Green Revolution in Franklin, Tennessee

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Ken Moore felt something stirring in Franklin, Tennessee. Around him were the seeds of a green movement, and as an alderman in 2008, he decided to help make Franklin a model for sustainable living. Today, he is the mayor, and Franklin is among the most sustainable cities in Tennessee.

Main Street was the first group with whom the City of Franklin partnered when the green movement started. Nancy Williams, coordinator of the Downtown Franklin Association/Heritage Foundation, recounts some of the successes of the past few years. “Curbside recycling is now a citywide institution,” says Williams. “The downtown movie theater reopened as a LEED-certified historic building, and the downtown Starbucks now has rooftop solar panels that generate electricity.”

The guiding document for the city’s efforts has been the Franklin Land Use Plan, which features sustainability themes throughout. There is no master city plan per se, but the Land Use Plan sets the vision for the community and gives detailed prescriptions for each section of the city. The zoning ordinance supports the Land Use Plan by providing a legal framework for development and the practical application of the plan’s principles. It requires open space in accordance with the Land Use Plan and mandates tree conservation, stormwater mitigation, and connectivity for all new development—less conspicuous green measures but essential components to any sustainable community nonetheless.

There is also a Franklin Greenway and Open Space Master Plan that specifically guides park and trail development. Andrew Orr, sustainability coordinator for the City of Franklin, explains that the open space plan is designed to create a well-connected network of bike lanes, sidewalks, and trails that safely link people to parks, schools, and other destinations. The city uses the plan to make sure developers integrate their properties within the proposed trailway system when appropriate. Historic District Design Guidelines in turn protect the existing fabric (and heritage) of Downtown Franklin.

Charting a New Vision

To bring the public into the process, Assistant City Administrator Vernon Gerth and Dr. Moore organized a series of public meetings in 2008. “The will of the community drove a consensus-based process that included public meetings and workshops. These sessions provided feedback on how to improve our community,” says Orr. “The outpouring of support and interest in the topic culminated in the formation of several committees. After receiving input from the citizens of Franklin, city and community leaders charted a new vision for Franklin.”

First, the city held workshops on sustainability to help draft a Sustainability Action Plan. The first meetings were so well-attended that the city adopted a new participatory format. After the second convening, 250 volunteers formed nine committees to develop the goals for the action plan. Once the action plan was drawn up, some of the committees disbanded, while others continued to meet and provide further advice. The Main Street program actively participated in these meetings.

The Sustainability Action Plan was approved in 2009 and is currently being updated. In the fall of 2009, the Board of Mayor and Aldermen established a permanent Sustainability Commission made up of nine volunteers to oversee the implementation of the action plan.

“The commission serves not only as a resource, but as a vehicle for continued implementation of the plan,” says Orr. It meets monthly and will ensure that the city remains dedicated to sustainability.

Setting Goals: Citizen-driven Sustainability Committees

To provide a more in-depth look at the goals the citizen-driven committees established and the types of projects they advised the city to implement, here are a few highlights from the Sustainable Community Action Plan, some of which have been completed.

Waste Reduction Committee: Strives for a 10 percent reduction of waste transferred to landfills annually (with eventually a 75 percent reduction by 2030). The committee is also developing an outreach program that encourages people to use recycled wood products and compost.

Water and Stormwater Committee: With a focus on water conservation and water quality, the main goals of this committee include reducing potable water usage by 25 percent during May through October and 10 percent during November through April by the year 2014. The committee is also working to establish priority sewer sheds for inflow and infiltration removal by 2014.

Urban Nature Committee: Establishes guidelines for more sustainable building practices and is working to create a “local Greenway/Open Space Master Plan for the City and the entire Urban Growth Boundary.”

Urban Design Committee: Promotes mixed-use, high-density, bikeable development in accordance with the greenway master plan.

Public Education Committee: Focuses on public outreach and teaching people ways to incorporate sustainability into their everyday lives through online information, a weekly green tips e-mail, and lectures. The committee also teaches businesses and contractors how to green their work through a Green Partner program, which includes certification for businesses that embrace sustainability.

Alternative Fuel and Energy Committee: Goals include having 5 percent of registered vehicles in Franklin use alternative energy sources by 2012 and 10 percent of citywide electricity “generated by clean and renewable means by 2014.”

Transportation Committee: Plans to provide more spaces for bicycle parking and assist regional authorities in developing more bus connections with Nashville.

