Omaha, Nebraska

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Our home to share our thoughts and host an (e)discussion about the opportunities sustainability presents and how our world will be changing as a result. From savvy strategies for clients to our fleet of Schwinn 10-speeds and everything in between; we invite you to the conversation and hope that we can explore true.green. together.


“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” will make you think twice about ignoring the earth’s temperature and CO2 emissions. It’s an article I invite everyone who will be alive tomorrow to read.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Bill McKibben just wrote “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” with math that will make you think twice about ignoring the world’s temperature and CO2 emissions. It’s an article I invite everyone who will be alive tomorrow to read.

Never mind the scary picture above used in Rolling Stones for this article, it’s a bit dramatic, even though this is some serious stuff to think about. I find it important to not let doom and gloom overshadow hope, but it is important to be aware of challenges facing us.

3 numbers summarizing this challenge from the article:

  • Celsius – What the world (2009 G8 Summit, the Major Economies Forum, and the Copenhagen Conference) has agreed is the limit of warming we want to (can?) live with. Where we are now: .8° Celsius
  • 565 Gigatons – Our Carbon Budget over the next 40 years. 565 Gigatons is the amount of CO2 that humans can pump into the atmosphere by midcentury and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees.
  • 2,795 Gigatons  – The known amount of CO2 potential in the ground–5 times larger than our Carbon Budget. Fossil fuel companies are planning on burning all 2,765 Gigatons with business as usual, in fact making investments based on the potential return of $20 Trillion, despite what it will do to our ability to live on this planet.

What implications do these numbers have for you–in your life, in your work, at home, and in your community?

For me, I see a hotter future, though I’m not sure how it will get hotter than today’s projected high of 104°F, and more extreme weather events. What will we need to do in our community to adapt to this? What will it look like to live in a hotter future with more extreme weather events? What is the economic, social, and environmental impact of extreme weather events (think floods of 2011 and the drought of 2012)?

With as difficult as it is to predict the future, I do know two things, one is that we need to rise to face this challenge head on and stop pretending it will go away on its own, and two, doing so will take an investment today for our future. It will cost us more right now, but for good cause, it is insuring against the risks of doing nothing. Investments, by their very nature take time, energy, and resources today, to make for a better tomorrow.

The fee and dividend plan referenced by Bill McKibben is a system that minimizes the hardship on everyone, while increasing efficiencies and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels so we can stay within our carbon budget.

This will take political will, a decision we as a country have to make for our future. This makes it absolutely necessary to invest in energy and resource efficiency; imperative that we generate our energy with clean, renewable sources. This isn’t hard stuff, even now, organizations are making changes every day to become more efficient and to generate renewable energy. All it takes is a decision, a conscious choice, to make this investment now.

After thinking about the implications that this new earth has in my life, I’d to keep our planet similar to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability, that we will be leaving if we continue on our current path. I’m willing to invest now in my future. Are you?

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As I strolled back into the office after a week of completely unplugged vacation-hood, I couldn’t help but notice that The Go-Go’s timeless classic Vacation was playing overhead. Ahhhhh. Nothing like a little Belinda Carlisle to bring me back to reality.

The transition into and out of a vacation can be tough. For me, it’s always been more difficult on the front-end, and it took me a few days last week to get into my vacation zone. My wife, daughter and I were lucky enough to spend five amazing nights on Star Island, which lies neatly in Minnesota’s Cass Lake. The majority of the island is in Chippewa National Forest, which means the 980 acre island is rigidly managed and remains a nature-centric place with no vehicles, many historic cabins, and wildlife galore.

I couldn’t have asked for a better place to unwind and re-energize. We’ve always preferred vacations where we are immersed in nature and Star Island was no different. Awaking to the sound of a loon call is far superior to the iPhone vibration I’m used to. My morning cup of coffee was better while strolling with the little one along the trails outside the cabin. And I never felt more relaxed than when I was quietly swimming alone in Cass Lake while turtles climbed along the shore and bald eagles flew overhead. Jealous? You should be. It was great!

LL "hiking" amidst the white pines on Star Island.

While I always knew that nature had a restorative power, I’m learning more about the science behind it. Last week I started Richard Louv’s latest book, The Nature Principle. Louv is author of the national bestseller Last Child in the Woods and has been a leader in helping to define and draw awareness to “nature deficit disorder.” In a nutshell, Louv draws strong, direct connections between access to nature and human health (physical, mental and spiritual).

