The Three Faces of Sustainable Cities

Cleveland Medical Mart Convention Center
Cleveland Medical Mart Convention Center

We checked in with three different geographical destinations—coastal, mountain and an urban convention district—to see how various cities are educating groups about sustainability.

The world’s largest provider of environmental technology, Siemens AG ranks cities around the world on their level of sustainability every year. In June, they listed San Francisco as the greenest city in North America.

“Sustainability, green, organic—those types of things are trendy, and businesses that stay current stay busy,” says Lysa Lewin, vp of convention sales for San Francisco Travel. “And we lead the trend because our city government has mandated that trend.”

The mayor’s office has banned plastic grocery bags citywide and plastic water bottles in all city buildings. For low impact transfers, the entire downtown core is easily walkable with public Muni and BART systems extending into many of the landmark areas around the bay, such as the historic Ferry Building, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf and Union Square.

The private sector is following suit. Virgin America’s new T2 terminal at San Francisco International opened in April as the first LEED Gold terminal in the U.S.—with a visit by Sir Richard and the Virgin Galactic spaceship. The terminal’s F&B lineup includes “Slow Food” vendors such as Cowgirl Creamery, Napa Valley Farms, Equator Coffee and The Plant Café Organic. All T2 vendors use compostable utensils and containers.

On the hotel front, the super susty Trace restaurant opens this month at W San Francisco, promoting a “Green is Glam” experience. We like the “Ecolicious” bar menu featuring all organic food, cocktails, beers and wines. And in February, the 500-room InterContinental San Francisco adjacent to Moscone Convention Center was awarded LEED Gold status.

“We have people who care about the environment, that’s the most important thing,” says Lewin. “Social responsibility is the spirit of San Francisco.” She recently attended a press event at the bayfront Ferry Building (seats 400 upstairs) noting all of the farmers markets and sustainable businesses.

“It’s what’s hip and what’s new right now, and these are all businesses popular with locals too. So people who come to San Francisco on business can enjoy that local experience, versus meeting in a tourist trap.”

Denver’s strategy is reinventing itself as a leader in sustainability through unparalleled educational experiences and infrastructure upgrades. For example, a former weapons manufacturing facility reopened this June as the 13,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

“We took one of the most polluted spots on earth and converted it to one of the few urban spots in America where nature is reclaiming the land, returning it to a natural state,” says Tiffany Hoambrecker, associate director of convention services for Visit Denver. “This is not a national park. It’s a refuge for 330 species that have been re-introduced. A group with strong ecological or wildlife interests will appreciate seeing the prairie as it was when it was crossed by covered wagons.”

For such a group, a day could begin with a 1/2-hour presentation by a ranger at the new $7.5 million information center. The facility is dedicated to detailing the reintroduction of buffalo, bald eagles, hawks, deer, etc. A group of 50 could host a session at the center or take a guided bus tour across 10 miles of trails to view what 10 years of effort has achieved.

“We’re educating planners that a green meeting doesn’t have to cost more,” says Hoambrecker.

Next spring, the new Asian Tropics area opens at Denver Zoo, which will become the world’s largest elephant habitat. And get this. Animal waste will be converted into energy. The entire exhibit area will be powered by a unique and odorless “gasification” process.

Hoambrecker also suggests for groups the Wild Animal Sanctuary, the largest animal habitat in the country just 30 minutes from Arsenal. It’s a fun spot for a cocktail reception on one of the decks elevated above 25 rescued Bolivian lions, 70 tigers and dozens of grizzly bears. Altogether, the Sanctuary parents 290 once-abused carnivores.

Farmers Market San Francisco
Farmers Market San Francisco

As a megatrend, sustainability is a concept encroaching into cities that might not be top of mind for progressive meeting planners. Cleveland is turning its historic image of an industrial city inside out.

“We’ve been doing farm-to-table cooking before sustainable food was a concept,” says Tami Brown, vp of marketing for Positively Cleveland. “And by 2013, our new convention center will go far above and beyond what a convention center is expected to be.”

In the next three years, Cleveland has $2 billion worth of new and upgraded infrastructure coming online. A centerpiece of that is the new Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center beside Lake Erie. A huge grassy field will entice groups to small reading gardens, biking and jogging paths. They can hold a general session or concert in an amphitheater, or enjoy a cocktail reception with lovely views of the lake as a backdrop. When Cleveland says their convention will have a green roof, they mean it. Half of the development is being built underground.

Brown says, “Our civic and government organizations, with input from corporate and incentive business partners, decided we needed to create walkability, sustainability and accessibility to the new casino, aquarium, multiple hotels and the convention center for the benefit of the community and visitors.”

The result will be an underground 230,000-sf exhibition hall with 27’ ceilings and an additional 100,000 sf of meeting space.

Directly surrounding the grassy park, affectionately referred to as “The Mall,” there’s a wealth of post-meeting options.

“Do you know we have the largest theater district outside New York City?” asks Brown. Formerly vaudeville theaters, they still have “red velvet carpets, huge chandeliers and decorated ceilings. Perfect for special events…. The Warehouse District offers unique dining and nightclub offerings, and East 4th Street District is a block of restaurants.”

Brown points out that Cleveland is garnering nationwide attention for sustainable menus prepared by nationally-known chefs such as Iron Chef Michael Symon and Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef 2010,” Jonathan Sawyer. Symon’s Lola Bistro offers a private dining room for 30, serving locally-sourced dishes such as a beef cheek pierogi with wild mushrooms, horseradish and crème fraiche.