Energy Committee: Goals include reducing “total citywide energy usage 20 percent per capita by 2014,” increasing energy audits, and reducing total greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental Health Committee: Goals include reducing carbon-based pollution and eliminating “volatile organic compounds” that are being used within the city limits

Businesses Living Green

Williams is happy to tell about another roaring success for sustainability: the Live Green partnership. The Live Green Partners Program recognizes businesses that are taking steps to green their operations. Business owners can choose among a wide variety of activities to cultivate a culture of sustainability in their business practices. A ratings system awards points for their actions. They can display a certificate signed by the mayor and a Live Green decal to show their participation. The city reports that more than 150 businesses have signed up so far (almost all of the Downtown Franklin Association’s members have signed up). Business owners receive a sticker to place in their front windows that indicates their level of achievement.

The steps businesses can take vary in their degree of difficulty. Business owners can use the city’s website to see what they can and should be doing to be more green. For the low-hanging fruit, the “Awareness and Basics” focuses on simple tasks such as printing double-sided documents (5 points); signing up for the “Green Tips” e-mail alerts (5 points); asking whether customers need a bag (5 points); and offering a small discount to customers who walk or ride a bike (10 points).

While the other categories in the ratings system are broken down by topic area, all achieve the idea of raising awareness. The Green Cuisine category, for example, gives 15 points for “The 100 Mile Diet — Selling food, drinks, or goods produced within a 100-mile radius of Franklin.” While this may only be possible seasonally, making it a goal whenever possible supports local businesses and boosts the local economy, as well as limiting the waste and inefficiency associated with transporting goods over long distances.

There are dozens of suggestions in the other areas, too. “Waste Reduction” action items include composting and using biodegradable materials for carryout containers. Business owners interested in conserving water can do things as simple as no longer using bottled water to installing a green roof or rain barrel to collect rainwater runoff. Similarly, there is a range of activities for conserving energy — from switching to LED lighting to getting an energy audit to seeking LEED certification. For other green actions, the program offers flexibility to business owners who want to submit alternative measures for consideration.

“The city highlights one business as the ‘Green Partner of the Month’ on its website, social media sites, and in the press,” says Orr. He goes on to describe the positive response to this program by highlighting two awards the city received: “Excellence in Green Leadership” from the Tennessee Municipal League and “Excellence in Municipal Government” from the Tennessee City Management Association.

The program was developed by a group of citizens participating in the 2009-2010 Leadership Franklin program and served as their community project. Funded by business, individual, and alumni contributions, the Leadership Franklin program is a non-profit community leadership organization that trains leaders to improve the quality of life in Franklin and Williamson County. The Sustainability Commission, the Public Education Committee, and city staff also provided guidance and support for the Green Partner of the Month program.

Green Technology

Many sustainability-related projects are already under way in Franklin — either being done by private property owners, the city, or organizations serving the downtown.

“The historic district design guidelines allow for solar installations so long as they do not detract from the area’s visual historic qualities,” says Orr. The Tennessee Valley Authority provides financial incentives for business owners to install solar panels through the Generation Partners Program. The city is also looking into ways to further promote the adoption of solar technology.

Speaking of solar power, Waste Management, a national corporation, has assisted in providing Franklin with solar-powered “smart” trash cans. These units developed by Big Belly recycle on one side and compact trash on the other (because the trash is compacted, it can be picked up less frequently, saving energy that would be used in picking up waste from traditional trash cans more often). A solar panel on the top of each unit provides power to the compactor. An internal computer chip notifies Waste Management when the unit is full.

Waste Management has also partnered with The Heritage Foundation to “green” one of the organization’s flagship events, Pumpkinfest, which attracts 50,000 people every year. Mary Pearce, executive director of the Heritage Foundation, says her organization approached Waste Management with the idea.

“Waste Management has been a great partner in all of our efforts in Franklin,” says Pearce. Activities encouraging attendees to participate in the city’s curbside Blue Bag Recycling program take center stage at Pumpkinfest, along with the “Waste Management Elvis,” who sings to children about the importance of recycling. Waste Management also works with the Heritage Foundation to make sure the waste generated by the event is recycled.

Another effort organized by the nonprofit Transportation Management Association Group (The TMA Group) is the local clean air partnership which seeks to reduce air pollution through a series of informative lunch-and-learn workshops. The TMA Group, which manages the public transportation network for the Franklin Transit Authority, has installed solar-powered transit shelters at their pickup and drop-off sites around town. They participated in the development of the Sustainability Action Plan and work with Williamson County to organize van pools, send air quality alert notices, and hold meetings to educate the business community about ways to become more sustainable.

