116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — For 22 weeks, Ayla Boylen stood outside Cedar Rapids City Hall urging swift action to slow a rapidly worsening climate crisis.
Sometimes alone, sometimes with others, Boylen — known as the “climate striker” — began in the fall of 2019 to stand with painted signs outside the hub of city government, where she knew she would catch the eye of Cedar Rapids’ highest-ranking officials to relay her message. She called upon the City Council to declare a climate emergency.
Boylen recalls “up and down” confidence levels throughout the strikes. She wondered: Were the strikes effective? But her activism worked.
By February 2020, the council had passed a climate action resolution that declared a climate emergency, set targets to achieve carbon neutrality and launched a process for creating a Community Climate Action Plan.
Iowa’s second-largest city now is committed to working toward a more green future. The City Council on Tuesday adopted a plan to slow human-caused global warming, with targets to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to enhance community resiliency to the consequences of climate change.
The Community Climate Action Plan outlines steps that residents and neighborhood groups, industrial partners, businesses and city officials can take to engage in local action, with an eye toward equity to uplift those who will disproportionately bear the consequences of a warming planet. City officials lauded the plan as a likely model for other communities to use.
The document outlines an ultimate goal of shifting to renewable energy sources and cutting carbon emissions particularly in the industrial sector, which is responsible for 72 percent of emissions in Cedar Rapids.
It also lays a framework for embedding sustainability in all aspects of life in the city, with more walkable “15-minute” neighborhoods that expand access to amenities. Residents should have access to high-quality green space, healthy food, clean air and water and green jobs under the plan’s objectives.
Boylen, a Mount Mercy University student and Sunrise Movement Cedar Rapids hub leader, said the experience underscores the change one person can set in motion — no matter how young or “regular” she or he may be.
“Every single voice that's added to speaking out about important issues like climate and racial justice and social justice really matters and really can make a difference,” Boylen said.
Mayor Brad Hart called this an “aggressive plan” — perhaps the “greatest thing” developed by the city team and community stakeholders — that will bring together residents, schools, volunteers, business and industry partners.
“Every one of us can have some sort of role in moving toward the goals that are set out in the plan,” Hart said. “ … We’ll have to keep working at it but this is a big step.”
View the full plan here, starting at page 240 of the Sept. 28 council meeting agenda.
Lead consultant Abby Finis, a senior program manager with the Minnesota-based Great Plains Institute, told The Gazette that what stood out with this plan’s formation is the community buy-in throughout the planning process, from multinational companies based in the industrial city to its residents.
Finis said the 2020 derecho showed the value of having one-on-one conversations with residents who do not typically attend council or other city meetings. That lesson carried through to this process, Finis said, as the city continued to reach out to people where they were at through ground teams and other in-person methods.
“What sets the plan apart from some of the other ones is … that emphasis on, ‘This is a plan for the city, with the city, and we can't do it without everybody jumping on board and doing their part to implement their plans,’” Finis said.
Addressing the council Tuesday evening, Jean Wiedenheft, the land stewardship director with Indian Creek Nature Center and member of the Community Climate Advisory Committee — the group that helped draft the plan — said, “It is very forward-thinking, it is very ambitious, it is very comprehensive, and I really appreciate the fact that it is multifaceted, which means there is a piece of it for everybody to participate in and hopefully make a difference for the community.”
Jason Snell, another committee member, said the plan is comprehensive and focuses on equity. But he identified challenges to plan implementation and opportunities for future improvements, including stronger incentives for the industrial sector to meet goals of reducing carbon emissions.
Snell also said that, as the plan is tied to a previous United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, its targets for cutting carbon emissions — the key to long-term climate stability — are “too slow.”
The most recent U.N. report, unveiled in August, shows the climate crisis is rapidly intensifying, and Snell said he wanted to see this plan’s goals formally linked to the panel’s ongoing reports.
“I just want to make sure that Cedar Rapids is as successful as possible,” Snell said. “Already we’ve gotten word from some people in Des Moines who are interested in emulating what we’re achieving here.”
Several council members asked about opportunities for continually reviewing the plan, progress on implementation and assessing a need to accelerate certain targets based on evolving circumstances in regards to climate change. Many also expressed an interest in exploring opportunities for expanding solar energy and other renewable sources.
City Council member Ashley Vanorny said she hoped the plan would be a “living document” that evolves as the climate crisis worsens.
“We’re voting on one of the most significant things to vote on in my lifetime on council,” Vanorny said. With a 29-year implementation timeline, as goals are set with a 2030 and 2050 vision, she said “a lot of this will be something that I will be seeing through and be vigilant in hoping happens.”
City Sustainability Coordinator Eric Holthaus said the council will be updated annually, and all actions in the plan have timelines when work begins publicly. During the annual updates, he said, staff would have an ability to insert the most recent scientific reports and news.
Considering residents have gone through the derecho and several recent flooding events, council member Dale Todd said, “I don’t think there’s a city in America that understands the sense of urgency to implement this action plan quickly than Cedar Rapids.” He felt the plan was thorough, accounting for vulnerable populations across the city and factoring in needs such as inner-city food access.
“This is a very impressive document that will act as a model for other communities for a long time,” Todd said.
That prospect excites Boylen, too — knowing that Cedar Rapids could push other cities to do better on climate action and ease the burden on activists pushing for change elsewhere by providing a model.
“If you had asked me two years ago if I’d stay in Cedar Rapids, I would’ve laughed in your face,” Boylen said “ … But after seeing the difference I can make here, I think Cedar Rapids is that perfect size for opportunity where one voice can really matter and make a difference. It’s small enough for that and then it’s large enough that other cities will take notice of the change happening here and then hopefully follow suit.”
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