Columbus Makes Its Historically Disadvantaged Neighborhoods a Key to Its Climate Future

Self-driving shuttles and energy audits are helping to keep this Ohio boomtown booming (without the carbon bust).

Scioto Mile Park in Downtown Columbus, Ohio

Credit: Andrew Spear for NRDC

Self-driving electric shuttles are now transporting passengers through downtown Columbus’s riverfront district, Scioto Mile. The ride is free and will take you to museums, to Bicentennial Park, and to the Smart Columbus Experience Center, a new hub for transportation innovation that features an electric vehicle showroom and sleek office space. Here, staff are busy trying to design a city of the future.

That forward-looking mind-set is vital to C-Bus (as city residents call it). Columbus is an unusual boomtown in a region that has struggled economically for decades. The crunch and hammer of progress are audible throughout the city’s business district as new structures rise and older buildings are updated to fit increasing numbers of young professionals. The median age in Columbus is seven years younger than in the rest of Ohio, and in a state broadly suffering brain drain, the percentage of people with college degrees in the capital city is eight points higher.

The metro area’s population, now at around two million, could reach three million by 2050. And within about 10 years, 70,000 more people could be driving to work in Columbus. Such growth may seem daunting for a city that aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from municipal operations and 20 percent from all other sources—including transportation—by 2020 (from 2015 levels). The city of Columbus is on track to meet these goals, but Jeffrey Ortega, a coordinator for the city’s sustainability efforts, says reducing greenhouse gas pollution the communities of this quickly developing metropolis has been challenging.

But now C-Bus has gotten a boost. Columbus was chosen earlier this year as one of 25 cities to participate in the American Cities Climate Challenge, a carbon-cutting partnership amongBloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, Delivery Associates, and several other organizations. “There is great optimism that the programs that the city is implementing as part of the American Cities Climate Challenge will help meet community-wide emissions goals,” notes Ortega.

Columbus is rolling out a variety of climate-friendly measures, from a smartphone app to help people navigate the city’s growing public transit options (including new, high-frequency bus routes) to a boost in renewable energy use in commercial buildings. But in a city with so much that’s shiny and new, a major focus of the work is to combine economic and environmental progress in what Mayor Andrew Ginther has dubbed “opportunity neighborhoods.”

The famous "American Gothic" mural in the Short North arts district. Murals adorn dozens of buildings in this vibrant neighborhood.
Credit: Dr. Bob Hall/Flickr

Mitigating the effects of climate change is not just about curbing carbon pollution but also about strengthening the communities that are the most vulnerable to its impacts. “Every person in every neighborhood deserves the opportunity to succeed,” says Ginther, “and we are working to make changes on many fronts—from access to transportation to a comprehensive climate action plan—to make prosperity a reality for all of our residents.”

Indeed, the boom times in Columbus haven’t been benefiting everyone evenly. For instance, in Franklinton, a low-lying neighborhood west of the Scioto River, it’s easier to find a pawnshop than a bank. Construction work left undone—boarded-up windows, beams supporting porches—marks a sharp contrast to the din of development elsewhere. “Energy poverty” is among the many challenges in Franklinton and five other low-income communities—Linden, King-Lincoln, Hilltop, Weinland Park/Milo-Grogan, and Olde Towne East. In these neighborhoods, residents pay between 6 percent and 10 percent of their annual incomes on heating and powering their homes, as opposed to the average of 3.5 percent in the United States. In Franklinton, heat and power bills average 11 percent of a household’s income.

Boarded-up rowhouses in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus
Credit: Andrew Spear

A first step in tackling this disparity and lowering bills is to improve energy efficiency in the homes in these neighborhoods, and the city has set a goal to conduct 30,000 home energy audits by December 2020. After inspectors identify opportunities for improvement—such as replacing drafty windows or doors or outmoded appliances—residents can get help making the needed efficiency upgrades.

Along those lines, the Community Energy Advocate trainee program recently celebrated its first graduate: a Linden resident named Connie Williams. She learned of the program, run through IMPACT Community Action, when she was seeking an energy audit for her own home. Williams now knocks on doors and meets neighbors at community events to walk them through the audit process. If someone is interested in additional energy efficiency help, she helps arrange a home visit.

