Data on cities offer tools for change

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 6:40 PM

A website collecting data from 20 area communities could help drive decisions on improving quality of life.

 

It’s expensive to live in Lake Elmo, and folks there drive a lot. Woodbury residents use a lot of water. In Oakdale, energy costs are relatively low.

Those are some of the details revealed in the numbers collected by the Regional Indicators Initiative, an effort in 20 Twin Cities communities — including Woodbury, Oakdale and Lake Elmo in Washington County — to accurately measure how people live, travel, work, relax and consume energy.

The numbers are more than interesting trivia. They’re useful tools presented on an easy-to-use website (http://regionalindicatorsmn.uli.org ) so that cities can see where they stand on such issues as energy consumption and waste generation, see where specific improvements can be made and then measure more precisely if those changes are working, said Rick Carter, an architect with the Minneapolis firm LHB Inc. LHB developed and manages the website in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute, with support from the cities, state agencies, utilities, businesses and other groups.

The initiative was conceived as a way to track the progress of cities involved in the GreenStep Cities Program. The program, overseen by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, gives communities the tools and the incentives to improve a city’s sustainability.

Seven Washington County municipalities — Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo, Mahtomedi, Newport, Oakdale, St. Paul Park and Woodbury — are part of the GreenStep program. They not only save energy and resources; the results are seen in the bottom line, and the indicators gauge exactly how much.

“Absolutely the most useful purpose of this is to drive changes and policy,” Carter said.

While the GreenStep Program tracks which practices cities have adopted, it does not currently have a method of tracking how effective these strategies have been at “moving the needle” toward sustainability. The Regional Indicators Initiative aims to address that.

Communities in the Regional Indicators Initiative account for 27 percent of the state’s population and include St. Paul, Minneapolis and Duluth, inner-ring suburbs such as Maplewood and outer-ring suburbs like those in Washington County.

Carter offers cautions about the use of the data. In gauging carbon emissions, for example, it’s possible to get a read on energy consumption and miles traveled, but minute details on other factors that contribute to carbon footprints — such as the energy it takes to produce food that is consumed — is beyond the scope of data measured.

And while it may be interesting, and even inevitable, to make comparisons among communities, it’s important to recognize geographic, demographic and other factors that make them each unique, he said. For example, Lake Elmo’s rural character, prevalence of individual wells and limited access to mass transit make it quite different from its neighbors.

And while individual communities can keep a friendly eye on others, the main purpose for the data is to track their own progress, he said.

So here is what some of the numbers show about the three Washington County communities in the initiative. All figures are from 2011; data from previous years also are available, and 2012 numbers soon will be added.

Residential energy: Lake Elmo led all 20 cities with per-capita energy consumption of 154.64 kBTU (thousand British thermal units) a day. Woodbury followed at 125.11 and Oakdale at 103.15. The average for the 20 cities was 116.39.

Residential water: Woodbury residents used 88.2 gallons of water per capita each day, second-highest among the 20 cities. Oakdale residents used 50.58 gallons and Lake Elmo residents 31.53. The 20-city average was 62.78.

Travel: Lake Elmo residents led all 20 cities in vehicle miles traveled each day, averaging 49.59 — not surprisingly, that’s about the daily commuting distance to and from St. Paul or Minneapolis. That was about double the average of Oakdale, at 25.11, and Woodbury, with 23.99. It’s also about double the 20-city average of 24.72.

Greenhouse gases: Emissions are expressed in “carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e),” a measure of how greenhouse gases potentially affect the Earth’s climate. Lake Elmo had 14.95 CO2e, Woodbury 10.81 and Oakdale 10.52. The 20-city average was 14.01. Lake Elmo’s greenhouse gas emissions associated with travel, not surprisingly, were at 8.38, about double the 20-city average and that in Woodbury and Oakdale.

Solid waste: Oakdale residents generated 6.55 pounds of solid waste daily per capita, with Woodbury and Lake Elmo at an identical 4.22 pounds. The 20-city average was 5.05. In Oakdale, 3.19 pounds of that solid waste was recycled, 2.69 pounds was incinerated and the remaining 0.69 pounds was put in a landfill. Disposal numbers were identical in Woodbury and Lake Elmo: 2.01 pounds recycled, 1.42 pounds incinerated and the remaining 0.78 pounds put in a landfill.

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