Although I only managed to get about halfway through the book (I preferred to sit back and enjoy nature rather than reading about how I should be doing just that), the connection between humans and nature is already abundantly clear. We are far better off when we have regular access to the natural world. That doesn’t mean we need to live in a national forest, though. It need not be that intense. But it does need to be present in some way.

Now that I’m back at my desk, I’m kicking around ideas to get our clients and Team Verdis out into nature more. Student performance improves with increased access to nature. Patients recover quicker. Employees are more productive. Yet it’s often easier said than done. For our part, we’re going to start having meetings somewhere other than in a conference room. Although that’s going to have to wait a few days until this nasty hot spell passes through Omaha.

Onward and upward.

Note: If you’re interested in learning more about Star Island, check out Star Island: A Minnesota Summer Community available in paperback. I haven’t read it yet but my curiosity about the island’s history and what will happen going forward has been piqued. It’s a very unique place to say the least.

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Omaha’s Metro Transit rolled out bike racks on its buses in September 2008. The racks were installed on every bus in the fleet using pedestrian bridge project funds. Every bus is equipped with a rack that can carry up to two bikes, and there is no extra charge to use them. If you’ve never used the racks, you can find “Bike & Ride” instructions on Metro’s website.

Metro has been tracking how many bikes it carries since it installed the racks, and the data is staggering. When looking at year-to-date numbers through June, 2012 has seen nearly twice as many bikes on the racks as 2011, and Metro buses have already carried more bikes so far in 2012 (7,269) than in all of 2010 (7,021). The graph below shows the number of bikes on the bus racks from January through June in the past four years:

(link to download (.pdf): Metro Transit Rack Use YTD Comparison)

Three of the four highest-use months in the past four years were April 2012 (#4), May 2012 (#1), and June 2012 (#2). If past years are any indication, the rest of 2012 should also be phenomenal. The graph below shows monthly bike rack use for the past four years. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, use of the racks peaked in August or September. May 2012 appears to have been a peak (2012 is the first year that June was lower than May). However, with the continued heat wave and more and more individuals familiar with how to use the racks, I expect we’ll see, for the first time, a month with more than 2,000 bikes by the end of the year.

(link to download (.pdf): Metro Transit Rack Use Monthly Comparison)

Keep on riding and thank you to Metro for supporting multi-modal transportation options!

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In order to show that Verdis is not a culturally monolithic company—or simply to prove that Craig is a cool* boss—I wanted to express my own, slightly different viewpoint on the subject of commuting-related challenges.

Like Craig, I also regularly commute to work by bicycle only, bicycling to the bus, carpooling, and occasionally driving alone. I also have been actively participating in both the Activate Omaha Bicycle Commuter Challenge and the Metro [bus and carpooling] Commuter Challenge. Even though both challenges provide easy, web-based systems to track your commutes, I forget to enter data some days and have to go back. However, I continue to participate because I have no problem being possibly rewarded for something I am doing anyway. I should also add that I like to keep track of data so I can analyze things later; the challenge tools allow me to do that in a more social way.

In fact, along the lines of Craig’s suggestion, I do track the miles driven and gasoline consumed in the car my wife and I share. I’ve been tracking these things since 2003. Even though I use a pen and notebook, it is actually easier than ever to do with apps available for nearly every model of smart phone.

Granted, I may not be the intended audience or target market for these challenges, but since I regularly use multiple modes anyway, I welcome the extra encouragement. Perhaps the real question is whether the main purpose is to reward current users or attract new users (or both)? If the former, the challenges are fulfilling their purpose (unless you are like Craig and feel like you are being punished). If the latter, the challenges may be too onerous. Someone who chooses to use drive alone each day (for whatever reason) may not be willing to tackle the double “challenge” of both switching their commuting habit and, oh my gosh, keep track of their use.

I personally have no mixed feelings about participating in the challenges, and at least in the case of the bicycle commuting challenge, believe I am helping meet a third purpose that is critical to Omaha’s community development: I am helping create a body of data that demonstrate support for what are currently alternative modes of transportation. For me that is the most important outcome and supersedes any qualms I could have about logging my trips, or concerns about whether the challenges are actually reducing single-occupancy vehicle use. So I am happy to participate. Like the old Tums commercials said about the calcium content of the chalky antacid, “It’s something my body needs anyway,” these challenges are good for the community even if they aren’t getting people out of cars. On the other hand, sometimes my coworkers say I am nuts.

