Michael Walton of green|spaces: creating sustainable communities

Michael Walton of green|spaces: creating sustainable communities

Understory Team
Understory Team

Chattanooga, Tennessee is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. While the city was historically an economy-first industrial hub, recent focus has shifted toward sustainably rebuilding the city. In this episode, we learn more about the city’s history and transition to the ‘Gig City’ with the fastest internet speeds in the country. One organization green|spaces is at the forefront of the city’s sustainability transformation by championing initiatives, community engagement, and other community empowerment projects.

Michael Walton, the Executive Director of green|spaces, describes the work that his organization is doing to inspire change. We discuss the numerous community projects that green|spaces provides – everything from NextGen Homes to reducing carbon footprints to promoting electric cars with youth.  green|spaces creates value for the Chattanooga region through partnership and focus on greater social impact. Tune in to learn more about their work and how to potentially scale these initiatives to a city near you.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (Host of the Understory podcast): Welcome to another episode of The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community of innovators, entrepreneurs, and organizations that are applying technological innovations to drive sustainable change in our world. Today we are very excited to have Michael Walton, who is the Executive Director of green|spaces, join our episode.

Michael, welcome to The Understory Podcast. Tell us more about your background before we discuss further about green|spaces.

Michael Walton (Executive Director of green|spaces): Thanks so much for having me JJ. I'm excited to talk today.  I grew up in Greenville, Tennessee in northeast Tennessee, and went to UT Knoxville for architecture and then moved to Washington, D.C. to practice architecture for Envision Design and then Perkins + Will which bought us in 2012. We focused on sustainable design for leading environmental nonprofits as well as social justice nonprofits in the D.C. area. That work was all about pushing the envelope of sustainable design, while making sure that the benefits are equitably appreciated.

In 2014, I moved to Chattanooga to become the Executive Director at green|spaces and take over from the previous executive director, who was on her way to Charlotte, NC. We've been building a really special organization and an approach to advancing sustainability that is very place-based and unique. That has led us to a lot of fantastic opportunities to talk to people about this emerging economy and cast a vision for a city in the future that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

JJ: That’s great! As I learn more about green|spaces, green|spaces’ mission is to advance the sustainability of living, working and building together in the region of Chattanooga. Before we talk about the specific programs, what makes Chattanooga special? Why is it the right place to build a holistic program or to drive sustainability from all funds?

Michael: That's a great question. It's such a fascinating place. My wife and I looked all over when we had decided to relocate from D.C. and we wanted to be closer to family, with our kids. We looked at a wide range of cities across the Southeast. A lot of the cities that we looked at had gotten past the point of no return when it came to both environmental and social dynamics in their development timeline. A lot of displacement had already happened in places like Asheville, Nashville and Atlanta. Chattanooga has a unique experience as a city because was once the dirtiest city in the country, due to its strategic location as a crossroads of rail and barge traffic on the Tennessee River. It sits exactly in between Nashville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Huntsville, and Birmingham. Once interstates were built, it rapidly became an industrial hub of the Southeast because of its central location, which led to terrible air quality and terrible water and land quality from pollution.

Chattanooga demonstrated what it looks like when you have economic prosperity without environmental and social sustainability. From the 70s up through the 2000s, they were consciously working to rebuild the city around having a stronger respect for the natural resources that make this one of the absolute most beautiful places to live in the world. The topography of the city is just striking. There’s leftover industrial architecture, buildings left from the industrial era that haven't been touched. There's a lot of real opportunity to remake the city into a city of the future in ways that no other city in the United States has been able to accomplish.

That's leveraging some special technological advantages that we can talk about later, but it's also leveraging this culture of seeing environmental damage and then coming back from the brink of that, laying that foundation for how to rebuild.

JJ: Thank you for that background because most people don't necessarily know that history. Chattanooga is one of the fastest growing cities in the US. You talk about the programs that are empowering the city to be more green and sustainable, to be a place where all these people and companies are coming to the city. Can you specifically highlight some of the programs that you're building with green|spaces?

Michael: We have a really wide range of programs. You can think of green|spaces as an incubator or a holding company. We have all of these smaller brands underneath the umbrella, but all of them are focused on raising the ceiling and the floor of sustainability in Chattanooga. What I mean by that is we work with businesses, institutions, and government that can afford to push the envelope and explore these rapidly advancing opportunities like electrification of transportation or integrating renewable energy into the smartest grid in the country. Simultaneously, we have some of the lowest electric rates in the country and some of the highest average bills in the country, which points to a lot of inefficiency in the building stock. This hurts the poorest people that live in Chattanooga and in the rural counties around Chattanooga.

Our Empower program is focused on low cost and no cost ways for people to lower their electric bills. Both reducing their carbon footprint, but also just making life more affordable, having more money left over for rent, food, or transportation. We started this focus on power in 2014 after I started at green|spaces, and it's based on deep community engagement and relationship building. It goes way beyond just energy efficiency. We connect people to all sorts of resources relating to water quality or relating to environmental justice. But that's Empower.

