Friday, June 11, 2010

For Local Businesses, the Future of Richmond is Green

Listen to the full story here.

Nearly 30 local businesses and organizations banded together last weekend, featuring everything from local cafes to companies offering free estimates to retrofit your house with solar panels, the one thing they all had in common was obvious: sustainability. They were participating in the city's “Sustainable Richmond” event, held at Gallery 5, where local businesses with a knack for going green gathered to not only demonstrate their wears, but discuss the environmentally conscious and sustainable future of Richmond.

The City of Richmond made a progressive move towards sustainability in March of this year, when Mayor Dwight Jones appointed Alicia Zatcoff as the city’s sustainability manager. The position is the first of its kind for the City of Richmond and was created in part by a grant from the federal government.

“Well I think, you know over all the purpose of having this position is to focus on developing initiatives that support the sustainability priorities for Richmond, which are to help improve the quality of life for our residents and to create a healthy environment and to enhance the economic development and job creation opportunities. So we’re taking a holistic approach to the word, the term ‘sustainability’.”

One of these initiatives was the release of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory. Zatcoff said that the report found and compiled data for the City of Richmond and assessed the amount of greenhouse gases the city is releasing. This report card of sustainability can be used to grade future sustainability efforts.

“For the City of Richmond we’re emitting close to 3 million metric tons equivalent of carbon dioxide. So now that we have our baseline we want to figure out, well how do we reduce that?”

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key for the future of an overall sustainable city. Spach Trahan works for the Partnership for Smarter Growth, who participated in “Sustainable Richmond” and is a local non-profit that advocates for the smart growth of cities. Trahan says that while Richmond has the potential to dramatically reduce its emissions via public transit, limited access to outlying counties has proven to be a disconnect between the metro and suburban areas.

“A lot of times it’s like, well it’s either not cost effective for them to buy a bus pass, just because they might need to drive to the next stop, so what’s the point, or there just aren’t any available and that’s what we’re seeing a lot is that it’s just not reaching far enough to meet the needs of the region.”
Sustainability also means denser cities and metro areas with less sprawl and outward movement of towns. Trahan notes that while GRTC is mostly efficient and reliable within the city limits, already established outlying counties are being forgotten and forced to remain auto-centric.

“Well we realized that, you know after decades and decades of people moving out of cities that now people are moving back in and so cities are growing and we want to make sure that they’re growing smartly. We don’t want to just be sprawling out and building like we have tons of land and options out there, because we realize that the way we’ve been building in the past hasn’t quite worked out the way we wanted it to.”

For Richmond, these building practices of the past can’t support a sustainable future. Megan Miller, executive director for the James River Green Building Council agrees that reutilizing what has already been established is one of the best ways to spark life in to a city, but remain sustainable by not letting anything go to waste.

“If you look at Old Manchester and what’s happened in that area and Church Hill and what’s happened in that area, it’s slow, but I think that if more parties continue to reinvest in those areas rather than continue to build out and create more sprawl, it’s definitely going to be better for the city in the long run and for the residents.”

The James River Green Building Council works with local design firms and architects to draw plans for the future of the city. Their goal is to help grow the city in a sustainably sound way. For new developments and revitalization of old structures, they employ the L.E.E.D. system, which is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. L.E.E.D. works by use of a point system to signify whether a structure is sustainable or not.

Due to the large amount of historic and antiquated structures in Richmond, Miller says that following the L.E.E.D. system in revitalizing old buildings provides more challenges than simply building a new structure to L.E.E.D. standards.

“It’s kind of an interesting conundrum, because the ‘most green’ building is the one that’s already been built. There’s always the argument of, if you have a totally inefficient building, is it greener to just knock it down and build a whole new one, or is it greener to try and retrofit that building, and there’s no easy answer to that question.”

But building a new structure in a historic city is no easy feat. The James River Green Building Council agrees that keeping the aesthetic of Richmond and whichever city you are in is integral in keeping the public onboard with sustainability and revitalization.

/Brad Fulton


  1. I heard that this was mostly a bunch of Greenwashing, Liberal Guilt BS.....The Really Really Free Market was not even given a space or table when they were asked to be there and forced to share a table with Food Not Bombs who was not mentioned in this article or paid much attention at the event either. I think its kind of insulting to the community that Gallery 5 draws a lot of support and attention from. There seems to be some playing favorites here and honoring such self-serving organizations like Tricycle Gardens over Food Not Bombs and The Really Really Free Market (one of which has been an active organization for 16 years) seems to almost be an attempt to discredit decentralized, radical projects in the city.

