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30 Under 30

Orlando's journey to accelerate sustainability and resilience

Orlando Skyline

Cities are home to more than 50 percent of the global population and as a result are presented with ever-growing challenges, including finding a balance between social equity, economic vitality and environmental sustainability.

Cities also have extraordinary potential to enable change and the ability to find harmony between people, prosperity and the planet that creates a better future for all.

Recognizing this, member-countries of the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, including a historic goal on SDG 11: Sustainable Cities: "to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable" by 2030, leaving no person, place or ecosystem behind. This global framework continues to be centered as a Rosetta Stone to advance humanity in a more sustainable direction.

I’m a second-generation Cuban-American from Miami. I'm also a social entrepreneur, community organizer and now director of sustainability and resilience for the city of Orlando. In my role, I advise Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and am tasked with making Orlando a showcase model for the U.N.’s sustainable cities vision and making our city a great place, to live, work, learn and play.

Cities have extraordinary potential to enable change and to find harmony between people, prosperity and the planet.

Before I get to details about my day job, it’s important to share my experiences where things actually get done: the community. Over the last 15 years, I’ve been actively engaged in the Central Florida community through my work with several nonprofit NGOs, social enterprises, academia, community groups and businesses chambers to engage a wide range of individuals in advancing the sustainable cities vision, including USGBC-Florida, Florida Green Chamber of Commerce (FGCC), Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC), Goodwill Industries of Central Florida, Florida Renewable Energy Association (FREA), Solar United Neighborhoods of Florida (FL SUN), Global Shapers Orlando and Climate Reality Project.

One organization that is near and dear to my heart is Ideas For Us, a U.N.-accredited NGO that works to develop, fund and scale local solutions that advance the Sustainable Development Goals worldwide.

In 2008, I co-founded Ideas for Us while attending college at the University of Central Florida, and over the last 13 years I have worked with an amazing team to expand a grassroots movement of collegiate and community chapters that engage youth leaders around the world, creating and expanding local sustainability solutions to more than 200 communities in 25 countries on five continents.

Today, two of the most successful and impactful programs are still active across the IDEAS movement. The first is a think and do tank called the Ideas Hive, which brings public awareness to the U.N. SDGs by facilitating conversations about global challenges and developing local action projects that we can implement in our own community. In addition to monthly workshops (made virtual thanks to COVID), the Ideas Hive also coordinates public eco-tours, eco-film screenings and Umuganda Community Action days for public awareness, education and community engagement.

The second successful program is an urban agricultural solution for communities that is redefining local food systems, specifically how we produce and distribute food in our communities.?

Fleet Farming turns suburban lawns into a distributed network of micro-urban farms and uses a fleet of volunteer farmers to build, maintain and distribute the produce grown to local venues —?all by bicycle. This effort has gotten the attention of more than 60 million people around the world, been on major media outlets such as NPR and NBC Nightly News, and is in the process of scaling to communities to address food insecurity and access.

Ideas for Us has incorporated an exciting new program called the Solutions Fund, a micro-granting program providing funding to women and young change-makers to incubate proof-of-concept ideas that advance the SDGs around the world. With this focus on environmental philanthropy, we are becoming a conduit for foundations and corporations to make a direct difference in advancing sustainability, and an outlet for people of all ages around the world to make a difference in our local communities.

As for my work in the city, I’m happy to say Orlando is shaping up to be one of the smartest and most sustainable cities in the country at the forefront of innovation and sustainability.

Through the vision and leadership of Dyer and the Green Works Orlando initiative, we have implemented innovative policies and programs in a wide variety of focus areas, including energy and green buildings, local food systems, livability, water resources, transportation and smart cities — and have worked to provide our residents and businesses with the tools to live more environmentally friendly lifestyles.

In 2018, Orlando became the first city in Florida to pass legislation that requires public disclosure of energy and water efficiency in buildings, and an ambitious goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy city-wide by 2050.

To strive towards the goal, the city added four new rooftop solar projects to critical facilities, including fire stations and neighborhood centers, and subscribed over 5 megawatts of community solar to offset all of our electricity use at Orlando City Hall, the Orlando police headquarters and all 17 fire stations.

With clean energy financing options available for home and business owners, community solar farms and local solar cooperatives, we are working to make the transition to renewable energy as easy and cost-effective as possible. We’ve even been researching creative applications to achieve this goal, such as floating solar farms on stormwater ponds at the Orlando International Airport and other locations throughout the region.

In December, our hometown utility, OUC, also published the Energy Integrated Resources Plan (EIRP), which outlined a long-term plan for the electric utility that made bold commitments, including achieving net-zero by 2050 without offsets, with intermediate targets of 50 percent CO2 reduction by 2030 and 75 pecent by 2040; a commitment to early-retire the last two coal-fired power plants; and a significant ramp-up of energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy storage and electric vehicles over the next 30 years. This plan not only aligns with the Green Works goals, but it also supports science-based targets to address the climate crisis. Imagine if every utility in the country made this commitment.

As for transportation, our city has bike-share and ride-share programs, one of the largest networks of electric vehicle chargers, real-time bus travel information, a commuter rail (SunRail) and a fare-free bus rapid transit system called the Lymmo to help lessen commuter pollution and congestion within the city.

In October, we also unveiled the first fleet of electric buses in the Lymmo BRT, and a commitment to transition 100 percent of transit buses to electric and alternative fuels by 2030.

If that wasn’t enough, in December, the city also published its first smart city master plan, Future-Ready Orlando, which works to combine some of my work in sustainability and resilience with technology to position Orlando to be a leading experimental prototype city of the 21st century.

I believe in the ability for humans to live sustainably in harmony with the planet, and not just survive, but thrive.

Whether it’s building climate resilience to the challenges we will face, taking direct action to mitigate and reverse our impacts or increasing public awareness and engagement about creating a more environmentally friendly future, I have made it my life’s mission to advance sustainability on a personal and professional level. Many say it’s become who I am, not what I do.

No small act of improvement is wasted in this effort, so how much are you willing to contribute to building the future we want?

Listen to Chris Castro on the EDF+Business podcast.

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