On top of Empower, we built a program called Build it Green, which is part of the Core Network. We just received our excellence accreditation from the Core Network. This is part of the emerging civilian climate core, so we work with at-risk young adults and provide wrap around support as well as training to connect them to opportunities in green building and sustainable development.

On the side of our programs that are pushing the envelope, we have the Chattanooga Green Prix, which is an electric car race for elementary schools, middle schools and high schools that build their own electric vehicles and then race them around a racetrack. These aren't remote control cars; these are cars that they're driving. The video on our website is just spectacular at conveying what it's like for the kids to experience this because it’s more than learning about electric vehicles and mechanics. The experience teaches grit because it's an endurance race, and the students have to fix things when they go wrong. I tell people, “I don't care what job you have after you graduate. Things are going to go wrong whatever that job is. Your ability to succeed is predicated on your ability to figure out what's wrong, not point fingers at who is responsible for that.  Roll up your sleeves, figure it out, fix it and get the car back out there. You know the problem is going to be unpredictable, it's not something you're going to be able to study for”. I really feel like as an experience it teaches life skills way beyond what most students can get in the traditional classroom.

We also, through our Green Light Green Business certification and Green Leader professional certificate, have the ability to help businesses think about their triple bottom line which is their environmental, economic and social performance as a business. So that suite of programs really lets us push the envelope of sustainability in Chattanooga.

JJ: That's amazing. I think what I also love about the programs that you're involving the residents, you're involving the kids, the schools and the community to be part of the process of making the city more green, more sustainable, and I think that's unique. Instead of pushing programs to people, you're involving people to build it together.

Michael: That's exactly right. So much of what we do at green|spaces is not necessarily telling people what to think, but engaging them in the process and inspiring change. What we're trying to do is shift the culture and bring people along on this journey so that everybody knows that they can come to green|spaces and figure out what that next step is for them. We don't expect everybody to be perfect. We don’t expect everybody to be zero carbon tomorrow, whether that's an individual or a business.

What we really focus on is taking that next step in the journey. Everybody is on this journey and is trying to do better. One of our biggest obstacles can be the sense of being overwhelmed. Some challenges are so big, it shuts us down, where it's like “Well, I can't fix climate change so I'm just not going to worry about it”. That’s really what we must fight. It's not enough to just take that one step you must be hopeful and optimistic and raise your voice to be part of this global chorus that can activate the change that we want to see.

Over the last 2-3 years, we're starting to see that. Especially if you look at the global investment trends. In 2020, even in the midst of the recession, there was a 96% increase investment in sustainable assets over 2019, which is just shocking. If you think about how much the global pandemic had everybody's attention, I think it was helpful for people to see how fragile some of these systems are that we have come to assume are going to be there for us.

JJ: You are absolutely right. One of the things you highlight is the NextGen Homes. I imagine there's a lot of development happening in Chattanooga from a real estate perspective. Do you work with real estate property developers to work with homeowners? Or is green|spaces building or demonstrating what the NextGen Homes could look like?

Michael: The beginning of green|spaces in 2007 was trying to bridge the gap in the market to help bring local developers, architects, contractors along into the green building movement. green|spaces started when there were zero LEED certified projects in Chattanooga. Their goal was to get 20 in a three year period. They ended up getting 43 LEED certified projects, and now we’re looking at taking that next step. From 2014 to 2016, we did a demonstration development of net zero energy residential to show, not just builders but lenders appraisers, realtors, buyers, the whole chain that leads to a house getting built. We showed people how zero energy homes work, how conventional they are, how easy they are to do and how you can make money off it. We generated revenue for our nonprofit from this development.

The next two years we're going to be working on developing a living building. On August 9th and 10th we're going to have a regenerative design summit here in Chattanooga that looks at buildings like the Kendeda building in Atlanta, the Bullet Center in Seattle and how Chattanooga can develop a building like this that will be our future headquarters for green|spaces. The idea is how do buildings move beyond doing less harm to the environment to how can buildings do more good? That's the premise of the Living Building Challenge that the International Living Futures Institute runs.

JJ: That's incredible for the nonprofit. What would you tell other nonprofits or other organizations that are trying to do something similar for their city or region? That's what you're doing, you're pushing Chattanooga forward using a lot of these programs, collaboration with the community, and partnership with the private side as well. How is your nonprofit funded? What lessons do you give to others who aspire to build the equivalent of green|spaces in another city?

Michael: That's a great question. There is so much to learn both in the US and outside the US from what we've been able to accomplish in Chattanooga. I think the keys to our success, and I'll split this question in terms of general, and then we'll talk about the more specifics around things like revenue.

Generally, all of our work comes from strong partnerships and an abundance mentality when it comes to developing partnerships with other nonprofits and with for-profits. There are some places where the nonprofit world can be very competitive and cutthroat and so people feel like if another nonprofit is getting funding that is at the expense of their nonprofit. We entirely reject that theory.

