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Posted on Tue, Mar 23, 2010 : noon

Another look at Ann Arbor's State of the Environment report

By Barbara Lucas

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Every week on WEMU’sIssues of the Environment” radio, show host David Fair interviews a local guest about a local environmental issue. The show is a collaborative effort with the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Division. (If you have ideas for guests and/or topics to discuss, please contact us!)

On Feb. 3, Carsten Hohnke was a guest on the show, discussing Ann Arbor’s updated “State of Our Environment” Report. Hohnke is an Ann Arbor City Council member and a member of the city’s Environment Commission. You can listen to the archived interview which is accessed from our radio radio show calendar. You can also read about the report on the city’s Web site.

People who have grown up in Ann Arbor, or who have lived here a long time, may take the progressive stance of this report for granted. But if you aren’t “from around these parts” you may note when reading it over that it firmly takes some steps that other municipalities are far from approaching. Indeed, being cutting edge is a stated goal:

“The City of Ann Arbor strives to be at the forefront of sustainable living through its daily operations, capital improvements and purchase of products.”

Being at the forefront sometimes entails doing things that are potentially controversial. For instance, the State of the Environment Report treats human-induced climate change as fact, and describes in detail the predicted effects of climate change in Ann Arbor by the end of the 21st century.

The report takes the stand that the city is not going to wait for direction from above on this matter: “Although the United States is not participating in the Kyoto Protocol nor regulating greenhouse gases at a national level, Ann Arbor has decided that it is in both our current and future generations’ best interest to lessen our impact.”

Waiting and reacting is not the path this report favors, rather the Precautionary Principle is one of the guiding Environmental Action Plan Principles: “Precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." This principle is not well-accepted in our country — as opposed to in Europe, where it shapes environmental and health policies at all levels.

Another guiding principle the city has embraced is inherent in this Action Plan Principle: “Needs can be met while maintaining environmental quality, public health, and the availability of natural resources for future generations.”

In other words, environmental health can be achieved at the same time as economic health. This is a core controversy in a society where the pursuit of the American dream is often seen as mutually exclusive with the pursuit of environmental goals.

A desire to avoid controversy often results in inaction. The issue of invasive plants is a small example, but worth looking at: In Michigan, some people have been frustrated by what they see as a lack of progress in handling the problem of horticultural invasives, i.e. plants commonly for sale that spread from our yards into natural areas, crowding out vulnerable native species. Many other states have adopted grandfathering regulations, which take the most problematic invasives off the market, but allow a few years for them to be gradually removed from sale as stock becomes depleted (so as not to hurt the growers).

Instead of waiting for our state government to adopt such legislation, Ann Arbor published an invasive species list which includes many common plants that are big sellers for the nursery industry, such as Japanese Barberry, Periwinkle, English Ivy, and Norway Maple. The city has gone so far as to cut down Norway Maples in area parks. Again, Ann Arbor is practicing the precautionary principle vs. waiting for direction from above.

The city’s stated goal of increasing density to lessen environmental impact and help support public transit use is another potential can of worms. Much controversy surrounds higher density and new construction, especially when it means taller buildings or significant change. The city is potentially tangling with historic preservationists by saying: “New buildings are often more energy efficient and use less water than their older counterparts.”

Another departure from the prevailing winds: many of Ann Arbor’s Environmental Action Plan Goals emphasize that the automobile should not be front and center, people should be. Convincing people to get out of their cars (especially in a region where most have grown up dependent on them) is no easy task.

The city’s stated goal of using 100 percent renewable energy also likely has its critics. There are many that see America’s coal and gas reserves as relatively plentiful and accessible, and don’t agree that limited financial resources should be spent on solar, wind and battery technologies.

Time and again the Ann Arbor city government has chosen to “stick its neck out.” Many influences have led to this pro-environment mind-set. The city is home to a world class university with a strong environmental program, home to the founder of environmental education (the late Dr. William Stapp), home to a multitude of important and active environmental organizations. It’s no surprise that Ann Arbor ranked #12 in the Natural Resources Defense Council's “Smarter City” contest, honoring cities that “succeed in making their cities more efficient, responsible and sustainable” and resulting in “smarter places for business and healthier places to live.”

There is definitely room for improvement. The city’s air and water is not as clean as it should be or could be. Total per capita waste generated, electricity used and vehicle miles driven are all increasing in Ann Arbor (as elsewhere). The commercial recycling rate is only 15 percent.

Even within the actively pro-environment community, there is controversy over how best to achieve goals, especially as economic constraints limit options. But for better or worse, this report makes it clear that Ann Arbor is not going to avoid controversy by back-burnering its environmental problems - rather it is going to face them head-on.

Barbara Lucas is an environmental media specialist at Washtenaw County - see She can be reached at