omaha, nebraska (402) 681 - 9458 | info@verdisgroup.com

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.


The American Institute for Cancer Research has produced a very helpful infographic that illustrates how incorporating small breaks throughout the workday and a period of moderate to vigorous physical activity can reduce the cancer risk indicators. The great thing about this is that not only will adding short breaks every hour help you reduce the risk of cancer, it will help you be more productive, energized, and focused throughout the rest of your day!

The connection to sustainability is obviously that healthier, happier employees have a much more positive impact on the company, and by encouraging frequent short breaks, the company is also more attractive to employees. This bolsters both the “people” and “prosperity” legs of the three-legged sustainability stool. It is a simple easy way for employers to incorporate sustainability into their corporate culture.

Leave a Comment »

Trees, and the value they add to our community, have been on my mind lately. I’m extremely fortunate to live in a neighborhood where mature trees are the norm and my neighbors sincerely appreciate and adore their trees. As evidence of this love, see exhibit A below.

Exhibit A: This sign appeared a few weeks before a 70+ year old pine was removed from a neighbor's yard.

An adoration and appreciate for beautiful trees isn’t a new thing. Nor is the realization that trees add value to our lives. I’ve heard so many stories of people receiving fulfillment through the presence and beauty of their favorite oak tree. Similarly, there are plenty of stories of heartbreak due to the loss of a tree; it’s not quite the loss of a pet, but it can be comparable.

The fact that trees improve property values is also not a new concept. This 1980 study summarized in the Journal of Arboriculture  showed that in the area studied (Manchester, CT), if a house had good tree cover, as much as six to nine percent of the total sales price of that home can be attributed to good tree cover. A more recent broader study on the value of nature from the University of Washington’s Green Cities: Good Health program found that the presence of larger trees adds value to residential values, directly relates to higher commercial rental rates, and could cause shoppers to spend more. There are several more studies with similar findings on property value and the like. The case is pretty clear.

Similarly, we’re now starting to see evidence that there’s a correlation between income levels and tree cover. Tim DeChat, who blogs at Per Square Mile, recently highlighted a two-year-old study that found a strong relationship between higher tree cover and higher income. In essence, the better the tree cover in your neighborhood, the more likely it is that incomes are higher.

The explanation, posit the authors, is that wealthier property owners and city governments can afford to plant more trees. Makes good, logical sense to me. I don’t foresee a causal relationship between tree cover and income (you’re not going to start earning more simply because you moved to a dense forest). Nevertheless, I think it’s immensely important that cities look for ways to increase tree cover. There are several benefits trees provide, above and beyond what value they add to our property or income levels. Just a few include:

  • Provide shade from the boiling hot summer sun (duh)
  • Clean the air and sequester carbon
  • Serve as a traffic calming devices
  • Reduce stress
  • Fight crime
  • Provide an in-your-backyard opportunity to learn about nature (I’ve been taking “nature walks” with my daughter since she was only a few months old)
  • Trees were the original jungle gym

DeChant took the study’s results a step further and grabbed two Google Earth images from a few cities to do a little unscientific compare and contrast of their higher income neighborhoods versus lower income neighborhoods to see if he could tell the difference just from the images. The results were pretty clear, which got me thinking about the same exercise in Omaha. I compared my neighborhood (Midtown) to what is largely considered to be the poorest section of town, North Omaha. The images are below. Can you tell which is which?

Option One: Midtown or North Omaha?

 Or…

Option Two: Midtown or North Omaha?

The answer: the top image is from North Omaha; bottom image from Midtown.

A couple things jump out at me. First, it’s difficult to measure tree cover when the images were taken in winter. The leaves are gone and you don’t get a good sense for the true tree cover. (If anyone has a better mapping system with spring, summer or fall images, please share.) Secondly, the noticeable difference between the two areas was the number of vacant lots in North Omaha. That’s another topic for another day, although there are some pretty interesting things you can do with vacant lots to ensure that they’re adding value to a community, rather than detracting from it.

Needless to say, we love trees. I love trees. I used to live in West Omaha in a brand new home with only one little ash tree in the front yard. I now live in a 1920s home surrounded by a cornucopia of tall, beautiful trees. I’m lucky to live where I do, but I also hope that we can find a way to continue giving the gift of trees throughout Omaha.

Tonight is a particularly good night to start discussing the topic when I’ll be attending another great event hosted by our friends at Emerging Terrain. It is the first in their ET Talks series and the topic is Public Space and what it means in Omaha. It promises to be a fascinating discussion, and I hope, at least once or twice, we talk about how important trees and the natural environment are. If I have anything to do with it, we certainly will.

