Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate emergency.
In this episode, we visit Orlando, USA. This central Florida city is not just the home of Walt Disney World. It’s also a leader in and a model for sustainability. We hear from Chris Castro, Director of Orlando’s Office of Sustainability & Resilience, about how the “City Beautiful” has turned its neighborhoods into ‘agri-hoods’ and pioneered floating solar arrays on its many pocket lakes.
Julia Scott: [00:00:01] Orlando, Florida… The home of Walt Disney World. 75 million visitors pass through Orlando every year.
Chris Castro: [00:00:19] And that’s about 200,000 people every single day.
Julia Scott: [00:00:25] Despite that, the home of Walt Disney World is also a leader in and a model for sustainability for mid-sized cities across the U.S.
Chris Castro: [00:00:33] It’s really becoming top destination for more than just entertainment, but a place that’s kind of positioning us to become this experimental prototype city of tomorrow.
Julia Scott: [00:00:48] Welcome to the Daring Cities podcast, where we talk to urban leaders around the world who are taking radical climate action to prepare for, adapt to and tackle the climate, emergency. Cities are taking daring steps towards solving the climate crisis and finding ways to navigate opposition and support from unexpected places as they go. I’m your host, Julia Scott. Daring Cities is produced by ICLEI: Local Governments for Sustainability. ICLEI is a global network of more than 2,000 local and regional governments committed to sustainable urban development. We drive local action for low emission, nature based, equitable, resilient and circular urban development.
Julia Scott: [00:01:44] There’s really two Orlandos: the one with about 10 theme parks within its city limits. Then there’s Christopher Castro’s Orlando, the one that belongs to the people who love living there.
Chris Castro: [00:01:55] Orlando is this really beautiful city. In fact, our nickname is The City Beautiful. And a big reason for that, in addition to our downtown landscape and skyline, is also the majestic live oak trees and beautifully-lined kind of tree canopy. There’s a really great local food scene, many different farm-to-table restaurants and award-winning chefs. There’s beautiful parks, little pocket parks, but also these larger iconic parks like Lake Eola and some nature trails, all both inside and surrounding the city.
Julia Scott: [00:02:30] Chris Castro is director of Orlando’s Office of Sustainability and Resilience. He’s a second generation Cuban-American who moved to Orlando for university and stayed to raise a family. His perfect weekend involves surfing at the beach. He’s surfed all over the world.
Chris Castro: [00:02:46] Being so close to the water, it has truly become something that has grounded me and has been a big reason in terms of inspiration, of why I feel environmental protection is so critical in our day and age.
Julia Scott: [00:03:00] At university, Castro was part of a small group of students who put pressure on leaders to commit to climate action and carbon neutrality by the year 2050. He left his job in the NGO space for the chance to influence the city from the inside.
Chris Castro: [00:03:14] I felt that Orlando is truly this shapeable city. We’re kind of in this adolescent stage of the history of Orlando. And it’s still shapeable. It’s able to be influenced and really have anyone, whether you’re from here or you’re a new resident, to be able to help guide the future of where our city is headed.
Julia Scott: [00:03:38] I really admire this notion of a shapeable city. Cities are always changing, but they usually have a popular narrative about them. Orlando is still writing that narrative. 60 years ago, Orlando was a city of 200,000 known for its vacation homes and citrus groves. Orange juice was the big business in town.
NEWSREEL: [00:03:58] As one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, Orlando has gained a new distinction, a lot of its kind parlay of sunlight, beauty, recreation and modern industrial opportunity.
Julia Scott: [00:04:11] And then… Walt Disney World opened in 1971. Many other theme parks followed. Fast forward to today with 75 million visitors a year — at least Pre-COVID-19.
Chris Castro: [00:04:27] I always think about the 75 million people, the amount of toilet flushes. I often think, too, of the amount of waste that somebody produces, about a ton per person on average here when they come to Orlando, and then they get to go and fly back home and go back to their own destinations. And we have to deal with some of those unintended consequences.
Julia Scott: [00:04:47] Not to mention the mountains of solid waste, the toll on the wastewater system and stormwater system, the electricity use, the smog. The tourism industry has been a huge boon to Orlando.
Chris Castro: [00:04:59] But the question becomes, can we sustain this form of economic growth well into the future?
Julia Scott: [00:05:07] The answer was no, at least not without redefining what sustainability could look like in Orlando. This transformative moment came in 2003 when Mayor Buddy Dyer came into office and declared his intention to remake Orlando.
Chris Castro: [00:05:22] And his thought process has been that Orlando must begin to focus on becoming this globally competitive city in the 21st century, one that attracts the creative class and attracts the type of high-wage job growth that we’re looking for our city, and one that takes responsibility for many of the urban challenges facing cities today, things like homelessness and affordable housing and, of course, the climate crisis.
