Thinking Beyond:

How Cincinnati is tackling the climate crisis and building back from the pandemic

Skyline of the city of Cincinnati against a cloudy sky.

Those outside Cincinnati, a mid-sized city of hills and valleys, might not readily see the metropolis as one of the country’s leaders in tackling climate change. Yet, grassroots organizations and community leaders have been addressing the crisis for years through on-the-ground efforts, policy, and investing in green innovation.

Amid a global pandemic that has exacerbated existing socio-economic inequities and climate injustices, the fight continues.

And while the most visible consequences of climate change often relate to melting ice caps, rising sea levels, forest fires, and an uptick in devastating storms, Midwestern cities like Cincinnati are already experiencing rippling effects.

Exterior shot of the red sandstone Cincinnati city hall

If humans are unable to limit carbon pollution, Cincinnati’s average temperature could climb by as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Changes will be seen across the city and region but neighborhoods won’t be impacted equally. Vulnerable populations—lower-income communities of color—have disproportionately felt the effects of climate change and will continue to suffer with greater severity unless action is taken.

Oliver Kroner wears a white shirt and grey suit. He looks upward.

“When we think about climate disruption, in many ways, it’s a risk multiplier. It takes existing problems and makes them worse,” said Cincinnati’s Office of Environment and Sustainability (OES) Coordinator Oliver Kroner. “I think you could say the same thing about the pandemic. If you’re on the brink before catastrophe you’re more likely to go under.

“When you talk about resilience planning, and how we endure these changes ahead, I think some climate planners see this as an opportunity to learn about future stressors in our communities.”

The Green Cincinnati Plan, a 273-page document released by OES that includes 80 recommendations for reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, outlines an aim for the city government to run solely on renewable energy by 2035. Adopted by the City Council as a 5-year outline, they’re currently on track; 28 municipal facilities already run entirely on renewables and the construction of what will be the largest city-led array of solar panels in the country is underway.

This is work that Cincinnati’s current mayor, John Cranley, has supported. When the US announced its intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, an extensive plan aimed at keeping the global temperature rise in this century well below 2° C (3.6° F) —or even 1.5° C (2.7° F)—Cranley condemned the action and signed on to become one of nearly 4,000 CEOS, mayors, governors, tribal leaders, college presidents, faith leaders and other officials to declare support for climate action as part of the We Are Still In (WASI) movement.

On a local level, organizers have been working toward a greener Cincinnati for decades. When Cranley joined WASI—an initiative administered by World Wildlife Fund, Climate Nexus, and Ceres—the framework to meet such goals was, in many ways, already there. As local governments tackle climate and the pandemic, a resilient support system is vital.

Sunny Cincinnati skyline

“Cincinnati was one of those early signatories, and have been, I think, a strong leader from the start,” said Kevin Taylor, WWF’s senior program officer for cities and climate. “From the perspective of that initiative, We Are Still In, Cincinnati is a really good example that other cities in the country can follow in taking up the mantle of leadership that's been lacking both at the federal level, and in some ways, there in the state of Ohio as well.

“We see a mix of ambition and commitment from state governments around the country, but cities have been strong. Cincinnati is certainly one of those.”

One such organization is Groundwork Ohio River Valley, an environmental nonprofit that is part of a national network—the only one, according to ORV’s co-executive director Tanner Yess, to center on racial environmental justice work.

As a young person of color who grew up around the outdoor recreation science and environmental sustainability world, Yess said that the field chose him.

“I'm lucky enough to have had the privilege to parlay that into a mostly community-based environment,” Yess said.

“(It’s) sustainability work with a different angle, which is connecting all that jargon to real world quality of life issues, especially to neighborhoods that have been left behind by the environmental movement.”

It was an overcast, chilly afternoon and the sound of their shovels hitting rock and soil filled the air, joined by conversation and the occasional shuffle or question of passers-by. They’re part of Groundwork Ohio River Valley’s Green Team, one of the non-profit’s many initiatives.

Made up of high school students, the program is designed to cultivate job skills in youth and a better understanding of the environment they live in.

