The earth is crying out for help.
A razor-thin line separates the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. For a city that’s cemented its success deep within the attributes of the land, sustainability—and all that entails—is an area that can’t be ignored.
Although sustainability within cityscapes has been mentioned for decades in planning circles, Greenville sits at a critical crossroads to create eco-friendly alternatives, as it addresses its green spaces, carbon footprint, new technology, natural waters, waste removal, and more.
Here are three players committed to keeping the green in Greenville:
Keeping Greenville Green
Russell Stall – The Veteran
Growing up not far from the banks of the Reedy River, Russell Stall never focused on the environment beyond curiosity of what may come bobbing downstream.
“We called it the ‘Rainbow Reedy,’” the 61-year-old city councilman shares. “It’s pretty amazing how the city has turned what was once a liability into a real asset.
The river was an issue back in the ’60s and ’70s, and we had serious issues with air-quality attainment too. No one thought much about the impact on the environment and sustainability until the energy crisis. Gas rationing was a bit of a wake-up call.”
Over the years, Russell watched Max Heller redesign Main Street with curb appeal in mind and then saw Knox White pull back the asphalt curtain hiding the Reedy River Falls. When he moved back to Greenville after working in Atlanta for 16 years, Stall committed himself to bettering his hometown. First, he founded Greenville Forward, which facilitated Vision 2025 goals for all of Greenville County, and since 2017, has been totally engaged in sustainability issues as a city council member. He notes every nuance of change.
“I’ve created a map,” he confides. “We’ve lost 78 percent of the tree canopy in the city and most of that is development related. Verdae was all forest and we cut down 260 acres.” Statistics and ordinances spill from his lips in a running commentary of sustainability wins, losses, and draws. Trees?
“The City is committed to planting 1,000 trees a year and not crappy little things. Let’s put real heritage trees back.” Carbon footprint? “We don’t have a carbon-neutral year goal. I think that’s a problem. The City would love to be carbon neutral by 2035.” Development?
“We are re-writing the land management ordinance, and there’s a big environmental piece of that. It’s major. It will dramatically change Greenville to be much more progressive, because right now, it’s stuck in the ’70s.”
Stall’s mind spins with density ratios and green-space optimization, with dreams of an “Emerald Necklace” of rec space weaving its way through the Textile Crescent. He admits his work is far from complete. “What we do today will impact the world my grandchildren live in,” he asserts. “The City moves slower than I would prefer, but we’re making great progress. Greenville has charm and authenticity that no other city has, and a lot of that is because of the green. We have places for people to enjoy and relax. Green is what got us here, and green is what is going to take us into the future.”
Michael Frixen – The Captain
How serious is the City to preserve what it’s got?
It’s appointed its first-ever sustainability coordinator, Michael Frixen. “There are a lot of eyes on Greenville looking to the city to be a leader and do the right thing for the environment,” he shares.
“There’s pressure, certainly, but that’s a good thing. It means that this community is engaged, and cares, and wants to move the ball forward on sustainability.”
Over the years, each city department has developed its own practices and how they impact Greenville’s 67,000 residents and 104,000 commuters working inside the city limits. As his title suggests, Frixen is coordinating all these efforts to bring intentional alignment and positive results. “I think in practice and application, Greenville is ahead of the curve of most of the state and definitely the Upstate region,” he states. “In terms of adopting sustainability plans, formalizing initiatives, and committing them to paper? I think we have a little bit of catch-up to do there.”
The 34-year-old points to cities that have had plans in place for decades.
Frixen is guiding Greenville’s milestone document called SustainableGVL. The composition includes input from a Green Ribbon Advisory Committee (GRAC) and the public, and will protect natural resources, improve watershed quality, and reduce the carbon footprint, while unifying all city departments on environmental and quality-of-life issues.
“It will put accountability in place and formalize what we’re doing and what we want to do moving forward,” Frixen explains. “We’re really getting a sense of what it would take to move the needle forward. It’s a living, breathing framework.”
Championing wise use of the land has long been a priority for Frixen, who fell in love with the outdoors as a Boy Scout growing up in the Carolinas. “We had a very active camping and outdoors program,” he reveals. “We spent a lot of time on the trails, in the mountains and woods, white-water rafting. We did a bunch of trips to the Appalachian Mountains, and we did some of the Appalachian Trail here and there. I really got inspired.”
His task now is to inspire those he’s working alongside to complete SustainableGVL and present it to the city council by this summer for endorsement.
The City has partnered with the Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities at Furman University to help craft the initiative. “I was, personally, very impressed with how much the City does in terms of a green infrastructure, a robust storm-water program, and parks and natural spaces,” he admits.
