part urban farmer and part evangelist for “smart” ways of doing things. Mostly, Castro was a person deemed by Dyer as particularly capable of elevating the city’s sustainability efforts.
As the calendar continues to move through 2018, their visions have become a reality. On the national landscape — perhaps even globally — Orlando has emerged as a leader.
“I think Orlando is undoubtedly a leader in sustainability efforts,” Castro asserted in late January.
More than a decade ago, as Dyer made his transformation vow, he launched Green Works Orlando, centered on the concepts of promotion, education and encouragement around municipal sustainability. An appropriate title for the effort’s Q1 2018 report could be Tangible Results Are Widely Evident.
In December 2017, Orlando’s goals for renewable energy and fuels gained significant traction with the dedication of the Orlando Utilities Commission’s Kenneth P. Ksionek Community Solar Farm at the Stanton Energy Center in east Orange County. More than 37,500 solar panels are located atop a byproduct landfill on land once designated for a future coal plant. Spread across 24 acres, the panels are capable of generating nearly 13-megawatts of energy — enough to power 2,100 homes.
Months earlier, Dyer had added his name to the Mayors for 100% Clean Energy Initiative and brought a resolution to City Council to secure our commitment. The effort, coordinated by the Sierra Club, represents a commitment by cities toward the use of renewable fuels, principally solar power.
Orlando has targeted that by 2030, municipal operations will be run entirely from renewable sources. At present, the City has procured 5.2 megawatts of solar energy that provides 100 percent of power at Orlando City Hall, the Orlando Police headquarters and 17 fire stations.
By virtue of a 2017 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Orlando’s Parramore community now has its first farmers market (every Saturday morning) along with a burgeoning new food system that encompasses local food production that utilizes community gardens and urban farms, even including homeowner lawn space.
“We’re creating a ‘food oasis,’” said Castro. “The idea is to grow the food, sell the food and teach the community how to cook the food into healthy meals. This will hopefully solve some of the health and wellness challenges in that community.” Notably, among those partners is Fleet Farming, an urban agriculture program of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit IDEAS For Us that Castro cofounded several years ago.
“The idea is to grow the food, sell the food and teach the community how to cook the food into healthy meals. This will hopefully solve some of the health and wellness challenges in that community.”
– Chris Castro
Orlando has been selected as the pilot site for U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Beyond 34: Recycling and Recovery for a New Economy. The project aims to increase the current national recycling rate of 34 percent. Orlando’s goal, according to Dyer, is to become a zero-waste city by 2040.
“We’re making significant strides toward that commitment by providing our residents and businesses with the tools and strategies necessary to divert more waste from our landfills, including offering weekly recycling collection, quarterly e-waste drives, free backyard composters to residents, and a commercial food waste collection program that is diverting millions of pounds of organic waste per year,” Dyer commented.
In terms of recycling, during 2017 more than 43,720 pounds of recyclables were diverted from Orlando landfills.
Those efforts coincide with the work of Keep Orlando Beautiful, a program administered by the city of Orlando’s Streets and Stormwater Division of the Public Works Department (an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, a national nonprofit organization). Chief components include education programs, public space and event recycling bin implementation, as well as community cleanup and beautification events.
“Our mission is to engage people, engage citizens and business owners to do their part — help keep Orlando clean, green and beautiful,” said Jody Buyas, coordinator of the Keep Orlando Beautiful program.
While Keep Orlando Beautiful has been part of the city’s efforts for approximately 30 years, activities have never been more focused than under Dyer’s direction and committed resources, Buyas added.
As an example, EnviroScape is an interactive, hands-on educational and communication tool used for stormwater education, incorporating a 3-D model landscape that illustrates possible sources of water pollution. Although effective for all ages, young students gain the chance to learn how their actions affect the water in a typical community.
Similarly, the Stop the Poo-llution Campaign is designed to educate about pet waste issues, mostly the effects on water of left-behind pet waste. Orlando has more than 104 named bodies of water, and many neighborhoods are situated on or around our beautiful lakes.
Another example: Keep Orlando Beautiful’s Adopt-A-Street Program encompasses litter prevention through volunteer participation by residents and neighborhoods. Volunteer groups are responsible for cleaning their adopted street at least six times throughout an agreement year.
Regarding transportation, Orlando (and Central Florida) has been designated an Automated Vehicle Proving Ground by the U.S. Department of Transportation. This makes the region one of the nation’s premier clusters for research and development of automated vehicle technology across all modes of travel. Regional partners span academic institutions, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida Polytechnic University, plus others like the Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, the Central Florida Expressway, Lynx and NASA/Kennedy Space Center.
Along those same lines, Orlando sits in the middle of the massive I-4 Ultimate project, which has won the Envision Platinum recognition from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure for its environmental, economic and social sustainability efforts. The 21-mile project, a $2.3 billion public-private partnership that encompasses a multiyear makeover of Interstate 4 (south Orange County through downtown Orlando to Seminole County) is among the largest projects to receive such an ISI salute.
Orlando is seeking to be smart, too. A Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge grant afford Orlando and Orange County to develop a comprehensive smart city roadmap, essentially combining sustainability initiatives with the technology industry to “continue positioning Orlando as an innovative and attractive place to live, work, play and raise a family in the 21st century,” said Castro.
The roadmap, he adds, will be directed toward enhancing the visitor experience while improving safety and reducing congestion, including the integration of sensors and advanced communications systems into public safety programs. “As a global tourist destination,” Castro noted, “we also hope to showcase a range of smart cities solutions that can be a model for other cities around the world.”
Not coincidentally, Castro touts a holistic approach for Orlando that differs from others.
While many cities are “doing amazing work” around specific aspects of sustainability, Orlando is “really looking at this challenge as an opportunity in a comprehensive way,” Castro said, adding that Orlando has “uniquely positioned itself to be a leader in a comprehensive approach to urban sustainability.”
“We’re not just targeting one initiative,” Castro concluded. “We’re really simultaneously implementing things around energy, green building, local food, livability, transportation, solid waste and water resources. And we’re driving a green economy that will be everlasting into the 21st century.”