When I started at green|spaces in 2014, we had a local foundation that launched green|spaces and then another local foundation came in to help support it. As we have developed such strong partnerships with communities, other nonprofits and businesses, we have been able to grow the diversity and the strength of our revenue streams, and even develop program revenue. The NextGen Homes generate program revenue for us, the Green Leader Professional certificate which is offered through UTC, offers program revenue. There is also our Green|Light program, where we consult with businesses to help them start a sustainability program. Businesses pay a fee, and then we work with developers. They pay for that consulting and then we use those proceeds to do the work, like Build it Green and Empower that are serving low income communities.

As we are bringing everybody along, a big part of it has been the economic development story of Chattanooga and our economy. When we started the Green Prix in 2018, nobody was building electric vehicles in Chattanooga. Now Volkswagen that just announced that they're going to be building all of their electric vehicles in Chattanooga, and they're even looking at building a new plant here. Ford announced that they're going to be building their electric trucks in Tennessee. GM and Nissan are building electric vehicles in Tennessee. Rivian just announced that they are going to build a factory just across the border in Georgia. We're rapidly becoming this epicenter for this electric vehicle supply chain, and that's especially important because we have the most advanced smart grid in the country. Our local power company EPB took it upon themselves to build a Gigabit fiber optic network. That's why there's this nickname for Chattanooga called the ‘Gig City’ because we were the first publicly-owned Gigabit fiber optic network in the country and it's available at every house. The families that qualify for free and reduced lunch in Chattanooga get free fiber optic Internet delivered to their house at speeds that are greater than what anybody can buy in most major cities.

JJ: That's amazing especially if you think about the future of a sustainable city.

Michael, you talk about the programs you’ve funded and how you're generating value, both commercially to support the nonprofit itself, but also to run programs to increase equity and improve the lives of more people, not just a few. What is the model that can make an organization like this sustainable?

Michael: I think the thing that you mentioned there is value, and that's something that we really focus on at green|spaces is how we add value. One good example that we found was when we were doing weatherization work with our Build It Green program. Weatherization, for those that don't know, is air sealing, insulation, doing weather stripping around doors and windows, to make a house less drafty, and keep the air that you're heating and cooling inside the house instead of letting it out. We were doing that for energy efficiency, but we found out we were generating health benefits from this. Since 2015, we've been working on developing a business model where we've been getting a lot of help from the Green Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore, MD, who built a very similar program there. The idea is to generate savings for medical care, especially for asthma. For example, you have a kid with asthma that's going to the hospital multiple times a year, the Medicaid agency is spending $50,000 on this kid a year. Every time they're in the hospital, they send him straight back to a house full of mold. You think maybe we should deal with the mold next time? It’s just absurd that that’s not how the system works.

The system is based on clinical care. We've had success in developing these relationships with managed care organizations, where the last contract that mentioned housing 47 times. We're now really starting to get to that point where the healthcare agencies are starting to see that overlap, and we've been able to clearly document the value that we're creating. We're building a funding mechanism to scale it up, so we could do this for 500 households in the Chattanooga region all paid for from healthcare saving. I think another key thing for people to think about is finding that value that you're generating and finding ways to clearly articulate it to the people that are receiving the value and then building the funding mechanisms around that.

JJ: I love that. Obviously you have achieved so much in green|spaces in the last few years.

For people who are visiting Chattanooga, can they come to green|spaces to visit or how does it work?

Michael: Absolutely! We have a storefront right at the corner of Market and Main in the Southside neighborhood of Chattanooga. People can just stop in. There was a startup that is moving here from California that just stopped in yesterday and said, ‘We're looking at this building and we want to do solar and we want to do green infrastructure. How do we do that? Who should we talk to?’ A lot of people are coming here because it's such a great sandbox, especially with the technology that we have with the smart grid.

The chamber works with us when there's a business that's looking at Chattanooga and is interested in sustainability. We work closely with the City of Chattanooga. We helped develop an integrated community sustainability plan that is a long-term document that the city is currently working on adopting that came with a carbon inventory. The carbon inventory that we had from 2008 to 2018 showed a 25% reduction in our carbon footprint, while having a 44% growth of our GDP. That's something that that I feel like people don't talk about enough. Some people present these as like mutually exclusive propositions: you can either have a clean environment or you can have a good economy. Chattanooga really is a good example of a place that is that is developing both.

JJ: Exactly! That's great that people can visit your site and can learn more from your website. I know you have a membership model. Can anybody sign up? Or do you have to be an organization to sign up?

Michael: No, we have individual memberships and we have business memberships. I failed to mention that you can find us online at greenspaceschattanooga.org. Anybody can look us up there and shoot me an email if you want to learn more about what we do and if you want to replicate this where you are. I will say for people that are in the United States, something to keep an eye on is the civilian climate core which we're part of through the core network, and there's likely to be a lot more opportunity to build things like green|spaces in your community in the near future. Everybody should feel free to reach out, I’m michael@greenspaceschattanooga.org.

JJ: That’s fantastic! Michael, thank you so much for your perspective and for your work at green|spaces. I personally can’t wait to visit, and I hope others will visit as well and learn from what you've built.

Thanks again Michael for joining The Understory Podcast. Michael Walton, the Executive Director of green|spaces. Thank you again.

Michael: Thanks so much for having me.

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