Nashville Welcomes All Its Rowdy Friends

City Plans to Reduce Emissions Despite Explosive Growth

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Megan Barry is mayor of Nashville, Tenn.

Erin Hafkenshiel is director of transportation and sustainability in the mayor's office, Metro Nashville.

Sharon Smith is special projects manager at Metro Nashville Public Works.

Laurel Creech is assistant director of sustainability, Metro Nashville General Services.

Posted: Wednesday, July 5, 2017 12:18 pm

Like the country music that made it famous, the city of Nashville, Tenn., has been through some changes in recent years.

Just as the “Nashville sound” of Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline gradually gave way to the more raucous and glitzy contemporary country music of Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift, so has the city itself gone from a quiet little town of less than 180,000 in 1960 to one of the fastest growing urban centers in the South, now with more than 650,000 people and an estimated 85 to 100 more arriving every day.

Add 13 million tourists per year, and “Music City, U.S.A.” begins to look a little less country and a little more rock ‘n’ roll.

“Everyone jokes that Nashville five years ago was a 20-minute town,” said Erin Hafkenshiel, director of transportation and sustainability. “You could get anywhere you wanted to go in 20 minutes; and that is definitely no longer the case. We’re starting to see a lot more congestion and longer commute times as we grow,” she said.

As the traffic has increased, so has the pace of development, the volume of waste and the emitting of greenhouse gases. In Nashville’s entertainment district, it has also meant more honky-tonk bars and a lot more long-neck bottles.

The Nashville Business Journal reported that in the city’s previous fiscal year Metro Public Works collected a record 12.53 million pounds of garbage in the entertainment district alone, almost 80 percent more than five years ago. The department estimates glass bottles make up 65 to 70 percent of that waste stream.

“Glass beer bottles are a staple at the honky-tonks,” said Sharon Smith, special projects manager at Metro Public Works. “I’ve tried to talk to folks down there about switching to draft beer, and that has been a non-starter,” she said. “It’s a cultural thing with the honky-tonks. So, we’re going to start a honky-tonk glass bottle recycling program later this year. We’re in the process of purchasing the equipment right now, and that program will divert thousands upon thousands, probably millions of bottles that currently are going to landfill.”

The city’s restaurants are also generating more food waste than ever before. Earlier this year, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry initiated the Mayor’s Food Saver Challenge with the support of 21 of the city’s most illustrious chefs and restaurants. The program trained and challenged the restaurants to measure their food waste, set a reduction target, and work to reach that target over a three-month period. The challenge was part of a larger Nashville Food Waste Initiative, a pilot program begun in 2015 through a partnership with the James Beard Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One of the food venues involved in the project was the Country Music Hall of Fame, which “over the three months of the challenge diverted through composting about 28,000 pounds of food waste and donated 7 or 8 thousand pounds of reusable food,” Smith said. “It was really exciting to hear the chefs say how much they had learned through this program. We’re just trying to remove barriers so there are options out there for food waste.”

Nashville has also been recognized for its green building policy, which requires new municipal buildings to meet LEED-Silver standards or better. In June, the city received a 2017 Governor’s Environmental Stewardship Award for building the state’s first LEED-Platinum certified fire station. In all, the Metro Nashville Department of General Services has 21 LEED-certified facilities, said Laurel Creech, assistant director of sustainability.

Still, Nashville’s latest greenhouse gas inventory showed emissions heading in the wrong direction. Although per-capita emissions have gone down a bit, efforts to keep its emissions below its overall growth trajectory have fallen short so far. Creech said setting a good example and encouraging green behavior with a concerted outreach and education campaign is a big part of Nashville’s strategy, but officials know they have to get more creative, especially when state and federal politics get in the way.

“We have such a very, very, very conservative state government that if we tried to mandate on a local level they would definitely intervene,” she said. So, the city has to work harder than most to build partnerships and appeal to the public’s natural tendencies toward economic, environmental and social sustainability.

While the city of Nashville has been a Democratic stronghold since the end of Reconstruction, the Tennessee General Assembly and executive branch have been overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans in recent years. It’s an understatement to say the two parties have different ideas about how to deal with the threat of climate change.

Rules regulating the regional electric grid give Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) exclusive rights to power generation, making it illegal for local power companies, or any third-party provider, to distribute renewable energy. This makes large-scale renewable energy generation a rarity in the region, Hafkenshiel said. But, the city has recently partnered with TVA, Nashville Electric Service (NES) and The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to launch Music City Solar, the city’s first community solar program. The 2MW solar array is expected to generate approximately 2.8 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, which is enough to meet the average annual energy needs of 210 households, according to NES. The system is expected to start generating solar power by spring 2018, and Hafkenshiel said the city has a goal of reserving one-third of that power for low-income residents through donations administered by the community foundation.

