I arrived in Charlotte in late 2007 and quickly became aware of the negative impacts of the city's rapid population growth. This, combined with a series of poor decisions, not only permitted but encouraged sprawl. Charlotte was considered one of the least sustainable large cities in the country at that time by various rankings and suffered from serious environmental, social and economic challenges: heavy air pollution, growing traffic congestion, heavily contaminated waterways, dramatic tree loss, and racial and socioeconomic segregation along neighborhood lines. I spoke with many residents who felt frustrated by these trends, yet powerless to reverse them.
Seeing an opportunity to unify local residents, businesses, governments and nonprofits and create a truly sustainable community, I launched Sustain Charlotte in 2010.
Our goal is to see the region grow in a sustainable way, and our mission is to inspire the choices that lead to a healthier, more vibrant community for generations to come.
To advance these goals, Sustain Charlotte recently released an independently researched study called the 2014 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Sustainability Report Card: Scoring Our Economic, Environmental, and Social Health (available for download at www.sustaincharlotte.com). Using a robust methodology and years of data from a variety of sources, we generated a report card addressing nine critical issues: air quality, energy use, equity and empowerment, food, jobs and income, land use, transportation, waste, and water use. Our assessments also include 94 recommendations for Charlotte-Mecklenburg to accelerate progress.
This report card, in addition to objectively evaluating whether we are making progress on the issues that determine sustainability, provides significant quantitative data that can be leveraged to set goals and align our policies and practices to positively impact the overall health and livability of our city. The return on investment of acting on the 94 recommendations would be hard to overstate.
For example, our report contains extensive research on Charlotte's transportation challenges. Over 83 percent of people in Mecklenburg County drive alone to and from work, and another 10 percent carpool, meaning 94 percent of us commute to work by car. In 2013, the American Lung Association ranked Charlotte the 19th smoggiest city in the country and this is due to the growing number of cars, which emit smog-forming pollution, as well as the longer commutes that are the result of auto-centric suburban growth at the city's edge. By increasing transportation options and their use throughout the Charlotte region, we can improve traffic, air quality, public health, mobility and the economy. More transportation choices and public policies that promote walkable and transit-oriented development would result in more safe and convenient opportunities to take a bus, catch a train, ride a bike, or walk.
Also high on the priority list is the need to address Mecklenburg County's disconcerting trends when it comes to food security and access to healthy food. The percentage of households reliant on food stamps more than doubled in the last decade as the number of families living below the poverty line increased. And access to healthy food is a challenge for tens of thousands of residents due to Mecklenburg's 60 food deserts. Creating a road map for a more sustainable city also means ensuring that every family has access to nutritious food, regardless of where they live or their income level.
We are on a mission to make the idea of sustainability and how it is achieved easier to understand by providing practical tools and data that measure our performance as well as clear actions that we can take now. Based on the data we analyzed it is evident that we cannot afford to wait. The time to act is now.
Simply put, what we choose to do, or not to do, with regard to addressing our current challenges will determine the future livability of our community. After all, sustainability is not just a measure of how well we are meeting our needs today, but also an indicator of how well those who come after us will be able to meet theirs.
To succeed, we need everyone to begin acting with the long-term consequences of our choices in mind, and working together to ensure the community we leave behind is healthier and more vibrant for all than it is today.
Shannon Binns is the founder and executive director of Sustain Charlotte, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to educating, engaging and uniting citizens to solve Charlotte's sustainability challenges.