Winner’s Circle

By Cecilia Shutters

Sustainability in Louisville is all about taking the reins.


How does a city design for a sustainable future? Answer: Begin by having the right people at the starting gate. In a Derby City-style trifecta, leadership from the city, the university, and a new innovation incubator—the Nucleus Innovation Center—aim to place Louisville, Kentucky, in the winner’s circle of sustainable development.

Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer is unequivocal about his commitment to put the city’s 400 square miles on the map as an eco-friendly hub. Maria Koetter, director of the office of sustainability for metro Louisville, actualizes this commitment. Mayor Fisher tasked her office with developing a comprehensive sustainability plan, Sustain Louisville, which the office

Louisville’s Nucleus Innovation Center offers a rooftop garden and a 100 percent reflective roof.

released in March of 2013. Key successes from the first year have already been reported this past June.

“For a new office of sustainability like ours, leadership means bringing the right pieces together and building from there, rather than trying to ‘reinvent the wheel,’” Koetter says. “We are fortunate to be able to reach our goals faster and better because of the organizations that already exist. For example, one of our nonprofit partners, the Louisville Sustainability Council, coordinates monthly working groups for five action teams dedicated to the initiatives we set in Sustain Louisville.”


Top: Maria Koetter. Middle: Dr. Shirley Willihnganz. Bottom: Vickie Yates Brown.
Photo credit for Dr. Shirley Willihnganz: Power creative

Sustain Louisville outlines goals along six sections: energy, environment, transportation, economy, community, and engagement. Within these goals, 69 individual initiatives are set, each on a path to move from planned to completed (four of which have already been completed since the initial 2013 plan was released). The city has reported on the plan’s outcomes, which include an energy savings performance contract expected to result in $27 million in energy efficiency upgrades for city-owned buildings; 83 ENERGY STAR commercial buildings in the city; an update to the Land Development Code to allow for more community garden space; and grant funding to complete the most comprehensive heat island effect study in the country.

The study, conducted within the Georgia Tech School of City and Regional Planning, is the first step in addressing concern that the city has one of the fastest growing heat islands in the country. To address the issues Koetter says, “We set out to identify ways we can improve. The initial results of the heat island study show that we have lots of work to do. Much of this work is related not only to tree canopy but also to the built environment as well.”

The University of Louisville is also taking its sustainability initiatives to a new level. Dr. Shirley Willihnganz, provost of The University of Louisville (UofL), oversees all aspects of university academics and operations. Her goal is to fulfill a state mandate to become a premier, metropolitan research institution. She interprets this, in part, to be an imperative to strengthen the community surrounding the walls of the university as much as the community within—enumerating sustainability as a priority in this mission.

To start, UofL has committed to actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Their Climate Action Plan outlines sustainability goals across the spectrum of the university’s activities from purchasing practices to behavior change, and from green buildings to food and transportation options, and everything in between.

At the beginning of 2014, UofL reported in the plan that they estimate an emissions drop of over 27 percent—from 246,929 to 178,679 metric tons (equivalent to taking 14,167 cars off the road) from 2006 to 2013. Currently nine Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified buildings—almost one million LEED-certified square feet—exist on campus. Willihnganz affirmed the university’s ongoing policy to stick to LEED guidelines even after 14 years of budget cuts, a decision that predates the state requirement that new public buildings receiving more than 50 percent investment from the state achieve LEED certification.

“Every building that we have built since we made that commitment has gone forward with the intention and gotten LEED certified. Even a building that’s basically a computer, can do that,” says Willihnganz. “I also think that policy is really important, because policy helps guide behavior.”

For Louisville’s Nucleus Innovation Center, the emphasis on an innovation “ecosystem” cannot be overstated. Vickie Yates Brown, president and CEO at Nucleus, is the force making Louisville’s aspirations for innovation a reality.

She attributes the development of this ecosystem, officially serving as the economic development extension of the University of Louisville Foundation, to partnerships and a shared vision between the city and state government, university, private sector, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the city.

“We felt that we needed to lead by example. So if you’re in an innovation park and you have the local and state government, and everyone coming together in a partnership to work together to build an innovation park, you are expected to embrace best practices, you are expected to lead by example,” describes Yates Brown.

Housing office space, dry labs, and even a test kitchen, the new 197,000 LEED-Silver space on the edge of NuLu, a LEED-registered neighborhood, seems to epitomize Nucleus’s quest. The building offers some impressive green building strategies such as the 6,000-square-foot roof with reflective pavers and an expansive native plant garden. The 100 percent reflectivity of the roof is especially important to the city’s heightened awareness of heat island effect. The Nucleus is modeled to achieve a 35 percent reduction in indoor water usage and captures 90 percent of stormwater run-off via a retention basin under the building made possible via a partnership with the Metropolitan Sewer District.

Willihnganz synthesizes what is happening in Louisville best, “The world needs all of us, we all have gifts, all have things to bring, and everybody should be counted for what they can bring; [we need to] find the very best, biggest use for that.”