Cedar Rapids marks sustainability achievement with 4-STAR Community designation

The sun sets on downtown Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The sun sets on downtown Cedar Rapids on Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Despite its roots as an industrial community, Cedar Rapids is among an elite tier when it comes to sustainability, city leaders announced Tuesday.

Cedar Rapids has been certified as a 4-STAR Community. STAR — which stands for Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating — is a national framework to measure a community’s environmental, economic and social health.

“This initiative goes way beyond what we think of as sustainability practices,” City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said Tuesday. “This looks at how we operate as a community and an organization in a much, much broader sense.”

The assessment measures 49 bench marks and 500 objectives in eight categories, including built environment, climate and energy, economy and jobs, education arts and community, equity and empowerment, health and safety, natural systems, and innovation and process.

Environmental sustainability is considered but so is affordable housing, the city’s bond rating, neighborhood services, jobs in secondary sectors and reading proficiency.

“All these fit into us having a sustainable community not just for today but tomorrow and way beyond,” Pomeranz said.

The roots of the city’s effort to become a leader in sustainability traces to the iGreenCR initiative in 2012 and EnvisionCR — the city’s comprehensive plan — in 2015.


To ensure sustainability was prioritized, the city hired Eric Holthaus as sustainability coordinator in 2015 and he led the STAR Communities initiative. Iowa has just four 4-STAR Communities and two 3-STAR Communities.

“When people talk about building a culture of sustainability, unless everyone is thinking about it and talking about it, you are going to have a hard time getting there,” Holthaus said.

The announcement on Tuesday, which unveiled the metrics, is just one phase. Over the next several months, each city department will be developing priorities based on the findings to align STAR objectives with city processes to ideally improve scores.

Cedar Rapids scored strongest in jobs and economy with a score of 76.4 out of 100, which was well above peers. This reflects strength in business retention and development. Natural systems, which would include tools such as stormwater infiltration practices like rain gardens and permeable pavers, were also a strength for Cedar Rapids.

While the city led the effort, it worked with numerous public and private sector partners over several months to collect the data needed to complete the assessment. Achievements or deficiencies in the community at large factor into the scores.

“This is a very rigorous process and wouldn’t have been successful if not for the input of city staff and the community,” said Steve Hershner, the city’s utility director, noting the hope is to model best practices for the city at large.

The biggest areas for improvement are related to climate and energy, such as greenhouse gas innovation and biodiversity. Holthaus identified water efficiency as one specific area the city and private sector could rally around to improve, such as installing high-efficiency toilets and sprinkler sensors.

“A big thing we can do is let people know about the programs that exist and awareness about the issue,” Holthaus said.


Jennifer Pratt, the director of community development, said the exercise can also be an asset in proving the city’s commitment to sustainability to individuals and companies that also consider it a priority.

James Hodina, environmental public health manager for Linn County Public Health, was among the external partners who worked on the assessment. Hodina, who participated in an open house and celebration for the 4-Star announcement at City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, pointed to reduction of particulate matter over the past 10 years as a factor in the city’s strong air quality score. Efforts to reduce combustion, such as scaling back coal burning, have contributed.

Among achievements that factored into scoring were the city’s relocation of the fire station outside the flood zone, demolition of Alliant Energy’s Sixth Street power plant to remove the risk of flooding, and preservation of 153 historic properties since 2000.

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