How Invested Are Local Politicians in the Green Movement?

By Dave Feldman
Bethesda Green

Since he was 32, politician Ken Ulman (shown right) has been an active political and community leader in Maryland’s green and sustainability efforts—and he has received high praise for making Howard County a great place to live.

During his term, Howard County has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Live in America by Money magazine, and Columbia-Ellicott City was recognized as the #8 Best Place to Live for its strong local economy, excellent public schools, thriving arts community, and enviable quality of life.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Ulman to talk about his green initiative. Scroll down for our Q&A.


Dave Feldman: Can you share your vision for the county and describe how sustainability is part of your mission?

Ken Ulman: If done right, sustainability isn’t part of a government’s mission, it is the mission. The three pillars of sustainability are the economy, the environment, and the people. My goal is to seek and implement programs that maximize benefits in all those areas and to make decisions that do not weaken one pillar at the expense of another.

Dave Feldman: In your first month in office, you made Howard County one of the first counties in the country to be an active participant in the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a nationwide effort by local jurisdictions to reduce global warming. As a leader on environmental issues, where did this interest or passion for protecting the environment come from?

Ken Ulman: My parents raised me to see every challenge as an opportunity, and there is no greater challenge facing our communities than that of environmental sustainability. My commitment to the environment stems from the belief that we have an obligation to protect the beautiful and natural resources that make Maryland the unique state that it is.

From the Chesapeake Bay to the more rural corners of the state, and everywhere in between, we can each play a role in strengthening, preserving, and protecting our environment for future generations.

In Howard County, we have demonstrated that sustainability practices aren’t just good for the environment and communities, but they are good for the bottom line as well. Whether it’s transitioning to hybrid fleets and buses, balancing community development with our commitment to open space, or providing curbside recycling to all county residents, we see environmental sustainability as a tremendous opportunity, which not only is proven to save taxpayers’ dollars, but is the right thing to do.

Dave Feldman: Howard County has an Office of Environmental Sustainability that you helped launch. Its mission is to protect and enhance natural resources and the quality of life in our community through the conservation, preservation, and restoration of our land, air, and water. Can you describe some of this organization’s greatest accomplishments?

Ken Ulman: First, the nature and design of the office is something I am proud of, as it has created a new way to approach environmental work within government. The Office’s mission is to work with every department to instill a culture of sustainability and to embrace environmental initiatives. The Office does not exist in a silo, which is largely why we have been so successful.

I could literally fill the pages with successes, but let me break it down by issue:

  • Trees: Through various county programs, we have planted more than 60,000 trees, focused primarily on stream buffers and forest conservation.
  • Land: We developed a comprehensive green infrastructure map with our preserved hubs and wildlife corridors. Also, over 57,000 acres of land is permanently preserved in Howard County, which is over 35 percent of the total area.
  • Energy: After signing the mayor’s climate protection agreement, we committed to reducing our carbon footprint by 7 percent by 2012. The Office is still calculating the numbers, but we are confident that we have reduced our footprint by at least 10 percent. Through the Energy Efficiency Block Grant, we were able to provide comprehensive energy audits to more than 1,200 homeowners in Howard County.
  • Waste: We have begun rolling out curbside food-waste collection for county residents, a service that will eventually be available to the entire county.

Dave Feldman: How have your constituents responded to your green initiatives? What other ideas do they recommend that you pursue?

Ken Ulman: We boast about our high quality of life in Howard County, which is largely due to the active and engaged citizens, who encourage elected officials and public servants to think creatively and strategically every day. As county executive, it is important that I receive feedback and that, together, we create a culture where sharing ideas is expected and embraced.

One example of how citizen feedback resulted in action came in the form of our 2012 READY program, or Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth. This project focused on training young adults (16-24 years old) in the design and installation of green stormwater techniques, such as rain gardens and rain barrels. It also reduced the amount of stormwater runoff in the county by installing these stormwater practices on institutional properties within Howard County, which resulted in the capture of runoff from approximately 191,000 square feet of rooftops, pavements, and other surfaces.

Given the success of the program, we are looking for opportunities to expand in 2013. Citizens are able to provide feedback on projects and initiatives through different forums, including Green Central Station, an important hub of green information, resources, and idea-sharing.

Dave Feldman: Howard County has been active in developing the technology sector. Can you talk about some innovations of green solutions and the entrepreneurs behind them?

Ken Ulman: We are always looking for innovative ways to help businesses. At the Robinson Nature Center, which opened last year, we used pervious pavement products (paving material that allows water to penetrate to the ground below) to reduce runoff, and I know that other developers and projects have viewed this technology and are interested in using it.

I am also proud of a county project that takes treated wastewater from the Little Patuxent Reclamation Plant and sends it to Dreyer’s, a major ice cream manufacturer, for use in its cooling system. This is a win-win: It prevents the treated water from entering the Chesapeake, and it prevents the company from using fresh water for this purpose. We are looking for more solutions like this.

Dave Feldman: What haven’t you accomplished yet, and what do you hope to achieve in the future?

Ken Ulman: As I mentioned, we hope we can expand our food-waste recycling program county-wide, with a goal of becoming a zero-waste county. Within the next year, we will launch our stormwater utility, and will embark on a series of projects that will keep our waterways cleaner and better protect the Chesapeake.

I also hope to make more progress on bikeway and regional transit programs in Howard, to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Relatedly, our efforts to grow Downtown Columbia into an exciting town center will add density and amenities and reduce demand for gasoline- and diesel-powered transportation.

Dave Feldman: Thanks so much for your time, Ken. And thanks to our readers for their support and interest in how more organizations are going green. For more insights into the future of the sustainability movement, check back for our next Go Green column. Here’s to a great—and sustainable—2013.


About Dave Feldman

Feldman is the current and founding director of Bethesda Green, a dynamic 501c3 that serves as a catalyst and trusted resource for building a healthy economy and sustainable community. This model initiative has set up the first green business incubator and education center in the DC/Maryland region.

Feldman is also the CEO of the Livability Project LLC, an organization that provides structure and tools to help communities develop sustainability initiatives. Through Livability, Feldman leverages his entrepreneurial experience, international economic development expertise, and passion for sustainability to implement socially responsible, “green” community development projects that can be replicated worldwide.

For more information about Bethesda Green, visit www.bethesdagreen.org. For details about Feldman’s Livability Project, visit www.livabilityproject.com.