A Conversation with Chris Castro, Director of Sustainability at City of Orlando

My friend and colleague Dave Randle introduced me to Chris Castro last Spring. It was soon clear he would have been one of the speakers at the 2018 PM4SD Summer School in Paris. In the interview, he shares his knowledge, enthusiasm and approach to sustainable and smart tourism.

More about Chris Castro. 

Director of Sustainability at City of Orlando, Chris Castro is an award winning sustainability professional, eco-entrepreneur, and community organizer with a passion for accelerating the transition to a smart, resilient and sustainable future. Chris is most notably known for his work as the founder and president of IDEAS For Us, an international nonprofit and United Nations accredited organization working to develop, fund, and scale environmental solutions around the World; and co-creator of the renowned ‘Fleet Farming’ urban agriculture program that started in Orlando. Chris is currently the Director of Sustainability and Co-chair of the Smart Cities initiative for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the City of Orlando.

SB: What are the major successes and challenges of Orlando, the most visited city in the U.S., in achieving sustainability?

CC: Last year, Orlando welcomed 72 million visitors, making us one of the most visited destinations in the World – a five percent growth in tourism over the last year. For every resident there are an estimated 245 tourists that visit our city, putting strains on our energy and water availability, infrastructure, and our waste management systems. That’s a big reason for the establishment of Green Works Orlando, which is our comprehensive sustainability initiative. This has been around since 2007, when Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer had the foresight that in order for us to be a thriving city in the 21stcentury, a city that attracts a creative class while remaining one of the best for people to live, work, learn, play, and raise a family in — it’s imperative to integrate sustainability into all aspects of Orlando.“The thought process behind Green Works, in addition to being one of the greenest cities in the country, is ensuring we are socially inclusive, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable. We often say we’re following the triple bottom line of: people, planet, and prosperity. As a result Green Works municipal and community action plans focus on seven key focus areas: clean energy, green buildings, local food systems, livability, solid waste, water resources, and transportation.

SB: How is the City of Orlando working to support the U.N. SDG’s and which are the key partners?

CC: Since 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have provided a global framework with goals and targets for all countries to adopt in building toward sustainable economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection by 2030. Recognizing that a nation’s progress toward achieving these global goals ultimately depends on local actions, many cities across the world have also aligned or integrated the SDGs with their sustainability planning efforts. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January 2018, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer joined other city mayors, including New York, Baltimore, and San Jose in reiterating his commitment to advancing SDGs in Orlando. The first opportunity to do so is through this 2018 Green Works Orlando Community Sustainability Action Plan, in which all identified goals and strategies—existing and new—have been assessed and modified for closer alignment with the goals and objectives of the 17 SDGs. The 17 SDGs are made up of 169 targets and 236 indicators that are broader in scope and go further than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by addressing the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people. The goals cover the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection. They explicitly recognize that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth and addresses a range of social needs including education, health, social protection and job opportunities, while tackling climate change and environmental protection.

To track and measure progress in advancing the SDGs, the City of Orlando will join the ISO 31720 standard data metrics for “Sustainable Cities and Communities”, developed by the World Council on City Data (WCCD). This standard tracks 100 indicators for local governments that most closely align with the 17 SDG metrics and quantify the impact Orlando has on accelerating the SDGs in the United State and the World. Some of our key partners include the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), SDG Compacts, US Conference of Mayos, IDEAS For Us, UN Foundation, and more.

SB: What are the key skills for sustainable and smart tourism?

CC: At the University of Central Florida, Rosen College of Hospitality and Tourism, there is an effort that has been in the works to help Orlando become a smart and sustainable tourism destination. Having a strong culture of partnerships and collaborations is paramount to becoming a smart and sustainable city, including working with other governments, academia, nonprofits, and businesses.

I also think a culture of innovation and creativity is critical to achieving smart and sustainable communities. Having the 2nd largest university in the country, and more than 500,000 students within 100 miles of Orlando, helps position us to tap into the bright young minds that are shaping our future with new business models, technological innovations, and strong values in sustainability and environmental stewardship.

Lastly, having elected officials who are open to new ways of thinking and invest in our future is imperative. You cannot move anything forward without the leaderships vision to create a smart and sustainable future.

SB: Can you describe some of your more innovative programs and future plans?

CC: Our updated Green Works plan was recently released and we’ve gathered several fantastic strategies from more than 1 year of community and citizen engagement. For example, we’re looking to fully electrify our bus rapid transit system (LYMMO) over the next five years. Our goal is to also expand the electric vehicle charging stations for the private sector; we have over 350 EV chargers now, making us one of the Top 10 EV Ready cities in the nation, and we’re looking to add 150 in the next two years.

Another goal is to move to 100 percent renewable energy for the entire electrical grid by 2050. We have a more ambitious goal for city operations which includes 100 percent renewables by 2030. In partnership with OUC, we unlocked a new, 12 megawatt (mw) community solar farm on top of an old coal ash landfill. Ten percent of the city operations load is now powered by solar, and in the next 12 years, we’ll be significantly increasing solar on city rooftops and greenfield sites.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around the country about the future of our cities. Mayor Dyer often says, ‘More and more of the critical issues of are time our being left to local governments to address.’ The looming issues of climate change and sustainability will need to be addressed here at the local level. We’re hoping that Green Works and the City of Orlando can be a model for others to follow; a lighthouse city, so to speak, that has measurable results around cost savings, quality of life, and attracting jobs in the green economy. The innovative solutions we’ve seen couldn’t have happened without partnerships.

Sustainability is a cultural revolution and the City of Orlando is doing an excellent job of showing that through collaboration and partnerships with our utility. airport, transit authority, and academic institutions, we can make it a part of the fabric of our community as we move forward in developing one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

SB: What are the major challenges Orlando is facing with its continued tourism growth and what are your strategies to address these challenges?

CC: Many of the tourism challenges facing Orlando include ensuring ubiquitous safety and security for all residents and visitors, remediation of traffic and congestion to move people as efficiently as possible, providing affordable housing options for the hospitality staff, sustainable waste management, overconsumption of water resources, infrastructure degradation, and ensuring that as we grow we do not compromise the high quality of life of our residents.

To address these, we’ve integrated sustainability and smart city initiatives into every aspect of our City, from police and fire departments, to planning and economic development, to our public works services. We’ve also worked closely with our counterparts in other agencies, our universities and colleges, and the business community to ensure these efforts are not in silos, and are incorporated throughout the community at large.

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