Franklin is also part of the Electric Vehicle Project (EV Project), the largest deployment of electric vehicles and charge infrastructure in history. A joint Chevrolet-Nissan-ECOtality project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the EV Project is bringing car-charging technology and a charging-pattern study to six states and the District of Columbia. The results of the project will help in planning a future nationwide grid of charging stations. In Franklin, charging stations for electric cars will be installed downtown later this year.

Other accomplishments inspired by Franklin’s green movement include a citywide curbside recycling program; a water resources plan; energy-efficient lighting for sports activities at Jim Warren Park; and bike bollards in downtown. One of the most successful projects, says Williams, was the establishment of a cardboard recycling center in the commercial district. She cites the city government as being the major player in all this work, with her organization also being at the forefront of efforts.

Green Buildings

The aforementioned silver-level LEED-certified downtown movie theater was a major effort for the Main Street program. The treasured community resource, which opened in 1937, closed its doors in 2007. The building was severely dilapidated, says Pearce, but the community felt the loss deeply and many people expressed their dismay in the local press. The Heritage Foundation decided a downtown attraction that routinely brought a thousand visitors downtown every week was worth saving.

The foundation bought the property, restored it to its former grandeur, and equipped it with an array of green modifications, such as high-efficiency heating and air, low-voltage bulbs, and a white roof. The theater reopened on June 3, 2011.

“The greenest building is the one that is already built. Adaptive reuse of buildings and preservation are often the best kinds of [green] development.” says Orr. “Historic preservation not only contributes to Franklin’s sense of identity and vibrancy, but it also lessens the environmental impact. Investment within the Downtown Franklin Historic District helps maintain a relative balance between greenfield and infill development and helps ensure Franklin’s long-term economic viability.”

As far as new buildings are concerned, a municipal resolution was signed in support of LEED standards. An offshoot of this is the new $36 million, 97,000-square-foot police headquarters, completed in 2010 and slated to achieve a LEED Gold rating.

According to Brad Wilson, project and facilities manager for the City of Franklin, the most notable green innovation is the building’s roof. The largest green roof east of the Mississippi, it features indigenous plants and its own irrigation system. The station also uses well water and captures runoff from its parking deck in a 45,000 gallon cistern that provides water for the restroom facilities and irrigation for on-site rain gardens.

All adhesives and caulking material used in the building’s construction were low Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) rated, and the paint used inside the building was LEED certified. The interior lights dim automatically when outdoor sunlight increases. Finally, the building runs on a geothermal heating and cooling system. These and other green innovations represented between $750,000 to $1.5 million of the total cost of the project.

Green Future

Other goals and projects under way read like a green wishlist. Franklin has just received a grant from the Tennessee Main Street Program to build bike racks throughout the downtown. The city’s Department of Planning and Sustainability is working to re-design underutilized space in front of the historic post office as well as the adjacent archives building. A Starbucks and a frozen yogurt confectionary anchor the Five Points intersection, but the nearby outdoor gathering space is antiquated and minimally effective. The city would like to make this a key gathering spot and has already held one public meeting to discuss the project and make plans to complete the design by the end of the summer.

With regard to funding, says Orr, “we believe good ideas and hard work can lead to successful outcomes with minimal monetary investment. These efforts have resulted in very minimal costs, all paid for by the City of Franklin. Capital investments, on the other hand, like the blue bag residential recycling program that was implemented in July 2010, must show a favorable economic return on investment.”

As far as challenges go, Williams admits to a lack of options for recycling glass. “In the Southeast, there’s not much of a market for recycled glass. We are looking for ways to deal with that. We are working with a consulting firm right now, though, to help make our downtown Franklin events greener, and that includes glass recycling.”

Orr says the main goal of the city’s sustainability work is to foster a change in culture. Many downtown businesses recycle, conserve energy, and buy and sell locally produced goods, but “we need to continue to inform the public about the benefits of sustainability both economically and environmentally for the betterment of future generations. We are doing this currently through our website, social media sites, and press releases. There are several initiatives being considered but implementation sometimes takes longer than we would like.”

But how close is Franklin to being the most sustainable city in Tennessee? Orr says the city is making “great strides.” Things like recycling, creating pedestrian-friendly streets and neighborhoods, constructing high-performance buildings, protecting water resources, supporting renewable energy, and preserving historic sites are all happening in this quaint yet bustling city.