Report looks at Charlotte’s sustainability trends

Charlotte trails national averages on transportation and land use patterns while showing improvement in energy use and other local measures, says a first-of-its-kind sustainability report card released Tuesday.

The nonprofit group Sustain Charlotte examined data trends in nine categories to produce the report, which is aimed to help local governments set goals and create policies.

“We’re living in a time when more and more we’re making decisions using big data,” said Shannon Binns, Sustain Charlotte’s executive director. “It seems important to have an understanding of whether we’re making progress on these issues.”

The report assigns two grades for each category, the first measuring local trends and the second a comparison to national averages.

The county’s best grade was for water usage, in which Mecklenburg was given a B when compared to the nation as well as a B for its own usage trend.

Since the 2007 drought, water usage has declined significantly, which is one factor in a number of rate increases by Charlotte Mecklenburg Utilities.

Mecklenburg fared worse on land use and transportation, getting Ds in both when compared to the nation. The trend line for transportation was better, with a B.

The report said the Charlotte metro area has been ranked as the fifth most sprawling area in the nation, and that the amount of land used for parks, on a per capita basis, has decreased since 2007.

In terms of transportation, Mecklenburg received high marks for an increase in people using public transportation to get to work (2.5 percent in 2000 to 3.8 percent in 2011), as well as the construction of the Lynx Blue Line.

But the report card noted that the area still trails national averages in terms of people who commute by biking, walking or taking public transportation.

Charlotte is building a $1.1 billion extension of the Lynx Blue Line to University City. But the Charlotte Area Transit System doesn’t have enough money left to build other large rail projects.

Among the trends the report details: The number of local families and children living in poverty doubled between 2000 and 2011. Transportation costs are taking larger chunks of personal income. Sixty neighborhoods are “food deserts.” Sprawling land development continues.

“Overall what this report shows is that there are very few areas in which we are making dramatic strides forward and outshining the national averages,” Binns said.

Charlotte City Council member John Autry, who chairs the city’s environmental committee, said the region can improve.

“Are we a leader (in these areas)? Not today,” Autry said.

He said the region could make significant improvements, including a “pay as you throw” program in which residents pay for how much garbage they throw away.

“That would have a significant impact,” he said.

County manager Dena Diorio said Mecklenburg’s goal is to have a park within a 5- to 10-minute walk of all residents.

The report is aimed at local decision-makers, but the group hopes to also influence individual choices. It’s also intended to serve as baseline data for residents involved in the Mecklenburg Livable Communities Plan, which will develop community goals.

Sustain Charlotte makes recommendations for each category, with some drawn from sources such as Mecklenburg County’s biennial State of the Environment report.

The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation provides operating grants to Sustain Charlotte. The Davidson College Sustainability Scholars program provided intern Jordan Luebkemann, who helped compile the report’s data. The report’s other authors include Sustain board member Jennifer Fairchild, staff member Meg Fencil and Binns.

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