At the time of her own home efficiency upgrades, about a month before starting her new job with IMPACT, Williams says she “wasn’t gainfully employed,” so her house qualified for measures including new insulation, a new thermostat, and weatherstripping along all of the doors. She also received replacement fire detectors and new carbon monoxide detectors. As a former case manager for elderly and disabled residents, Williams would often sign up her clients for PIPPs (percentage-of-income payment plans). It’s similar to her work now, which she says she loves. So far her neighbors have been receptive to her pitch—many know Williams from around the neighborhood, especially from her days helping the older members of her community.

Lower energy bills, however, aren’t the only reason to join up. By increasing its participation, the neighborhood could earn up to $35,000 for energy-efficiency upgrades at its schools, an incentive funded by a partnership with the utilities AEP Ohio and Columbia Gas. Derek Anderson, from the Department of Public Utilities, notes that as of mid May, it looked like Linden’s enrollment numbers would meet or surpass its goal and earn the improvements to its schools.

“My mother bought this house 40 years ago, says Williams, showing a visitor around. The neighborhood’s basically the same, but I do see some changes for the better.” For instance, she says a few new businesses have been popping up along the main drag, Cleveland Avenue. Williams hopes she can help continue Linden’s progress through her work with IMPACT. “I’m really impressed with the program,” says Williams, “and how they’re helping people.”

Much of this work happens out in the neighborhoods, on people’s doorsteps, and at pop-up gatherings, churches, and community meals. But on a crisp morning in May, representatives from a range of partners—Columbus’s Department of Neighborhoods, Department of Public Utility’s office of sustainability, Columbia Gas, and AEP Ohio—all filed into the Public Utilities Complex for a round of planning. On the wall in the meeting room hung a long sheet of butcher paper covered in Post-its listing quarterly goals for marketing, outreach, and deployment. As the group dug into plans for an upcoming jazz-in-the-park event and a produce giveaway, they debated over which sports mascot to enlist in getting the word out—Crew Cat from the Columbus’s soccer team or Ohio State University’s Brutus Buckeye (a bigger name that might incur appearance fees)?

The passion at the conference table and out in the streets makes Columbus a standout, notes Emily Barkdoll, city strategist for the American Cities Climate Challenge at NRDC. And as the capital, “the city is uniquely positioned in a state that isn’t always supportive,” says Barkdoll. The Ohio Statehouse is even nestled amid many neighborhoods that are actively working for change—and through those efforts, the communities are making the issue of climate change something local, something personal.

A bicycle rental station near the Columbus Convention Center
Credit: Susan Montgomery/Alamy Stock Photo

As Columbus residents become energy savers at home, city officials are striving to make their workplaces and commutes more climate friendly as well, with more efficient commercial buildings and better public transit and ridesharing options. Zipcars, Ubers, Lyfts, and bike and scooter shares are increasingly familiar fixtures on the city’s streets).

And the more riders the better. Mandy Bishop, program manager at Smart Columbus, is helping design an app that will “get people on transit” and “close that first mile, last mile gap”—the distance people need to travel to get to and from public transit. This is an important consideration, since cumbersome commutes can affect job opportunities for those living in underserved areas. The area around Rickenbacker International Airport, for instance, is home to a cluster of big employers, with multiple warehouses and distribution centers located necessarily close to air, freight, and bus lines. But if a car-less job seeker from the other side of town doesn’t live near a bus stop, a job in this major hub remains out of reach.

With the (yet-to-be-named) app, commuters will be able to stitch together a customized transit plan with various bike, cab, bus, or shuttle options. And they’ll be able to pay their fares all in one place. Users will also be able to load the app’s payment system with cash, an important feature that, Bishop says, “will connect the unbanked into the share economy.” In short, the app aims to help more people get to work in a way that’s good for them, the city, and the planet.

And soon, a second fleet of those free, autonomous shuttles piloted in posh Scioto Mile will help fill those last-mile gaps for Williams and her neighbors in Linden. The move doesn’t just make transportation sense, but also supports a larger goal: Columbus, all of Columbus, in the climate fight together.

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