“Our public works department is making great efforts in terms of electric vehicles with free charging stations in all City garages. This plan does a good job capturing that. Our goal is to get the city council to adopt this and create a formal benchmark to move forward for sustainability,” Frixen says.
Laura Bain – The Visionary
Every day, ensconced within the Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities, Laura Bain is surrounded with reminders of the earth and humanity’s fragility. Her office sits in a net-zero, LEED-certified, sustainable home at the heart of Furman University’s campus. “We should’ve started addressing these issues years ago,” she declares when asked about SustainableGVL. “We’ve all been talking about sustainability in different words for a long time. But putting it all together and connecting Greenville is incredibly critical, especially now that the city is growing so much faster.”
The 41-year-old grew up just down the road in Pickens County. From the top of Table Rock to the ends of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, she’s lost track of all the nooks and crannies she’s explored with her big brother and pack of cousins. “I’m a big hiker and biker. The outdoors has been and will always be where I find my joy,” she reveals. “I worked for Upstate Forever for nine years. It made me aware of the urgency with which we need to be protecting these places.”
As the associate director of sustainability assessment, Bain has worked closely with the City to help mold SustainableGVL. The plan is broken into six sections, covering a wide range of topics, including recycling, transportation, and energy. After detailing where the city is now, it provides planning efforts for the future. One example is pinpointing where the city should replace technology to go paperless and reduce waste. “It’s early in the conversation and we’re connecting all of the dots,” she explains. “We have a long way to go, but we’re primed for it and a lot of the pieces are already in place.”
Since coming to the Shi Institute, Bain’s vision of sustainability has expanded to include things like affordable housing and equity. “When we used to talk about sustainability, it was always environmental and what can we do to recycle better,” she says. “But it’s such a more encompassing topic. It’s unrealistic to ask people who don’t have access to basic needs to have a conversation about LED lightbulbs and better ways to commute.”
As the Shi Institute guides Greenville, and promotes sustainable communities elsewhere through its research, leadership, and education programs, Bain keeps putting one foot in front of the other.
“I think the most important thing I can do to contribute is help people understand where they fit in the conversation,” she adds. “It’s important we think about what we’re leaving our kids. I have a five-year-old daughter, and it helps me see the importance of what I’m leaving her—what we can fix now, and what she’ll need to fix later. That’s how I can contribute.”
Rec Space Restoration
Unity Park, Greenville’s newest green space, is about to open, providing 60 acres for exploration. Across construction of the $61 million project, sustainability has been front and center on blueprints. By introducing sand to the soil mix, engineers have created a state-of-the-art drainage system that will reduce floodwaters by allowing water to filter back into the original water table. Above ground, crews have worked to restore half a mile of riverbank and replaced invasive trees with almost 750 deciduous, evergreen, and understory trees to reestablish the tree canopy. Administrators say they would like to see the green infrastructure introduced at Unity Park replicated citywide to reduce erosion, improve water quality, and refill the water table.
In a move to reduce its carbon footprint, Greenville is looking up. In 2021, crews installed almost 100 solar panels at the David Hellams Community Center between Wade Hampton Boulevard and East North Street. The energy-efficient move is expected to save the high-use facility approximately $4,000 a year.
While selecting the center, the Green Ribbon Advisory Committee identified additional city-owned sites that could support solar panels in the future.
When it comes to hitting the road, Greenville is taking its foot off the gas. From North Laurens Street to River Street, 35 EV charging stations are spread across 11 of Greenville’s public parking garages. While drivers pay the traditional garage fee to park, there is no additional fee to charge electric vehicles for up to four hours at a time.
The City is also racing under a green flag with its fleet of public buses.
The Greenville Transit Authority received $5.3 million in FTA grant money to purchase 6 new Proterra Catalyst ZX5 battery-electric buses by 2023. Currently four of GTA’s 23, fixed-route vehicles are electric.
The GTA has not agreed to go “all electric,” but moved toward placing a moratorium on heavy-duty diesel vehicles in its 2021 Mission and Vision statement.
Arborists estimate Greenville has lost 33 million feet of tree canopy since 2001.
The Green Infrastructure Center recently studied the area and determined only 36 percent of Greenville is under a tree canopy. That loss delivers economic, public health, and environmental setbacks since trees improve air and water quality, while delivering shade that keeps ground-level temperatures cooler.
A tree canopy also prevents ground-level ozone from forming, which helps the region stay in attainment of National Air Quality Standards.
Previously criticized for a “weak” landscape ordinance, the City in 2021 passed a new tree ordinance and created a budget line item dedicated strictly to trees. The ordinance strives to protect heritage trees on private property. Administrators also kick-started the #PlantGVL marketing campaign, under which 1,550 trees have been given away and another 484 planted. The City plans to host more tree giveaways in 2022.
Photography by Paul Mehaffey