Aerial view of cincinnati

An aerial view of Downtown Cincinnati, pictured in the summer of 2020. 

Stories that are part of the "Green at UC" series have been contributed in part by the University of Cincinnati environmental reporting class.

Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval has been in office since January. Before being mayor, Pureval was the Hamilton County clerk of courts from 2017-2022 and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Ohio's First Congressional District in 2018 as the Democratic Party's nominee. He is a graduate of Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati's College of Law. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The News Record (TNR): What effort is the city currently taking to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions within city limits? 

Aftab Pureval (AP): Every issue that comes across my desk and every issue that city council faces, we look at with two lenses. The first lens is racial equity. Despite our best efforts, we continue to be a city that's segregated. We continue to be a city that has concentrations of poverty. The second lens is climate. Climate impacts everything that the city does in big ways and in small ways. To try and combat that, we have most recently increased our tree assessment fees in order to be able to plant more trees in hotspot areas and heat zones that are predominantly, sadly, in our Black and Brown neighborhoods. While climate change impacts all of us, it does not impact us all equally. We have found that impoverished communities and oftentimes Black and Brown communities bear the brunt of climate change. And that's because, unfortunately, our city was created by design for those kinds of inequities. Pavement is a real problem in our city. We have paved over our city to a degree to make room for cars and parking spots so much that it has created some really problematic climate issues that affect our everyday health. 

To combat that, we have set for ourselves some very bold goals that are in our Green Cincinnati Plan, which was started in 2008 that we refresh every five years. We have a bold goal of being at zero emissions by 2050 and carbon neutral by 2035, and the work has already started. We've committed to only buying electric vehicles as they become available as a city. We have the largest city-led solar farm in the country, accounting for 25% of our energy already. We continue to prioritize LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification when building new buildings because 40% of emissions come from buildings, which is a huge opportunity to have an impact on climate change. 

TNR: With the new version of the Green Cincinnati Plan coming out in 2023, what are some of the changes that we can expect to be made from the 2018 one? 

AP: The reason why we refresh it every five years is because the science changes every five years. Climate change, unfortunately, despite our best efforts in cities, is not getting any better. It's actually getting worse. And it's becoming more and more of our daily experience. And so that refresh is built-in to catch up with the science and catch up with the realities on the ground. 

The other big change that I want to lift up is racial equity. A racial equity committee, The Urban League, has been partnering with us on the refresh of our Green Cincinnati Plan because we realize probably for the first time ever how impactful climate change is – specifically to our Black and Brown residents – and how much education needs to happen in those communities as well to make sure that they are willing partners in combating this challenge. 

TNR: What does Cincinnati's current carbon footprint look like and what direction has it been trending recently? 

AP: Because of our groundbreaking work on our solar array, constituting 25% of our energy, our work to make our city-owned buildings more efficient, including putting solar panels on the roof and updating all of our electrical outlets and electrical fixtures, [means] we're making great progress. 

But the challenge is we're still a Midwestern city that relies really heavily on cars, and so part of our climate work is also public transportation work. We were a big supporter of the tax levy a few years ago, Issue 7, to revitalize and completely redo our public transportation in our city. And we're starting to see the benefits of that. My goal is in the near future to create a city that is dense with good public transportation, that is walkable, where people won't need a car. Going carless is really the biggest opportunity we have to make a huge impact on our carbon footprint.  

TNR: What efforts are being made to try to make that transition to a more carless society or even to electric vehicles? 

AP: The first big way is through the bipartisan infrastructure bill. There are millions and millions of dollars out there available to cities to build the electric vehicle-charging infrastructure that's going to be needed in order to catalyze the growth of electric vehicles here in Cincinnati and in the Midwest. We need federal government help and we're actively and ambitiously competing for those federal dollars.

The second way that we do it is by continuing to prioritize our public transportation. Bus Rapid Transit is coming to Cincinnati. Like in a lot of our other big cities in the country, we're basically trying to get people from home to work as fast as possible, particularly in densely populated areas or economic centers, and SORTA (Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority) will be rolling that out soon. And the city is a huge proponent of that.

But the other big challenge, and this one is hard to accomplish, is parking. In our zoning code, we have memorialized parking requirements for both businesses and homes. We are, by design, paving over our city, which creates a lot of climate challenges in and of itself. But reviewing and reforming parking requirements is a big piece of that. The other piece is really deprioritizing surface lots, particularly in our central business district.  

TNR: Why should city residents care about environmental issues? What difference does it make to their lives? 

AP: It makes a huge difference if you don't have clean water, if you don't have clean air, if you're living in a neighborhood that is five degrees hotter than nearby neighborhoods. But beyond that, it is vital to the future of our economic growth.

You know, I often say that there will be an inward migration in our country because of climate change, because of the cost of living. People are going to look for cheaper, safer places to live.

And number two, because of our region's climate resiliency. Now we experience the flooding. We experience the polluted air just like everybody else. But we're not seeing the droughts. We're not seeing the wildfires. We're not seeing the hurricanes. In many ways, we're a safe haven for people who are avoiding climate catastrophes. That is a huge strength of ours moving forward as more people look to relocate and more businesses look to relocate.

TNR: The state sometimes has different priorities when it comes to this particular issue, being governed by the opposite political party as your own. Do you feel like you have the cooperation of the state in this matter? 

AP: No, the state has passed several pieces of legislation that make it harder for Ohio to be a leader in green technology, green new jobs and climate science. However, despite that, it's really cities that are leading the way across the country because we're big enough to impact a lot of people, but we're small enough to innovate and really lead in the space. And so, with or without the state, frankly, Cincinnati is going to continue pushing hard for these kinds of climate innovations. 

And although the state is not on the same page, the federal government is, and they have access to so many resources that we're already seeing being invested in Ohio and specifically in Cincinnati.  

TNR: How much more difficult would that make your job if you didn't have support from the federal government? 

AP:  You need resources to build the kind of infrastructure necessary to accommodate the changes in climate that we're seeing from our municipal sewer district to our water systems.  

TNR: There's an argument out there that it's either the environment or the economy, that one comes at the expense of the other. What would you say to that? 

AP: I profoundly disagree with that. Climate is a huge opportunity for our city at all levels of business size. The Intel deal exemplifies this: a massive corporation investing in green technology and choosing Ohio because of our climate resilience and our access to fresh water. But it impacts small businesses as well. 

Our tech ecosystem is second to none. We have huge investments in startups in our community, and we're really leading the way on green technology. 80 Acres Farms (a group focusing on selling sustainably grown local foods to local markets) is a great example of that. Estrada is a great example, which builds out infrastructure for electric vehicles around the country. So it's a growth area for our local economy and we're putting real dollars behind this. 

We've partnered with the Port Authority of Cincinnati for an investment of $7 million to catalyze high-tech manufacturing in Ohio. Because of our transportation logistic strength here in Cincinnati, DHL has the biggest North American facility right here at our Cincinnati airport. Amazon has a huge distribution facility here as well. 

My pitch is, why are you making wind turbines and batteries in Portland and then paying the transportation costs that come with shipping them across the country? You can build them right here and ship them for a fraction of the cost and have a better bottom line.  

TNR: Fast forward with me to the end of your currently elected term in 2026. What do you hope your accomplishments on environmental issues will reflect by that time? 

AP: Every mayor works on the shoulders of the previous mayor. So, beyond just the specific goals that we have, if I can institute a culture of ensuring that climate is at the forefront of every decision that City Hall makes, and that is so baked in that it's the ordinary course for future mayors and future city councils, that will be a huge win for the future of our region.