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Community Insights: “Small but mighty” Park City leads the way on climate

Category: Climate

“Small but mighty” Park City leads the way on climate

by Kathleen Pierce

Park City, Utah, is famous for its winter sports and glitzy Sundance Film Festival. But when the more than 3 million annual tourists and vacation home owners leave, the city’s 8,300 year-round residents don’t relax. Instead, they are busy accomplishing bold climate goals to protect the area’s pristine open spaces, ski slopes and trails.

 

In 2016, Park City approved some of North America’s most ambitious climate objectives: by 2030, the city aims to be net-zero carbon and running on 100% renewable electricity. First up? The city’s municipal operations, which are on track to reach those goals by 2022.

 

To learn more about the changes the city is adopting, informed in part by a partnership with Thriving Earth Exchange, we spoke with Celia Peterson, the Environmental Sustainability Project Manager for Park City.

 

How would you describe your community to someone who’s never been there?

Park City is a fairly small town, but with the resorts and events, there can be upwards of 60,000 people here at one time, and we have to have infrastructure to support everyone.

We are very centered around the resorts and events, making us important to Utah’s tourism base. But the housing prices are out of control, and pair that with the service-based community, and a lot of people who live here year-round really have to hustle to make ends meet.

Summit County, where Park City is located, is not all fancy resorts and developments. On the east side, we have generational farmers and ranchers who are under development pressure, and might not feel connected to our climate goals. It’s my goal to set up a climate action so that it speaks to and benefits all of our residents, not just the skiers and mountain bikers.

What do you see as unique strengths of your community?

While Utah overall is very conservative, Park City is very progressive, and very wealthy. It’s a mix of ski bums and highly educated outdoor enthusiasts who want to work against climate change.

Park City residents want a zero-waste, circular economy, and we have a lot of trust from our leaders to drive forward these changes. It’s amazing! I have the freedom, permission and community willingness to figure out climate change in Park City.

What do you see as its unique challenges or struggles?

We are unique in many ways. Park City was originally a silver mining town, hence we have some polluted soils within our boundaries, especially the historic district. We also have some very old, inefficient historic mining homes that, while beautiful, often lack proper insulation and use a lot of energy to keep warm. We also have some very big second homes that are unused a good portion of the year, but heated anyways. With our very high transient population, it can be tricky to engage people to participate in less energy intensive, wasteful ways of staying in Park City.

Finally, our biggest climate risks are drought and wildfire. We have been lucky to not experience any big fires thus far, but we are actively trying to become more resilient to wildfire by removing flammable vegetation and creating defensible space around built structures, as well as improving our soils to retain more water to promote healthier growth of native species.

What do you think people would be surprised to learn about your community?

While the stereotype of Park City people is primarily wealthy and white, indeed we have a significant Latinx population, about 25-30% of the community, but they are underrepresented and lack access to certain amenities. Park City is working on bridging this social equity gap, and in fact we’ve infused social equity into our Thriving Earth Exchange project, through Summit Land Conservancy, one of our community partners. Summit Land Conservancy got a grant to hire Park City High School Bright Futures students (a program to help low-income, first-generation students) to do some of our field work, learn about the science and get engaged in local environmental work. COVID-19 hit Park City pretty hard, especially in the service-jobs based community these kids are from, so it was really cool to see new opportunities rise up for these super sharp kids to earn good money by doing science and supporting our community climate goals.

What would you advise to others trying to tackle a community issue?

Set ambitious goals and make partnerships. In addition to Thriving Earth Exchange and work with Summit Land Conservancy, I presented at the latest AGU meeting on the topic of “Science Policy Starts at Home” to share how we’ve been setting goals based on science, and quickly getting to strategic implementation. In 2019, my coworker, Luke Cartin, Environmental Sustainability Manager, and Park City mayor Andy Beerman, along with several ski companies and local businesses, created Mountain Towns 2030, a cohort of like-minded communities that share information and set ambitious climate goals. Finally, ICLEI, Local Governments for Sustainability, has been a wealth of knowledge and experience where we can learn what’s worked from other municipal employees tackling similar goals.

Second, foster community engagement. Our local partners, like Summit Land Conservancy, Bright Futures, and others that we regularty work with are high-profile and well-loved in the community. In addition, to tackle greenhouse gas emissions coming from our buildings, we have launched a Community Advisory Committee with Utah Clean Energy to involve local builders [who] are helping with our goal to decarbonize our built environment, creating a suite of code modifications and financing ideas that will soon be implemented. We’re also engaging our business community to take bold actions to reduce their carbon output, driving a more sustainable community overall.

What can your project teach other communities?

Park City is a teensy dot of blue in a sea of red in Utah, and we like to say we’re “small but mighty.” In a town of just 8,300, we’ve got very ambitious goals and a lot of visibility, so it’s our role to push the envelope, figure things out and demonstrate that climate solutions are working solutions that can improve communities. We’re a “living laboratory” for this work.

 

Some of those solutions include the Thriving Earth Exchange project, where we are testing soil in different open spaces, applying biochar, and taking samples to get a baseline of soil carbon content and how it changes over time as we employ more regenerative practices. This project can have a big impact on the health of our community. Biochar is an amazing substance, in that it can help soil hold more water, it binds onto toxins in the soil, preventing them from entering the water table. It also makes the soil healthier for agriculture, and traps carbon away from the atmosphere and into our soils in a way that increases biological productivity, which further traps carbon.

What do you hope your community will be like in 20 years?

We are talking about being carbon neutral by 2030, so it’s going to be a busy couple of years! What that looks like is still coming into focus, but we’ve got deep decarbonization retrofits in our buildings, complete electrification of our transportation systems, and elimination of food waste. To do that, we are pushing hard for an anaerobic digester to prevent food waste from entering our landfill, create carbon-free energy, and add nutrients to the biochar and make our soils even healthier.

I would also really love to establish better connections with local food systems to feed our residents and guests alike. If we have better soil, we can grow better produce and get more local, healthy food into our restaurants with a drastically reduced climate impact. That’s really the big picture.

Kelly McCarthy subscriber

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