Onward and upward.

 

Leave a Comment »

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.

Leave a Comment »

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.

—————————————————————————————

*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.

Comments(3)

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.

Leave a Comment »

I’m in Washington, DC for a few days this week attending the School Sustainability Leaders Summit. It’s a three-day focused discussion on greening K12 schools hosted by the United States Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools, and I am really excited to be representing the Omaha Public Schools and Verdis Group while here.

The first day was very much intended to build some rapport amongst attendees (there are just over 40) and establish a foundation for the discussions that will be held on days two and three. One of the first things that struck me about my fellow attendees is that they are all so intensely passionate and excited about the work they’re doing. It was inspiring to hear all of the achievements that many schools and school districts have accomplished, and I’m looking forward to getting into the weeds on a few projects that piqued my interest (students doing energy audits, revolving loan funds, city-wide coalitions, etc.).

We went through an exercise where each attendee wrote two achievements, two visions, and two barriers on post-it notes and then stuck them on the wall. Once organized into categories, a brief discussion ensued where people offered observations. The crux of our conversation was actually focused around the idea of culture change and how to move a school district towards a culture that embraces sustainability.

The Post-It Note Exercise Outcome

It’s not much of a surprise, at least in my mind, that so many were having such a difficult time getting it done. It’s hard and complicated. In my view, there are a few keys to making it happen:

  1. Leadership Commitment. It’s a must and if it’s not there, having a meaningful sustainability program is immensely difficult. Success may occur in the short-run, but in the long-term it will likely fizzle.
  2. Tie Sustainability to Student Achievement. Let’s not kid ourselves, school administrators, teachers, staff and students are (or should be) primarily focused on one thing: student achievement. In order to have a successful green schools initiative, everything happening must lead towards, at least in some way, student achievement. I appreciated the fact that Rachel Gutter, Director of the the USGBC’s Center for Green Schools, offered this issue in her introductory remarks. We have anecdotal stories, but we need unequivocal data that makes the connection.
  3. Quick & Measurable Wins. Several attendees suggested that their initial efforts were somewhat covert in that they didn’t necessarily ask for permission from senior leadership. They identified and pursued an opportunity, achieved success, and then leveraged it to earn a commitment from leadership and others. It’s a good strategy, but the key is not only achieving the win, but measuring it so that it is easier to “make the case” when the time comes.

All in all it was a really good start to what I’m sure will be a great few days. I already have a healthy list of ideas to bring back to Omaha, yet we’ve only been together for half a day. Hopefully my head doesn’t explode before the remaining two days conclude…although if it does, I think it would be a good sign.

Leave a Comment »

I’m spending some time decompressing from CleanMed 2012 earlier this week; reflecting on what I learned, who I met, what I saw and how it changed me. From what I could tell, the conference was yet another rousing success. Attendance was high and everyone there was extremely engaged, passionate and knowledgeable. That’s great news for an industry that has such a big impact on the environment.

I was still suffering from a 2011 Aspen Environment Forum hangover, which distorted my view a bit. I found myself constantly comparing CleanMed to the Aspen Environment Forum, which is completely unfair and misguided.  They are two totally different animals geared towards achieving very different objectives.

At the Aspen Environment Form, nearly every session and subsequent conversation was really high-level, which is to say the focus was more about theories and ideas and less about strategies and actions. That’s not to say there weren’t tangible takeaways from Aspen. There were, but I found myself thinking about ideas that were pretty tough to wrap your head around: how can and will the earth’s population growth impact our lives, or why Gross Domestic Product is a bad measure of how our economy grows and what a new, better metric should include. It was big, heady stuff, and in most cases I couldn’t necessarily put much to use right away. I loved it nevertheless and hope to get back there soon…it’s Aspen, after all!

CleanMed = Implementation + Networking

CleanMed, on the other hand, seemed to focus on two things: implementation and networking. Sessions (at least those that I attended) zeroed in on what healthcare facilities should be doing and how they should be doing it. Topics ran the gamut and included such concepts as greening the operating room, reducing water consumption, composting, safer chemicals, energy conservation, employee engagement, etc. etc. A lot was covered, and it was the brass tacks of greening a hospital. I found myself taking copious notes on many tried and true strategies for success. It was, in most cases, really rich content that is immediately applicable in our work.