Groundwork Ohio River Valley’s Green Team stands in front of a grey wall holding hands

The youth working on this particular project are all residents of Lower Price Hill and attend the neighborhood’s public school, Oyler. The fruit trees, once mature, are meant to help provide the community, a food desert, with access to fresh food at no cost; residents will be able to pluck pawpaws, peaches, and apples while enjoying the green space.

“By planting an orchard, the work provides value to the lot and makes it more interesting and beautiful for the neighborhood,” Sophie Revis, the program’s manager, said. “And we'll add more trees to Lower Price Hill. As the climate continues to change, Lower Price Hill is poised to get hotter, wetter, and have even worse air quality. By adding these few trees, it'll help a lot to reduce the heat and make the air better to breathe.”

Two individuals plant a fruit tree in a neighborhood in Cincinnati

This work is in collaboration with the Common Orchard Project, a nonprofit that works with The Port Authority to take vacant land, what is often seen as a blight, and reclaim it as a community asset that provides nourishment and beauty.

Studies have shown that such vacancies significantly affect the health, both physically and mentally, and the safety of residents, whose neighborhoods already lack in resources.

Founded in 2017, Chris Smyth, director of Common Orchard Project, said they’ve planted 10 orchards in Cincinnati so far; 20 are planned for next year—and they’ll keep going until they reach 100. The project has also been brought to other areas, including Cleveland, Ohio’s second most populous city.

Smyth, who has studied permaculture design for over a decade, also runs a two-acre farm in Camp Washington, a densely urban neighborhood similar to Lower Price Hill. He noted that Camp Washington is only covered by 8% tree canopy.

Chris Smyth, director of Common Orchard Project, demonstrates how to plant a fruit tree

“How can we not just plant wonderful things (on vacant land) but also productive things to add value to neighborhoods that are in some ways rapidly gentrifying? It gives neighbors a different set of values that’s nearby them instead of, ‘Well, you can either add a home here or a business,’” Smyth said. “I think that agriculture stands enough to fill some of the gaps in our Midwestern Rust Belt cities.”

As the hole-digging neared completion, Smyth called the group over for a lesson in how to plant the tree saplings.

One of the listening workers was 16-year-old Mohagany Wooten. She worked with the Green Team over the summer on another project, a trail across the city in Madisonville.

Before she entered the program, Wooten said she knew little about environmental justice. Through the Green Team, she has been able to learn about not only broad issues like climate change, but also how the environment relates to barriers faced by her own community.

“Lower Price Hill really doesn't have a lot of open green space. But we do have certain little patches. There was this one patch by the bus stop,” Wooten said, adding that she thought the space could be used as a community garden. Instead, she learned there were plans of putting an apartment complex there.

“It threw me off and put me in the environmental injustice spot because instead of them trying to put vegetables or something healthy there, they just wanted to put a building there,” Wooten said. “There's a lot of abandoned buildings in Lower Price Hill and I feel that they should probably try to fix them to be better instead of taking away the green spaces.”

Mural that reads 'gateway to the West, Lower Price Hill, established 1870'.
Two windows boarded up with colorful murals. Both have a stencil of George Floyd's face and the words 'Black Lives Matter'.

Many kids in her school, Wooten said, get their work done, try to graduate and either go to college or get a job—that’s the basic plan. But this program instills in students a desire to learn about their environment and apply that knowledge into changing their communities for the better.

Groundwork’s Yess said that one of the best parts of the program is seeing where students go after their time with Groundwork is done. One Green-Teamer, now in his early 20s, moved on to run one of their Green Corp Young Adult workforce groups. Other now-adults work in fields such as the forest service.

Of course, not everyone who leaves the Green Team goes on to an environment-adjacent career. But that’s not really the point, Yess said. Rather, it’s that they understand the impact the work has on their communities and how to direct that knowledge into action.

A city with an old building stock and high renter population, low-income residents in Cincinnati paid the eighth-highest energy burden, according to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

And neighborhoods subject to government-sanctioned racist housing practices in the 1930s and ‘40s are at higher risk to experience extreme heat and flooding today due to more heat-retaining surfaces, such as highways and lack of green spaces.

