City’s first sustainability director crafted goals and developed partnerships
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — In December 2011, then-Mayor Angel Taveras appointed Sheila Dormody as the city’s first sustainability director. For the past three years, Dormody has worked to reduce waste, decrease pollution, improve energy efficiency, and raise the profile of urban agriculture and bicycling in the city.
“Having a dedicated staff person that reports to the mayor elevates (environmental) issues and allows the city to create programming and policies that otherwise would never happen,” said Amelia Rose, director of Groundwork Providence and a member of the Environmental Sustainability Task Force, which worked closely with Dormody’s Office of Sustainability.
Recently named the city’s director of policy by Mayor Jorge Elorza, ecoRI News looks back at Dormody’s tenure as Providence’s inaugural sustainability director.
One of Dormody’s earliest endeavors was to educate residents about Rhode Island’s then-new, single-stream recycling program. The program confused residents by requiring them to use their old green trash carts as recycling bins, and use new gray carts to discard their trash.
Truckloads of recyclables from Providence began being rejected at the state’s recycling center in Johnston because they were too contaminated with trash to be effectively sorted.
Dormody developed and implemented strategies to smooth the transition to the new program, including a citywide neighborhood recycling challenge. The five-week competition awarded the neighborhood with the most improved recycling rate with a celebratory barbecue and new trees to be planted in a local park.
By the end of the challenge, however, the city’s overall recycling rate had increased by only half a percent. Other initiatives were launched, including fining residents for misusing recycling bins; a door-to-door educational campaign, bus, bus shelter, radio and print advertisements, and mass mailings that explained recycling rules to residents.
Despite these efforts, the recycling rate in Providence has actually declined since 2011, from an already-lower-than-average 14.6 percent to 13.3 percent in 2013, according to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation (RIRRC) annual reports.
Krystal Noiseux, RIRRC’s recycling program manager, said trash continues to contaminate recyclables from some city neighborhoods, and truckloads of recyclable materials are still being rejected.
“Loads of recycling are not rejected for basic recycling mistakes; they are rejected when recycling carts are used as trash carts,” she said. “We find loads full of food, liquids, diapers, appliances, construction waste, hazardous waste and yard waste.”
Noiseux said some people run out of room in their trash can, then start filling up their recycling bin with trash. She said education needs get at the issue of reducing overall waste.
“How can they prevent so much food from going to waste? Do they know when the city’s yard waste program starts and stops? Do they know the city has a free bulky waste pick-up service, by appointment, for up to three items a week?” she asked.
Under Dormody, the Office of Sustainability crafted a partnership between the city and Goodwill Industries to collect used textiles for recycling and reuse at 10 locations.
The Office of Sustainability also piloted a residential food-waste composting program. Providence Composts! invites a limited number of residents to walk their food scrap to community hubs, where it is composted by an urban farmer or compost expert. The program now serves 105 families in three neighborhoods — the West Side, Federal Hill and Smith Hill.
In 2013, 2.3 tons of organics were diverted from the landfill, and the resulting compost has improved soil at urban farms and community gardens.
Providence Composts! is a small part of the Lots of Hope program, a partnership between the city and the Southside Community Land Trust that encourages urban agriculture. The program has been funded by two rounds of grants from the Rhode Island Foundation and the Local Sustainability Matching Fund.
Lots of Hope converts vacant, city-owned parcels into urban farms or small businesses related to food production, and brings fresh produce to neighborhoods.
In 2013, the first such farm, Manton Bend Community Farm, was built across five undeveloped lots along Manton Avenue. It includes a 12-bed community garden and 40 mounded beds, tended by the African Alliance of Rhode Island, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of African refugees in Rhode Island.
Produce grown by the alliance — generally staples from the farmers’ countries of origin — is sold at local farmers markets.
A second Lots of Hope farm, Meader Street Farm, opened on the West Side last year.
With its second round of funding, Lots of Hope will erect an urban greenhouse in the West Elmwood Neighborhood that will extend the growing season for urban farmers and serve Providence students.
“Lots of Hope helps Providence achieve all of our sustainability goals by supporting local businesses, cleaning our neighborhoods, and helping our students better understand where our food comes from, and where our trash goes,” Dormody wrote in a press release about the program.
In 2012, Taveras signed an executive order that created the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. The committee meets regularly and acts as an advisory body to the mayor and a handful of city agencies, including the Office of Sustainability, on matters concerning bicycling and walking in the city.
The group contributed to the creation of the city’s current bike master plan, Bike Providence. According to the document, its purpose “is to provide the framework to identify, prioritize and implement bicycle facilities in the City of Providence.”