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*I have to qualify “cool” because, as a side note, Craig and I are diametrically opposed on the issue of whether the serial, or Oxford, comma is appropriate to use. I dig it, he say “not cool.” But I am not shocked that more people support it than not as shown by the results of our Facebook and in-house polls:

 

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It is summer in Omaha, which means it’s also commuter challenge season. This year we have the opportunity to participate in two challenges: First is Activate Omaha’s well-established and highly popular Bicycle Commuter Challenge, which runs for five months and is singularly focused on biking. New to the fray is Metro and MAPA’s Metro Commuter Challenge, which asks participants to carpool or take the bus from July 9–August 3.

I have mixed feelings about participating in these challenges.

On the one hand, it draws great attention to a few excellent and sustainable means by which to commute. In Omaha, approximately 96% of commuters move about alone in their traditionally-fueled vehicle. That’s preposterously high and clearly shows why the quality of our air is declining*. These programs also get people thinking about their commute and how they might pursue a more sustainable, healthier and less expensive alternative to their normal, lonely drive.

On the other hand, as someone who often commutes by bus and bike, I almost feel like I’m being punished by having to log every trip. Maybe we should consider asking the other 96% to log how many miles they travel, how much they’re spending on gas, and what their emissions are. As someone who used to almost exclusively commute alone in my car, I can reasonably assume that most people don’t track the financial or environmental impact of their commute. Doing so might open a few eyes.

The timing of the Metro Commuter Challenge is interesting in light of the Brookings Institute report that was released yesterday, which found that 76.2% of jobs in Omaha are accessible by public transportation, but only 28.5% of metro-area workers can get there in 90 minutes or less. Yes, you read that right: 90 minutes. How long is your commute? And we wonder why more people aren’t using public transportation in Omaha.

Metro's system provides access to 76% of Omaha businesses

To Metro‘s credit, they’re doing a great job with the ridiculously low budget they have. And the access figures referenced above are right on par with what Brookings found when studying the service provided by 371 transit authorities nationally. That doesn’t make it right, it just makes it normal.

The Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (yes, two separate entities…the hospital and the university) are particularly interested in seeing Omaha’s alternative transportation landscape improve. They’re expecting a major pinch on their parking infrastructure in the next five years, and we’re excited to be helping them think about how they can minimize that pressure without immediately defaulting to building new surface lots or structured parking. Both are helping fund and participating in the Midtown Transit Alternatives Analysis, further evidence of their commitment to improved transit in the area.

When all is said and done, I’m happy to participate in both of these challenges, and I truly hope that it’s one small way that we can continue to improve the alternative transportation landscape in Omaha. But if that #11 bus doesn’t show up once more, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Onward and upward.

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*Special note: The June 8, 2012 Omaha World Herald article regarding Omaha’s air quality included this list of “Things you can do to lessen ozone:”

gas up your car and mow your lawn after 7 p.m.; stop filling your vehicle when the nozzle first clicks off; and avoid using gasoline-powered small engines. In other words, sweep your driveway and rake your leaves rather than use 
a leaf blower.

Seriously!?! No mention of getting out of your car and walking, biking, bussing, carpooling, working from home or otherwise limiting single-occupancy vehicle trips. While I’m pleased the Herald covered the story, it’s ridiculous that the reporter didn’t offer better options for Omahans to make a difference.

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Several months ago we posted an opening for a summer intern. We were overwhelmed with the quality and breadth of the responses we received. From coast to coast and across disciplines, it was a high-quality field, and we had to resist the urge not to hire two individuals.

After a series of grueling interviews, a tough contract negotiation and a weeks-long orientation, we’re happy to report that Gabby Peterson is already three full weeks into an eleven-week  (or more if we can talk her into sticking around) internship. Gabby is entering her senior year at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Northwestern University is in Evanston, IL, which is not far from Wrigley Field in Chicago.

She’s working on her Bachelor of Science in Journalism with minors in Environmental Policy and Culture, Classics. An interesting trio of foci to say the least, but we are excited to really push her limits in all three areas. Although it’s going to take a herculean effort for her to bring me up to speed on Culture, Classics.

In our short time together, we’ve already learned a few important things about Gabby and her capabilities:

  • Highly responsible. Before her first day of work she spent a few weeks in Europe. While there, she actually called me to talk through a few things. Uuuhhhh, Gabby, you’re in France. Don’t call me anymore.
  • Gallup Strengths: Learner, Input, Intellection, Relator and Ideation.  All but one of which are in the Strategic Thinking category, in which I have no Gallup Strengths. I like her already.
  • Great perspective. We asked her to start blogging, and I gave her a handful of ideas for what she could write about. She then offered another idea related to urban design and development and what role bars play. It was a dramatically better idea than any I offered.