The effects of a smaller tree canopy coverage are already being felt, from higher rates of asthma, worse air quality, increased flooding, and more mold—lower-income communities and neighborhoods with large Black populations experience them at higher rates.

Tanner Yess sits on a park bench. He has long, dark hair and wears a neon yellow short, green shorts and blue sneakers.

According to Yess, Cincinnati neighborhoods with higher percentages of tree canopy coverage are 10 to 20 degrees cooler than highly urbanized and dislocated neighborhoods, which are disproportionately made up of low income and disenfranchised people.

Parts of the city are hotter than others. But what to do about it?

“We're arming ourselves and citizens with the language that policymakers use so that they can advocate for themselves,” Yess said. “We’re doing short- and medium-term action mitigation strategies, everything as simple as planting trees to more intensive green infrastructure policy work.”

Kroner said that maps of temperature differences can be used to help inform where Cincinnati’s urban forestry department focuses their tree-planting efforts. Another slice of the pie, he said, is private land or other areas that require planting.

That’s where partnerships like the one OES has with Groundwork are crucial. Beyond “greening” spaces, the work is focused on connecting people with land and democratizing data. The latter helps people better understand what’s happening in their own communities and the policies that affect them.

OES also looks at energy burden, or the percentage of income a household spends on utility bills. Because tenants often foot the utility bill, there’s no economic force that incentivizes landlords to make energy improvements.

“We're trying to insert our policy, our programs, our resources, into that intersection,” Kroner said, “to try and deliver energy efficiency to these households that are really paying exorbitant amounts of money just to heat their homes.”

According to Kroner, approximately 60% of Cincinnati’s carbon emission comes from its built environment—the city’s buildings and how they’re powered, heated, and cooled. Another 30% comes from transportation and fuel.

“A number of our strategies focus on making buildings more efficient, powering them with renewable energy, and then electrifying transportation and improving transportation choices,” Kroner said.

A 0.8% sales tax to fund a more robust transit system that was passed in May 2020 will help the city achieve this. Cincinnati also aims to double the lane miles of bike trails, improve walkability and pedestrian safety, and encourage the transition to electric vehicles.

This October saw the unveiling of the city’s latest Metro bus transit hub in Northside, the city’s second busiest transfer location. For residents, it’s a community asset that has been years in the making. Features include eight sheltered boarding stops, electronic signage that gives real-time bus arrival time updates, and a lot for drivers using park and ride services complete with charging stations for electric vehicles.

Brand new bus shelter at the Cincinnati Northside transit center

One grassroots organization is Better Bus Coalition, led by lifelong bus rider and Cincinnatian Cam Hardy. A resident of Northside, Hardy said he was “extremely happy” to see the hub come to fruition.

“I would like to see this at a lot of our bus stops, actually,” Hardy said. “This is excellent. This has been great for the community. And it's been great for the city overall.”

He’s excited for other neighborhoods to open similar hubs. It’s advocacy like the coalition’s that has made such improvements possible.

For Hardy, it started with him getting fed up with buses that continuously broke down or were late. One night, he took to Facebook Live and asked: “Why is this acceptable?” That led him to being invited on a bus ride with Metro’s then-CEO. After learning about how policy affected the bus system and joining forces with other riders, the coalition officially formed in 2017.

“We looked at it as a way to take ownership and have some pride about our transportation system because we weren’t seeing that from anywhere else,” Hardy said. It’s a volunteer gig for Hardy and other coalition members.

New bus shelters with screens displaying bus arrival times
Cam Hardy sits at a new bus shelter. He is wearing wingtip shoes, slacks and a black jacket.

Hardy said buses lacked investment because bus ridership was looked down on as a poverty issue. But transit should be seen broader than that. As Hardy described: “It’s not just about moving poor people around. It’s for the greater good."

Looking forward, part of their advocacy includes adding cleaner, more fuel-efficient buses to Metro’s fleet. For him, a stronger Metro is integral to a more sustainable Cincinnati. He hopes that, as the city recovers from COVID-19, transit can be a part of the rebuild by giving citizens a safer, more effective means of returning to work.

