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The Year We Saved Our Earth But Lost Our City

Whether I was a city public works director, a county chief innovation officer, or a government performance and innovation coach, data has been an indispensable driver for much of my career. By capturing and analyzing accurate data, I’ve been able to make decisions confidently and help my bosses do the same. Not perfect data. Not perfect decisions. But the right data for the right decisions. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, but that’s a story for another day.

As a person with a passion for preserving and protecting our planet, I have a proclivity for pushing the environmental envelope. So, the culmination of Earth Month seems like a good time to tell you a data-driven sustainability story.

As the former public works director of the City of Colorado Springs, Colorado, I know that our award-winning biofuel efforts reduced the total CO2 emissions by 12.8 million tons over six years. I know that we used 1,094 tires in repaving Pikes Peak Highway. I know that we recycled over 20,000 tons of crushed toilets into sub-base material. And on and on. Data was a hallmark of our sustainability program, and I used it to drive results in a community that didn’t always prize sustainability.

What’s most remarkable, however, is that in 2010 we made the largest single-year greenhouse gas cut by a city in the country. We took a big step towards saving our planet—but lost sight of our people in the process. We ended up on the front of Governing Magazine because of it. These amazing CO2 cuts were made through the law of unintended consequence, not intentional environmental action.

As anyone who has heard of the three legs of sustainability will tell you, there is an oft-repeated triple-bottom-line mantra of people, profit, planet. Basically, a correct decision in sustainability balances the people impacted, the economic development, and our environment. But, what was the real impact of these cuts?

"For sustainability to work, it must make sense on all 3 three levels: people, profit, and planet."

In one year, we cut our emissions as a city organization from 92,361 metric tons of CO2 to 77,725, reducing 14,636 metric tons and nearly 16 percent of our total carbon footprint. We also reduced water use as a city by over one-third in a semi-arid climate. On a planetary level, we absolutely crushed it.

So, what’s the problem? How did we lose our people? Well, we made these extraordinary cuts by shutting off streetlights, eliminating transit routes, and not watering our parks. That’s right. It turns out that if you stop offering city services, it has a massive environmental impact. No shocker there.

We became famous (and infamous) for these cuts across the country. These cuts were driven by the Great Recession, a tax-averse community, and restrictive TABOR laws that choke out good government. But I digress. The point is that the city had made as many cuts as possible over the last decade, and this global event forced these drastic measures.

We rolled out a streetlight adoption program, making worse the issue of the haves and the have-nots. We created “adopt pretty much anything you want” programs to try and shore up the losses. We tried to justify our transit cuts to an already underserved population. We watched as our world-famous parks—a significant driver of tourism and our economy—literally dried up. The green became weeds, not grass. And our community lost faith.

That’s where data came in.

I used this as an opportunity to talk about this dichotomy of environmental benefit versus other impacts. I used the facts and the data to help craft a complete, albeit complex, story. But, the numbers mostly mean nothing to ordinary people without context. I had to learn to tell the story better and clarify the impacts in new ways.

"I had to learn to tell the story better and clarify the impacts in new ways."

Our greenhouse gas cut was the equivalent of driving a Prius to Venus and back. It was the same as planting 75,000 mature trees. However, our impact on people and the economy was being told through declining property values and stories about residents relying on transit who could no longer get to their jobs. All with the numbers to back it up. Yes, we made record strides in greenhouse-gas cuts. But nobody cared when they felt unsafe, couldn’t get to their jobs, or their parks went brown.

But still, it was the data that drove the discussion. As my wife would say, “Data turned a discussion into a decision.” Most of these services were restored over the next two years, rolling back much of the CO2 cut we had unintentionally made—a loss for our planet but a win for our community. For sustainability to work, it must make sense on all three levels: people, profit, and planet. And our initial approach did not.

Much of the data that we used was already in our Cartegraph work and asset management software, making our life much easier when talking with the community and our leaders about the impacts. We used it to tell a compelling, data-driven story. Then we turned our attention to techniques that would make a long-term impact while conserving our community fiber. No, we didn’t save the planet that year, but as in all things, balance is the key and data is the driver.

So as Earth Month once again comes to a close, remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Don’t lose touch with the purpose of your effort. Don’t forget about balance. Don’t forget about data. Don’t let the law of unintended consequences drive your success. Use your data to tell the story that needs to be told. Help us make this world better—the right way.