The other focus was networking. During the two and a half days, over nine hours wasn’t “programmed”. Such an approach allowed attendees to dive a bit deeper in their conversations. We were able to share stories about what was working, what wasn’t, and generally kick around ideas about how to be more effective in our work. Every time I spoke with another someone, the conversation was always meaningful and illuminating. Time after time, I was impressed with everyone I talked with, regardless of where they were from or what their job title was.

Major Takeaway #1: Mission Alignment

One theme came up time and time again: sustainability initiatives align with their nearly every organization’s mission to improve health. Many unintended consequences of running a healthcare facility negatively effect human health. To name just a few (and there are many): air pollution, food insecurity, aggravated pre-existing conditions, increases in infectious diseases, obesity, and death. Yes, even death. There are clear connections to all of them, and it was refreshing to hear so many healthcare professionals not only acknowledging those connections, but also strategizing about how to lessen their negative impacts. One shining example was Jeffrey Thompson, CEO of Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I was thoroughly impressed with his vision and tenacity for greening their hospital.

Major Takeaway #2: Energy is King

The sessions that drew the most attention were typically focused in some way on reducing energy consumption. This is no surprise given the industry’s operational requirements (you can’t exactly send everyone home at 5pm and shut everything down). Hospitals have more than 2.5 times the energy intensity and carbon dioxide emissions of commercial office buildings, and the EPA estimates that a $1 savings in a hospital’s annual energy costs equates to an increase of $20 in annual revenue, based on a 5 percent net operating margin. Not a bad exchange rate.

Further underscoring the importance of energy efficiency, energy costs are going nowhere but up, which presents a significant risk to a hospital’s bottom-line. And oh, by the way, the majority of the energy being purchased is emitting some pretty unhealthy stuff, which is contrary to the mission of these facilities (see takeaway #1). The good news is that there are so many opportunities to conserve energy, and many of them require no investment whatsoever.

Major Takeaway #3: From Greenhorn to Green Expert

The differences between where hospitals are in their sustainability journey is pretty stark. I met several people who were just getting their initiatives off the ground while others had been taking strides for several years. The greenhorns were busy developing strategic plans and picking low-hanging fruit while the green experts were contemplating the installation of a co-generation plant onsite. Despite the varied levels of experience, everyone felt there was more to do in their institution.

Finally…

When it was all said and done, I was really glad that I went. I have fifteen pages of notes that either reinforce what we’re already doing or are full of new ideas, new strategies and new approaches to greening the industry. I’m really excited to sit down with our friends at The Nebraska Medical Center (and anyone else in the industry that’s interested) to talk about where they want to go next.

The healthcare industry is in flux right now (for a variety of reasons). As it evolves into its new state of being, it’s clear that many in the industry are looking at sustainability as a means by which to achieve their organizational objectives. The connections are clear, the mission-imperative is there, and the business case is rock solid. Which makes me wonder, if you’re a leader and decision-maker in the healthcare industry and you’re not seriously contemplating how to take advantage of the opportunity, what are you waiting for?

 

Comment(1)

I read a recent article from All Things D in which Arik Hesseldahl described a revelation he had during a lunch meeting with former Intel CIO (and current manger of Intel’s Data Center and Connected Systems group) Diane Bryant.

In the article, Hesseldahl describes Intel’s recently announced Romley generation of its Xeon processors. The Romley chips are both 80 percent faster and 50 percent more energy efficient that the previous generation Nehalem chips. Bryant was in New York promoting these new chips prior to her lunch with Hesseldahl. During the lunch, Hesseldahl cites a J.P. Morgan survey of one hundred CIOs in large companies showing that 91 percent did not expect to upgrade their data centers with the Romley chips.

Bryant responds by pointing out that she recently visited a customer who is one of the world’s largest 100 companies. At that particular customer, she notes, 36 percent of the chips in its data center were more than four years (or two chip generations) old. But that group of chips was consuming 65 percent of the data center’s power, while providing only four percent of the computing power. 

Bryant’s counterpoint to Hesseldahl’s argument that the Romley chips might not be the game changer CIOs are looking for to upgrade their data centers shows that a simple calculation can reveal extraordinary inefficiencies in data centers. In the case of Bryant’s example, replacing the older chips will not only boost the data center’s speed and efficiency, it will also reduce the amount of energy needed to cool the computer towers.

So think about your data center’s age, capability, and efficiency sort of like a dog’s age. A dog that is five years old is actually about 35 in “dog years.” Similarly, your four-year-old data crunchers are probably about 80 years old in “computer years.” You might consider boosting your computing power and efficiency, and reducing energy expenses and emissions, by making a data center upgrade.

Leave a Comment »