Blog: Matthew Naud & Jamie Kidwell

Ann Arbor has had an energy office longer than most cities - and also happens to know where each of its 14,000-plus water pipes are located (many cities don't). Matthew Naud and Jamie Kidwell, key players in Ann Arbor's sustainability planning effort, will write about using these advantages and others to forge a new sustainability framework for the city.

Matthew Naud: Sustainability hums with the cross-pollination of city departments

There is a lot of talk about sustainability these days.  I am going to start with some of my high-level thoughts – mine and only mine – on what is working in Ann Arbor and where we have opportunities to advance in both marginal and more significant ways.  

I think of cities as complex systems.  Most cities are in many lines of business – making water, treating wastewater, managing stormwater, installing and maintaining all of the infrastructure to support these systems, building bike and pedestrian facilitates and roads, providing recreational opportunities, protecting natural and historic areas, building buildings, managing waste, recycling and composting, fire and safety, emergency management, housing, and education, to name a few.  Many of these systems are ours, some cross over into other jurisdictions, and for others we have to rely on good behavior by upstream residents to keep our drinking water sources and air quality clean.  
"Sustainability" is about taking an integrated systems approach to managing how we deliver city services.  It's about creating an organization that moves away from departments and instead supports staff working together across the systems we manage.  It's about hiring the right people and letting them be entrepreneurial.  It's about having really good data so your good people know what you have and how best to manage it.

Good People

I am fortunate to work with some very smart people committed to making Ann Arbor a better place to live.  That group of good people is pretty broad and includes city staff, managers, commissioners, graduate student interns, local businesses, faculty, and residents.  We have staff who look for new and improved ways of doing things and then work across the organization to make the city more efficient in the way it delivers services.  This often leads to a more integrated approach to designing projects, and ultimately better projects.  Our commissioners spend hundreds of hours each year at public meetings and sitting on committees with residents helping to design recommendations to improve the city quality of life.  Public meetings can be a lot of work but more often than not city planning and projects are better because of resident input.  We also get a lot from our smart university students working on projects that would otherwise never get done.

When I started in 2001, we had 14 departments and over 1,000 employees.  We now have four service areas (public services, community services, safety services, and financial services) and less than 750 employees.  As part of the reorganization, the Systems Planning Unit was created to manage projects and coordinate the long range asset management of the city.  Systems Planning brings together engineers, GIS specialists, the energy programs manager, the transportation program manager, urban forestry & natural resources coordinator, stormwater & floodplain program coordinator, capital improvements, the water quality manager, solid waste/recycling/composting, the environmental coordinator, and a senior planner into one group.

For example, as we move forward on an urban forestry and community management plan, we have staff with expertise in forestry but also GIS mapping (street tree inventory of 50,000 trees and city canopy cover data), stormwater (trees can hold ¼ inch of rainfall), energy (shading and implications for solar installations), street construction (creating favorable spaces for street trees), and climate change (looking at carbon sequestration and other climate benefits of urban forests).  Other parts of the organization bring staff with expertise in the role of trees as habitat and possible food sources.

We also have commissions that help to make recommendations to city council on a variety of sustainability areas.  The planning, energy, park advisory, and environmental commissions are four key groups of residents that take a deeper look into how the city can improve and develop new programs.

Good Data

We have very good spatial data for most of our systems.  We know where all of the water, wastewater, and stormwater pipes are.  As we should, but some cities do not.  We also have a person who models each of these systems as we seek to better understand how they work and interact.  Someone had the foresight to scan 14,000 of these pipes as built drawings so you can now walk into a room and pull up a map of the city – double click and see the original engineering drawing for a water pipe installed in the 1920s.  This significantly reduces the time needed to plan a project and better insures that opportunities are not missed.

We have had an energy office longer than most cities – many still do not.  We have one person whose job – after reviewing hundreds of meters and bills – is to oversee the seven million a year we spend on natural gas and electricity, decide how to buy it and where we can be more efficient, and also look at our transportation fuels.  We know that this office has saved three million dollars in energy costs and four million in operation and maintenance, not counting millions in grant dollars to support other efforts to green our fleet and further alternative energy goals.

We have developed a State of Our Environment Report website where we have organized 60 indicators around 10 environmental goals developed by the environmental commission and approved by city council.  It is a lot to look through but you will find our waste diversion rate (43% city-wide, 51% residential), data on reduced phosphorus loading to the Huron River (17-28%), creekshed metrics, impervious surface measures by creekshed, among others.  

So…Sustainability is about good people and good data.  It is an integrated and coordinated approach where multiple benefits are created from projects and we lose as few opportunities as possible when large capital investments are made.  We will be starting more of a discussion with the community around many of these issues in the near future.  Look for a series of sustainability lectures with the Ann Arbor District Library beginning in January 2012.