  2. As a community member & Richmond enthusiast, I went to the forum to share information about the RVA Really Really Free Market, but came away sorely disappointed. Not only was there no space or table set aside, but my attempts to remedy the issue were thwarted by rudeness and standoffishness. So much for building community.
    Luckily, some friendly neighborhood anarchists at the Food Not Bombs table were kind enough to share their space, and we spent the time co-promoting and discussing our confusion and dismay at what surrounded us.
    The so-called “sustainability forum” ended up being a marketplace for people to sell their wares under the guise of being "green" and "eco-friendly". But the majority of people buy over-processed agribusiness products because that's what they can afford. Buying/going green is just a form of conspicuous consumption; a way of using money to feel morally superior- a luxury that is not afforded to most of the community.
    Instead of having a company selling rain barrels, why not a workshop on how to build your own?
    Instead of having a company selling solar panels, why not a discussion about ways to reduce energy use in our everyday lives?
    (By the way, solar panels are highly contested as truly being "eco-friendly". They are very expensive; it can take up to 100 years to recoup losses through energy savings. It also takes an immense amount of energy, resources, and toxic chemicals to produce solar panels. Various solar panel companies have been charged or cited with improperly disposing of said chemicals. )
    Instead of hosting Tricycle Gardens, a group that doesn’t provide free space in their "community gardens" nor give workshops without charge, why not a skillshare on ways to reclaim public spaces and utilize them in productive ways? A workshop on guerilla gardening? An assembly line for making seed bombs?
    Why did the catered food consist of caviar and quail eggs? The increasing demand for caviar by food "aficionados" all over the world has led to the near extinction of at least one species of fish. And quail eggs are most often considered a delicacy- again, something that is not acquirable for most Richmond residents.
    Why were there slim to none options for vegans and vegetarians- diets that are quite often chosen for their sustainability? Why were the drinks served in plastic cups?
    I’m also a little disconcerted by this article. I’m uncertain how concentrating growth and development will change the fact that outlying areas are currently excluded from the public transportation system. At the forum, there was a table for the Richmond Transit Riders’ Union- a group in the process of establishing itself in our community, with the goal of working to fight issues facing users of public transport- including the exclusion of the surrounding counties. Mentioning them in this article could have been a major jumping off point for the group- a group that I think is going to be vital in the creation of a sustainable transportation system in this city.
    I understand the logic behind wanting to prevent more urban sprawl, through the concentration of development. However, when one talks about “re-investing” and “revitalizing” currently existing properties in order to be more sustainable, what you are really talking about is gentrification. Concentrating growth and development might reduce urban sprawl, but if you can’t do it without gentrifying, then you aren’t doing it sustainably.
    Sustainability means being accessible to all residents- not just those who can afford to install low flow showerheads and dual flushing toilets. It means building a community through mutual aid and collective knowledge. It means encouraging and inspiring conversations about how every member of this community can be given the same chances to live flourishing and enriched lives. To me, that’s what a Sustainable Richmond would look like. But instead, all I saw were advertisements printed on vinyl, business cards, and boxes for collecting money.

  3. I fully support everything Nathan and Ramey said here.

  4. So tired of Richmond being Mean Girl.

    Just fyi, regarding the solar panels?
    Manufacturing a solar panel consumes more energy than it will ever deliver? False. -MacKay

  5. All of those involved in Sustainable Richmond struggle for a similar cause with varying strategies on how to best accomplish the monumental task of creating a sustainable community. It disturbs me that any organization (no matter how radical) would begrudgingly discredit fellow organizations in spite of receiving equal support and promotion. If there were concerns with this event not being on par with a specific level of sustainability, then why not suggest those changes be made next year or offer strategies and resources that would facilitate those changes in the future? More importantly, why did Food Not Bombs even choose to participate in an effort that they didn’t support? It’s truly shameful to show up at an event, reap its benefits, and then debase the altruistic efforts of so many hardworking groups.

    It should be noted that plenty of organizations and non-profits without a direct economical incentive were represented and invited to participate (such as Food Not Bombs). The organizations that chose to participate conveyed a diverse cross section of philosophies, all of which were valid and deserving of respect. Why not focus on improving your own cause and helping others increase their level of sustainability instead of trying to discredit them with biased and often unresearched criticism?

    As someone who has volunteered with Gallery5 for almost two years, I can assure you that (like many tabled events in the past) it was done on a first come, first serve basis and determined by promptness of response and availability of space. Although organizations were asked to participate and made aware of the event, this does not guarantee involvement since an RSVP is necessary in order to ensure that the space is utilized effectively for as many people as possible. Naturally there wasn’t space for every organization in Richmond but those who responded in a timely manner received a table and no one was rejected.

    In reference to this article, readers may notice that MANY organizations were not mentioned specifically. This was most likely due to the writer’s need to construct a fluid and concise piece. In fact, the article ONLY mentions Gallery5 to establish location and mentions the JRGBC due to their level of direct involvement. Brad Fulton actually spends much more time discussing changes in city policy and speaks pretty objectively about those involved. He avoids doting on a singular cause because obviously it is not possible to name-drop every group in such a limited amount of web-based text. In any case, it is arrogant to bemoan the level of “attention” paid to your individual organization since the event was not about a single source for sustainability. It represented the holistic efforts of our community as a whole.

    It’s also profoundly immature to construct a precedent for petty infighting between grassroots organizations when behemoth companies have the last laugh and corporate monsters at BP allow endless gallons of oil to infect our Gulf (and so many other regions over time). I wonder how many animals are going to die from oil exposure while we debate over the consumption of makeshift hors d’oeuvres…

    Some organizations may not measure up to your personal standards, but at the end of the day, you really have to look at the bigger picture and pick your battles instead of alienating people that support your cause, and through collective efforts, can contribute to the most sustainable society possible. It’s always important to stick by your guns but try to acquire some perspective before you start shooting them.