Despite an estimated 1 in 6 Americans experiencing hunger, according to Feeding America, an estimated 30% to 40% of food produced in the US is thrown away. Back in 2017, Cincinnati-based supermarket retailer Kroger launched their Zero Hunger | Zero Waste social impact plan that aims to address this absurdity in the US food system. In line with that mission to help create communities free of hunger and waste, The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation is a supporter of WWF’s Food Waste Warriors conservation curriculum.

Last year, the program audited school cafeteria plate waste in 46 schools across nine US cities, including Cincinnati. WWF’s Amanda Stone, director of engagement and communications for markets and food, noted that there are multiple ways climate change is tied to food waste. For one, all of the water, land, and resources that go into producing food are wasted when food is tossed. From the farm and all the way through the supply chain to the point it arrives to the consumer, any given product comes with its share of emissions.

The pandemic has had an enormous impact on schools writ large. As Stone said, that also means food in schools. As districts move between in-person and remote schooling, Food Waste Warriors’ primary focus has been finding ways to support schools through ways like redeveloping their virtual curriculum and making it accessible to teachers.

“The most important part for the school nutrition directors and educators is getting nutritious school meals into the hands of students through a variety of superhero strategies—from more packaged in-classroom meals, to curbside pickup and bus-based delivery routes—all of which might need to change on a day-to-day basis,” Stone said. “Our work with The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation and the Food Waste Warrior program has shifted to support teachers and education groups on the ground that want to integrate these concepts into their virtual learning environments. We’ve found teachers are eager to help kids explore how food and nature are connected, and how the need to address waste is more important than ever, even from the space of their kitchens at home.”

Ryan Mooney-Bullock, the executive director of Green Umbrella, the regional sustainability alliance of Greater Cincinnati, said that the pandemic has, in many ways, increased a sense of urgency around addressing these issues locally.

“Climate is maybe less on people's minds, in some ways, because they're dealing with the immediacies of health and basic needs, which I get is super important,” Mooney-Bullock said. “But it continues to be something that will increasingly impact our region and our population and continue to increase these health disparities if we don't start taking pretty significant action on them.”

There are multiple programs that are attempting to make better use of the food available and get it to the plates of people who need it. But it’s an area where the city is still learning.

Mooney-Bullock cited that if 10% of the region’s population shifted their food budget to local foods, $63 million would go back into the local economy.

But many areas may lack access to a grocery, more so a reliable place to buy local food.

Mooney-Bullock said one of their up-and-coming projects—Community Voices for Food Movement—is aimed at learning from the population that experiences food insecurity to better understand their specific needs and perspectives.

“We are also looking at how we can create better access to local food, and just healthy food in general, in communities that are currently underserved by a full-service supermarket,” Mooney-Bullock said. “That might look like increased farmer's markets in those places, or some way to effectively distribute fresh food to the corner store or other hubs where people could pick it up.”

“One of my worst fears,” Yess said, “and what Groundwork does so well, is: I’m so scared that there’s a little brown or black girl or boy or other out there in some neighborhood that does not have access to green amenities, parks, education or recreation and they could have been the next great conservationist.”

That’s why they work with hundreds of youths a year through school programs.

Currently, Groundwork Ohio River Valley has 12 staff, youth employees all over the tri-state area and dozens of partnerships. And their work hasn’t slowed due to the pandemic. On the contrary, Yess said their work, which for the most part takes place outside in small groups, has exploded.

Tanner Yess and fellow Groundwork ORV worker pose together. They both have masks on.
A young black person is wearing green sweatpants and a black jacket. They hold up a plant and are smiling beneath their mask.

“We've expanded and…it's a testament to the fact our work has always been rooted in the justice and racial strife, environmental issues, and we're ready to go,” Yess said. “We've grown rapidly because the need is so great.”

The hope is to build the organization to 200 youth employees, or as Yess puts it: “a small army of green workers across the city” doing work from trail building to green infrastructure in communities.

Yess said that the word that best evokes what Groundwork does is restoration.

“And I'm not talking about just land, right? It's heart, mind, body, soul,” he said. “It's the process of people and the land connecting. And if you have that connection, the climate change discussion is not an issue.”