While the Office of Sustainability has held the plan up as evidence of Providence’s progress toward being a more bikeable city, James Kennedy, a vocal transportation activist and author of the blog Transport Providence, disagrees.
“I didn’t envy Dormody when the bike plan came out, because I understood that her job was to express the views of Mayor Taveras,” he wrote in an e-mail to ecoRI News. “The plan is an unacceptable document as is.”
He said the plan is out of touch with best practices, citing a recommendation that 35 mph streets get shared-lane arrows or “sharrows.”
“It pushes outdated worries about the safety of protected bike lanes even as every city around us adopts them successfully,” he wrote. Kennedy said he will continue to push the city for a more modern plan.
Dormody’s office is searching for sponsors for a proposed bike-sharing program that would bring short-term rental bikes to the city. Also, three public bike-repair stations with tools and air pumps have been created at Burnside Park, Roger Williams Park, near the Dalrymple Boathouse, and at Riverside Park, near the Red Shed bike shop.
Stormwater runoff is one of the city’s most pressing environmental concerns. Providence’s high percentage of impervious surface, such as asphalt and concrete, diverts huge amounts of rain into storm drains and sewers. During heavy rains, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants reach capacity, excess runoff mixes with untreated sewage and overflows directly into Narragansett Bay.
Dormody’s office has worked to help remedy the situation by coordinating a study for six municipalities in the Upper Narragansett Bay region concerning stormwater, water quality and flooding. The study recommended a regional solution to funding and implementing stormwater management strategies. The study concludes that, “a stormwater user fee, based on how much a property contributes to stormwater run-off, is the best and fairest way to pay for (maintenance and improvements to stormwater infrastructure.)”
“What Sheila has excelled at is convening the right people and partners together to tackle very difficult issues that will take years to address and remedy,” said Rose, of Groundwork Providence.
By meeting and discussing stakeholder challenges and concerns, Dormody and her partners have made steady progress on the regional challenge of managing stormwater, she said.
To combat litter in public parks, Dormody began Providence Earth Day Spring Cleaning. In 2014, this clean-up event brought together volunteers and 39 community groups at parks across the city, where they picked up trash and planted trees.
The Office of Sustainability has helped lower utility bills at about half of the city’s schools and 30 municipal buildings through lighting retrofits, gas conversions and other energy-conservation measures, according to Sustainable Providence, the city’s recently released sustainability plan. Savings are estimated at $231,000 annually, according to the 72-page report.
Last year, the city and the Providence Public School District installed Energy Star-rated dishwashers at 12 schools. The new dishwashers will save $100,000 annually on water, electricity and gas costs, and fully pay for themselves within five years, according to the report.
The Office of Sustainability also initiated a study to assess the technical and financial viability of installing solar panels on 20 city-owned properties. The cost and revenue estimates and financing options for each project will determine the priorities for the city’s investments in renewable energy development over the coming years. The study is funded by the state Renewable Energy Fund.
Sustainable Providence is the city's first sustainability action plan. It’s the culmination of a yearlong community engagement process by the Office of Sustainability, the Environmental Sustainability Task Force, and a group of more than 100 environmental advocates and community leaders.
The plan outlines strategies and actions that could help Providence achieve sustainability goals in six key areas: waste, food, transportation, water, energy and land use. Strategies outlined include expanding composting and urban agriculture programs, improving public transportation, promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy, and supporting healthy food consumption.
“The completion of Sustainable Providence is a milestone on the path to building a more sustainable city,” Dormody wrote in a press release announcing the plan. “This plan charts the course for further progress toward our most pressing environmental goals.”
Rose considers the plan the most important achievement during Dormody’s time as sustainability director. “Because so many people were invited to help craft (the plan), it reflects many diverse interests,” she said. “Having a tangible document to refer to helps Providence residents keep track of our collective progress and hold both ourselves and city officials accountable.”
Mayor Elorza is currently interviewing candidates to fill the vacant sustainability director position. Once appointed, the new director will report to the director of policy — Dormody.
The new director will inherit the tasks of completing the study regarding solar projects on municipal buildings, launching the bike-sharing program and continuing discussions with other municipalities about stormwater management. The new director also will need to ensure the city is meeting its Sustainable Providence benchmarks.
“One of the great things about Sheila's work has been the amount of buy-in she's helped achieve for projects — it's not just the Office of Sustainability or environmentalists that care about the projects,” Rose said.
Dormody has created partnerships with the Healthy Communities Office, the Department of Public Works, the Planning Department, nonprofits, businesses and task forces during her time as director.
“I am very confident that whoever the next director of sustainability is will have many willing (partners) to ensure that what has been started will be accomplished,” Rose said.