Hafkenshiel said residents will be allowed to “subscribe” to one of the array’s 5,966 solar panels for 20 years and any power generated by that panel will be automatically deducted from their electric bill each month.

“We think once we get this 2MW solar farm up and fully subscribed, there will be opportunities for more. So, we’ll push that path as far as we can take it, Hafkenshiel said.

Finding paths to push has been especially perilous since the contentious election of U.S. President Donald Trump. After Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement in late May, Nashville’s Mayor Barry was quick to join more than 300 of her peers in vowing to meet the goals of the historic accord anyway.

"The United States of America should be a global leader in addressing the dire impact of climate change on our civilization, and it is very disappointing that President Trump does not see that," Barry said in a statement. "As a member of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, I am committed to meeting the goals of the Paris agreement by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and working with corporations and citizens to do the same, even if the President is not. There's too much at stake for cities not to lead on this issue, and Nashville will," she promised.

In April 2016, Barry organized a Livable Nashville Committee comprised of leaders from Nashville’s public, private, environmental, academic, and philanthropic sectors. Earlier this year, the committee released its draft recommendations across five focus areas: Climate and Energy, Green Buildings, Waste Reduction and Recycling, Mobility, and Natural Resources.

“There’s been a long history of caring for environmental issues in Nashville, and we want to make sure that we continue to grow in a way that is sustainable and preserves the quality of life and the unique character of Nashville that people know and love,” Hafkenshiel said in explaining why the city’s sustainability plan focuses on livability.

“A lot of low-hanging fruit came out of the Livable Nashville process,” said Hafkenshiel. She said improving energy efficiency in the city’s low-income housing stock is a key example.

“Tennessee just adopted the 2008 energy code in February of this year, and we were the last state to do that,” Hafkenshiel said. She said in many areas of the state these codes have been viewed as optional, and as a result many impoverished residents of Davison County spend as much as 26 percent of their income on utility bills. “So, there’s just a tremendous amount of opportunity for us to begin ensuring that our low-income housing is being built to at least the energy code, if not better, and then retrofitting homes to lower utility bills.”

Hafkenshiel said NES is planning to enhance its “round-up” program, where ratepayers have the option to round their monthly bills up to the nearest dollar and donate that amount to help increase the energy efficiency of low-income housing. The utility will convert its existing program from an “opt-in” to an “opt-out” model, meaning that ratepayers who currently have to take action to participate in the program will now be automatically enrolled and must take action to opt out. She said other Tennessee cities that have made this conversion have seen participation rates grow from about 5 percent to more than 60 percent.

Davidson County, which has a consolidated government with the city of Nashville, no longer has its own landfill, so Hafkenshiel said all the county’s trash is trucked to a landfill near Murfreesboro, 34 miles away. For that reason, diverting waste from the landfill is one of the city’s top priorities.

The Livable Nashville committee has recommended increasing the city's landfill-diversion rate to 35 percent by 2020; 50 percent by 2030; and all the way to zero waste by 2050. Smith said the public works department is now in the process of developing a 30-year solid waste plan that will attempt to achieve the committee's vision.

Nashville is proud of its tree canopy, which at 47 percent is among the best in the nation. But, development in the city’s core has caused significant tree loss in recent years, Hafkenshiel said, and a new campaign has been launched to strengthen the city’s tree ordinance and stop net tree-loss by 2020, adding 500,000 new trees by 2050. That would increase the overall canopy to 50 percent, she said.

Nashville is also investing $500,000 in matching grants to help private-sector investors conserve, restore, and sustainably manage public and private lands throughout Davidson County. And, in March, the Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation officially adopted Plan to Play, its parks and greenways master plan, which calls for adding more than 4,500 acres of new park land and 53 miles of new greenways over the next 10 years.

Hafkenshiel said, “There is a big equity focus in this plan,” which commits to developing a park within one-half mile (a 10-minute walk) of everyone living within the urban core of the city.

Nashville may not be a “20-minute town” again any time soon, but Hafkenshiel said the city sees sustainable mobility as one of its highest priorities. The mayor’s Moving the Music City plan, updated in May, is a three-year transportation strategy that lays out a vision for an improved bus system, more sidewalks, new bikeways, a car-sharing program, synchronized traffic signals and a new light rail system, among other initiatives.

Hafkenshiel will be featured in a free 1-hour webinar hosted by Sustainable City Network on Aug. 3. To attend live or download a recording of the event later, visit http://sCityNetwork.com/Nashville.

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