Sustainability report card ranks Mecklenburg fair to middling

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s first comprehensive sustainability report card is in, and the results are mixed. The report, released Tuesday by Sustain Charlotte, a local advocacy nonprofit, ranks the Charlotte area on nine environmental, economic and social categories. The report notes two bright spots – the area’s water use per household is lower than the national average and energy use is improving.

But Charlotte still lags national standards in transportation and land use. Food insecurity and childhood poverty are on the rise as well.  

“The food access and land use results are the most troubling,” Sustain Charlotte Executive Director Shannon Binns said at a news conference Tuesday.

During 2009 and 2011, more than 17 percent of Mecklenburg County households experienced food insecurity or the inability to provide adequate food for one or more members of the household. Since 1999, food insecurity increased an average of 6 percent each year.

The report highlights the far-reaching effects of land-use and transportation decisions, Binns said. Land use decisions can affect economic and environmental factors as well. For example, the average Mecklenburg County household spends more on transportation (26 percent) than the national average (19 percent) – not surprising for a metro area that Smart Growth America recently ranked the fifth most sprawling.

And though Charlotte gets decent marks for improving its air quality, ground-level ozone is higher than federal limits, mostly because of automobile tailpipe emissions.  

The average Mecklenburg County household uses 21 percent more electricity each month than the national average, mostly because of air-conditioning. But Charlotte is also a leader in Energy Star certified buildings. Twice as many Charlotte buildings qualify for the EPA Energy Star than the national average. Energy Star certified buildings are required to be more efficient than 75 percent of similar buildings nationwide.

And though 93 percent of commuters in the county travel by car, Charlotte Area Transit System weekly ridership per 10,000 people has increased more than 50 percent since 2000 – from 633 to 994.

The report includes 94 policy recommendations for improving sustainability, which it defines as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own” needs. Conserving water today, for example, could ensure that future generations don’t face severe shortages. There are three dimensions to sustainability – environmental, economic and social. “None of these (dimensions) stand alone,” said Binns.

The report will provide baseline information for the Mecklenburg Livable Communities program, a long-range sustainability planning effort taking place by Mecklenburg County, Charlotte, and the county’s six smaller municipalities.

“We have our marching orders,” Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham said at the news conference Tuesday. “We have to do the work.” 

The report was sponsored by a Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation grant and the Davidson College Sustainability Scholars program. City, county, state and nonprofit organizations provided data for the report, including information from the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute’s Regional Indicators Project.  

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