Dayton, Ohio, a mid-sized city of about 140,000 people, is about as post-industrial as it gets; the city was built upon the aviation and automobile industries — both of which produce harmful emissions that the EPA has worked to combat. The state ranks seventh in highest carbon emissions in the nation, which is actually an improvement from years past. 

While the city relies less now on these industries — and more on health care, information technology and manufacturing — its factory-based economy and traditional methods of non-renewable energy usage have remained ingrained in the city’s infrastructure. 

Mark Charles came to Dayton to change that. In 2019, he became the city’s first-ever sustainability manager. After working in various parts of the nation throughout his 40 years in environmental protection and sustainability, Mark Charles took the challenge to transform Dayton’s harmful environmental practices into sustainable initiatives to make for a greener community. 

Image courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But where to begin? Due to a longstanding reliance on the industries of their cities, post-industrial communities often harbor anti-environmental protection sentiments. The damage of factory pollution can be as serious as water and soil pollution, and requires treatment plants and systems and eventually a switch to renewable energy to mitigate. All this comes with a hefty price tag, which can be a deterrent for some to commit to environmental support.

And so Charles started on the ground. Before the pandemic struck, he worked to interact with as many people as he could both inside and outside of Dayton to get a sense of the city and what it needed from him. In August of 2020, he contributed to the publication of a sustainability strategy that was unanimously adopted by the city and required over 100 governmental actions. The goals of this strategy included reducing the natural resource footprint, reducing carbon emissions, turning toward renewable energy, and taking a more socially just and equitable position in all of the city’s future decisions, Charles explained. 

Dayton’s sustainability strategy prioritizes equity, climate mitigation, infrastructure, resilience, and economic development. Image courtesy of the city of Dayton.

Surprisingly, Charles observed city residents embrace the recent environmental strategy with open arms.

“It helped change the culture and orient everybody to the point where we now talk about sustainability with every new employee the city hires,” Charles said.

On April 21, 2021 — the day before Earth Day — Charles and his colleagues declared a climate emergency on behalf of Dayton to acknowledge that climate issues are real and will have significant and detrimental effects. For the state of Ohio, severe conditions such as heavy rainfall and flooding pose risks to its agricultural industry, its infrastructure and the safety of its residents. 

The declaration also set city goals to be completed in future years, primarily concerning the city’s energy consumption. A major goal of the declaration is to obtain renewable energy to supply all of the city buildings and properties, and eventually to expand this to include the entire community. In doing so, city energy consumption would become more efficient so that fewer natural resources would be used, and any gaps would be filled with renewable energy sources such as solar panels. 

Mark Charles is Dayton, Ohio’s first sustainability manager. Image courtesy of Dayton.com.

Additionally, the city of Dayton has restarted an electric aggregation program that aims to achieve the bulk purchasing of the city’s electricity in a way that saves money for the city and its residents, and then works to supplement that electricity using renewable sources. The city is also taking the initiative to convert its municipal fleet to electric vehicles in order to lower harmful emissions. 

Charles also hopes to emphasize the city’s single-stream recycling program and increase participation in this program. He outlined a plan to incorporate composting into the recycling process, and if he receives encouragement from the community, he believes that this would be a promising new direction for the public works operation. At first, they would start with drop-off locations for people who were willing to compost on their own and drive it to the composting facility. Then, composting companies from the region would come and service the facility. Eventually, the city would create a new bin for weekly compost and collect it with the garbage and recycling. 

“The difficulty in composting is there’s a big ‘yuck factor,’” Charles said. “I’ve done this before, and there’s a certain portion of the population that said, ‘Absolutely, I’m gonna do it. I’ll drive wherever I’ve got to drive to bring that.’ There’s another part of the population that said, ‘I’m not gonna touch any of that stuff. I’m certainly not gonna keep it in my garage and put it in my car to bring it to a drop-off area.’” 

Charles is looking to encourage the community and find people who will meet him halfway to figure out the composting system for the greater good. 

Charles’ office now includes three environmental professionals to take care of carrying out the plans outlined in the strategy. The team works to find grants and other financial means to facilitate its environmental initiatives and correspond with the community to financially protect its residents. 

Community houses in Dayton, Ohio. By Stan Rohrer.

And financial protection for residents is especially important in Dayton. The city has a high poverty rate that riddles its population with large socioeconomic gaps, and Charles wants to close these gaps by continuing to pursue efforts like funding sites in low-income areas and solar panels for residents who can only afford property in hazardous areas, such as neighborhoods near landfills that often require additional electric costs to properly ventilate their environment.

Charles said that the city is now prioritizing saving money since its ability to support environmental efforts is only recent and follows years of financial struggle. Charles noted that Dayton’s “payday is 50 years behind us now,” referencing its boom in business and population growth during industrialization. Dayton was looking into hiring environmental officers prior to Charles’ hiring, but it wasn’t feasible in the decade following the 2008 economic recession.

“We want to do things that are smarter, we want to do things that result in savings, and some of those things need an upfront investment,” Charles said. 

He wants Dayton to set an example for other cities hoping to become more environmentally friendly, but stresses the importance of finding sponsors to cover the costs. 

“If you don’t have an internal advocate, people go about their business every day without worrying about some of this stuff,” Charles said.

Charles spreads the word about the work Dayton is doing through public speaking and hopes that Dayton’s progress will put it on the map as a model for notable environmental efforts. 

“We’re hoping we will be a model for some of those other cities, even the ones that are much smaller than ours that will have some difficulty in the rural areas implementing some of this stuff,” Charles said. “We’re hoping they will adopt a philosophy that says, ‘Well if Dayton can do it, we can certainly do it.’”

The Dayton, Ohio skyline. Image via Getty Images. 

In Charles’ view, Dayton is a green city with high water quality, limited pollution, and great environmental infrastructure in place. He has experienced a demographic change across the city as young professionals become interested in the job market, and he credits the younger generation’s presence with the new wave of environmental enthusiasm that is rippling across Dayton. 

Charles has traveled around the nation to help save the environment and said his understanding of regional differences is expansive, but he feels that these gaps are closing due to increased internet access, cable access, and the syndication of news content. He hopes that this regional change and the national conversation concerning climate change will lead to widespread support for environmental protection — including in oft-forgotten cities across the Rust Belt, like Dayton.

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