We’re already depressed that she’s going to have to leave us come September. To date, we’ve only offered her a full-time position twice, although I suspect that number could ramp up quick towards the end of August. For now, we’re extremely happy to have her on board and are doing our best to minimize the extent to which she needs to visit this list of Ten Ways to Deal with Internship Boredom. Coffee anyone?

Onward and upward!

Gabby's coffee mug. She only gets coffee for herself...so far.

 

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The Recycling Symbol. We see it almost everyday, and almost anyone can tell you what it means. It is rare for an abstract design to gain such widespread recognition. But where did it come from?

The symbol was designed in the early 1970s when architecture and urban planning student Gary Anderson responded to a design competition by the Container Corporation of America. The contest was to design a symbol to represent recycled paper.

Anderson modified and polished a design he had used earlier for a presentation on recycling waste water, and won the competition. After winning, he saw the symbol on a bank statement once and then forgot about it until seven years later while traveling in Europe when he saw the symbol on a recycling bin. The rest is history.

You can read the full story on the Financial Times website.

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I’m on the plane headed home from D.C. after a torrid and invigorating few days at the USGBC’s School Sustainability Leaders Summit. My mind is simultaneously racing and completely at ease. Yes, I know that sounds a little impossible. Let me explain.

Mind Status: Racing
Why: Opportunity Overload?

I just finished reading my copy of “The Impact of School Buildings on Student Health and Performance,” which sheds light on the critical need for research around how the school building impacts the health and performance of the students in those buildings. Once I finished, I flipped to the back cover and started doodling. Doodling turned to mind-mapping about the 2012–13 school year at the Omaha Public Schools, and an hour or so later the graffiti on the back cover completely took over. Here’s what it looks like now:

OPS Plan for 2012–13: If you can make sense of this, please call me.

It’s all pretty clear, right? Yeah, um. Maybe not.

The conversations at the Summit were so rich that I’m having trouble really zeroing in on what is most important for us to tackle first. Actually, that might not be true. The hard part is deciding what to leave on the bench. In a school district as big as OPS (50,000 students), there is much work to be done, and I couldn’t be more thankful for the opportunity I enjoyed the last few days with some great green school thinkers and doers. I’ll be spending the weekend revisiting my heavily-doodled white paper and thinking about refining our plan for the next twelve months. I suspect my mind will be racing all weekend.

Mind Status: At Ease
Why: We’re on Track

We have been working with the Omaha Public Schools since this little dream of a company became a reality in July, 2009. The district’s sheer size meant we had the opportunity to have a big impact right out of the gate, and I’m happy to report the results have been good.

Over the last three years we’ve developed an Energy and Sustainability Action Plan (the vision), created a quasi-governance structure with key focus teams, activated change agents in pretty much every school, removed barriers, measured results, provided feedback and recognition, and kept everyone reasonably focused. In essence, the steps the district has taken the last three years align nicely with much of what was informally outlined the last few days. In other words, we’re on track.

While I was in DC, Patrick McAtee sent me and the rest of the team the most recent version of the graph below, which plots OPS’ district-wide average ENERGY STAR rating versus the district’s rolling 12-month energy costs for the last few years. More good news.

ENERGY STAR vs. Energy Costs: Does it get any sexier?

The district-wide ENERGY STAR rating has climbed 15 points since hitting the low point in September, 2010. Relatedly, financial savings related to energy costs have piled up as well. Thanks to the efforts of many, many people across the Omaha Public Schools, great results are being achieved, and we are immensely happy that we’ve been able to work with such a great partner in OPS.

The strategies we’ve been implementing for the last three years not only align with what green school experts like Dr. Jennifer Cross and Dr. Brian Dunbar recommend, they’re working. And that puts my mind at ease.

It’s Time to Make the Doughnuts

While the results have been great thus far, we’re not resting and are not satisfied. We still meet new opportunities every time we walk around a corner. It’s not much of a surprise, really. In a school district this size, there are always going to be ways to improve. We’re particularly interested in how we can engage students in a more meaningful way in 2012–13. That’s a tough nut to crack, but it was an overriding theme at the Summit, and I can’t get it out of my head: engage the students, tie to curriculum, engage the students, tie to curriculum. It’s a mantra I’m taking to our upcoming planning sessions. We’ll see where it goes from there.

Onward and upward.

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