ITHACA, N.Y. — Sustainability is one of the buzzwords of urban development these days. In a time where climate change and its drivers have become major concerns, it’s become ever more important to make cities like Ithaca more environmentally sustainable if we’re to ward off the worst potential impacts.

That noted, while a lot of attention has been given at the local and state level to applying strict environmental standards on new construction, Tompkins County and New York State don’t exactly have much new construction, and it makes up a small fraction compared to the existing built environment. Writing laws that only apply to new buildings is a bit like using a garden hose on a five-alarm fire. It might help a little, but it won’t do much.

Let’s put this in perspective. The latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that buildings in the city make up about 58% of Ithaca’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and the commercial sector, such as stores, hotels, and offices, contributes 38% of total emissions. The vast majority of these buildings are older buildings using outdated utility systems. The city’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 depends on its ability to retrofit existing structures and infrastructure.

In an effort to fill the gap in any way possible, some cities have turned to public-private coalitions of environmentally-minded business and property owners working with local officials to create more sustainable communities. In Ithaca’s case, the prominent example of that is the Ithaca 2030 District, a voluntary effort by local government, property owners and tenants to improve the energy and water performance of their buildings as well as to bring about cuts in commuter transportation emissions.

“At least for now, the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement focuses on new construction — we work with already existing buildings. If at some point the city establishes performance standards for already existing buildings as in New York City and other cities, we will have established a process and beachhead for that sector,” said Peter Bardaglio, Executive Director for the Ithaca 2030 District.

Since its launch in June 2016, the district has expanded considerably as more building owners have opted in. In 2021, the district comprised 33 buildings and about 417,089 square feet, comparable to 250 typically-sized houses, or a little over double the size of the Harold’s Square highrise. By the end of 2022, there were 30 building owners with 41 buildings and 532,097 square feet, and at present, it’s 44 buildings with 584,381 square feet, basically another Harold’s Square worth of space. Ithaca was the 13th city to launch a 2030 District, and today there are 24 (and the city of gorges remains the smallest in the group by population, as most are urban juggernauts like New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto).

The approach is fairly straight-forward. Members committed to a 20% reduction by 2020 in energy use, water consumption, and transportation-induced emissions. That figure increased to a minimum 35% reduction in all three categories from the baseline “starting point” by 2025, and a 50% decrease by 2030. Members may still use natural gas, but they’re taking steps to reduce their natural gas use, whether that be more efficient heating systems, electrification, or other means.

As for those who joined from 2020 on, Bardaglio says the District has them aim for the 20% reduction and then work towards the 35% reduction by 2025. “But I should point out that our goal is for the district as a whole to meet these targets more than any one individual building,” he added.

To ensure accountability, each member building’s energy and water data are collected, analyzed, and aggregated to determine the overall District level results. The results for each individual building are made available to the owners, while the district-wide results are publicly distributed to demonstrate whether or not benchmarks are being met.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a series of outstanding Cornell undergrads, primarily from the engineering school, who have been responsible for the data collection and analysis,” said Bardaglio. “We get written permission from the building owners to access their NYSEG accounts through the online portal using their point of delivery numbers (PoDs), and we get the water usage data on a quarterly basis from the Ithaca City Water Department. The Cornell interns, who are paid thanks to a generous grant from the Park Foundation, have developed an online, interactive building performance dashboard for each property; each property owner/manager gets a confidential link so they can access the dashboard and check on their progress at any time.”

Let’s start with some good news – when it comes to energy use, the members are on track. As a whole, in 2022 the District’s members had reduced their energy consumption by 27% from their aggregate baseline, and they also achieved a savings of 40% in water useThat means that by the end of last year, they were over three-quarters of the way toward the 2025 energy goal and 80% of the way towards the 2030 water target – in other words, on track and then some. In fact, thirteen buildings have already met their 2030 goals. The collective savings is about $395,000 in energy and water costs, 7.3 million gallons of water, and about 194,000 pounds of CO2, about the same as taking 21 gas-powered passenger cars off the road.

However, there is one area of concern that remains: commuter emissions. The 2020 goal was 1,200 kilograms of CO2 emitted per year per commuter (kg CO2e/commuter/year). In 2021, it was 1,706, far short of the goal and above the pre-pandemic 2019 value of 1,603 kg CO2e/commuter/year. The silver lining is that there was a sizable 16% reduction in 2022, to 1,421 kg CO2 emitted per commuter per year.

“The issue of commuter emissions is by far the toughest nut to crack. We don’t focus on tracking the emissions for each property — we use the annual survey to see how the district at large is doing. We work with GO ITHACA, the Downtown Ithaca program, to make sure each of the property owners is aware of the various benefits of this program, which can help in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector,” explained Bardaglio.

Ithaca is an idealistic community; groups like the 2030 District ensure that the city practices what it preaches. There has been some measurable progress, but clearly there are still issues to work through, especially when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint in local transportation. With any hope, as the 2030 District initiative expands both locally and in other communities, the worst impacts of climate change may still be avoided with some time, money and determination.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at