Julia Scott: [00:05:47] A huge turning point was the city’s Green Works Orlando program, which Mayor Dyer launched in 2007. It was also a daring move in a political context. 13 years before the state of Florida passed a bill acknowledging the legitimacy of climate change — which just happened this summer — Orlando got busy joining the Global Covenant of Mayors and the Steering Committee for Climate Mayors based in the United States, and setting ambitious sustainable development goals.
Chris Castro: [00:06:15] We have implemented very ambitious goals around transitioning our electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy, moving our entire bus fleet to electric and alternative fuel, and achieving carbon neutrality by mid- century in alignment with the science-based targets and and the Paris climate agreement. In addition, we have this vision of becoming a zero waste community.
Julia Scott: [00:06:37] That’s not all. Orlando also joined Cities With Nature, a global initiative that helps cities to make nature more central in their urban planning economies and residents lives.
Chris Castro: [00:06:48] We are trying to enhance the tree canopy coverage, ensuring that every resident is within a 10-minute walk to a local park or green space, ensuring that every resident is within a half mile of a local grocery store or food supply store, so that they can have access to healthy, nutritious foods.
Julia Scott: [00:07:08] Orlando has made use of its natural features and other creative ways. There are two things it has plenty of: sunshine and water. Orlando is flat, and it’s surrounded by water bodies that look like pocket lakes. Most of them are manmade stormwater retention ponds, one way that cities around Florida manage rainwater and stormwater. Orlando Wetlands Park, for instance, is a top place for bird watching, but it’s actually a wetland designed to provide advanced treatment for reclaimed water. And then, there’s solar energy.
Chris Castro: [00:07:41] You know, we’re in the Sunshine State. We’ve implemented things like solar co-ops, which are these group buying programs for our residents. These are offsite large solar farms that allow for residents and businesses to offset all of their consumption if they want, with clean energy. We also are starting to cover our parking lots with solar-powered carports that are shading our vehicles, of course, from that hot sun, but also producing clean electricity.
Julia Scott: [00:08:08] One of the things that has really spotlighted Orlando’s innovation economy is the new application of floating solar farms, or what’s now called floatovoltaics. Orlando has started to pilot these solar arrays in the middle of retention ponds where they look like big, shiny lily pads. A large floatovoltaic solar array is headed to Orlando International Airport later this year.
Chris Castro: [00:08:31] And some of the interesting things we’ve realized about floating solar is that the water actually acts as a benefit for the solar panels because they help to minimize the heat gain.
Julia Scott: [00:08:42] Food systems and food waste are also innovation drivers. To create more local food sovereignty and minimize the dependence on the industrial agricultural complex, Orlando made some simple changes to its city code around urban agriculture. For instance, they allowed front yards to be turned into edible landscapes and farms. It was a popular change.
Chris Castro: [00:09:03] We’ve also enabled backyard chickens, urban apiary and even edible fruit trees throughout your property. And so that’s something that we really have embraced. The cool thing is because of that policy, we saw that a local nonprofit organization called Fleet Farming really emerged. And I’m happy to be one of the creators of this nonprofit that was super passionate about trying to activate homeowner lawns and essentially turn our neighborhoods into agri-hoods where we can collectively grow hyper-local, healthy food and sell it at the local farmer’s market right down the road.
Julia Scott: [00:09:40] On the other side of the equation, Orlando has handed out more than 8,000 earth machine composters, which the city delivers and assembles free of charge. Here’s Chris Castro using one with some help from his daughter, Coraline.
Coraline: [00:09:57] Wow!
Chris Castro: [00:09:57] Let poppy turn the compost, okay? One, two, three–
Coraline: [00:09:57] Cora: Uno, dos, tres!
Julia Scott: [00:10:16] Of course, not everyone has a yard for growing or composting. The city’s converting empty lots into community gardens, and residents can bring their food waste to the farmer’s market to be composted. There’s a separate program to divert commercial food waste, which really adds up at events with 10,000 people. I asked Chris what it’s like to have done all of this against the backdrop of the state’s very different approach to the climate emergency.
Chris Castro: [00:10:42] You know, the state of Florida has not been the most vocal advocate or ally as it regards kind of addressing the urgency of the climate crisis and advancing sustainability. It’s kind of looked at as a state that’s backwards on this topic. It’s certainly not an easy place to be to be an advocate for climate. The mayor often talks about being the tip of the spear and not being afraid to be on the bleeding edge, especially when it’s something that we know is on the right side of history and then we know is only going to make our community stronger, more resilient, and at the end of the day, more sustainable.
Julia Scott: [00:11:19] Earlier this year, Orlando was recognized as a LEED Gold city, one of the highest levels of certified sustainability performance of any city in the southeastern U.S. But the challenges ahead call for cooperation. Sea level rise doesn’t just impact the coastlines. It raises the water table in inland cities like Orlando, causing flooding and improving the air quality. The city can’t do that alone.
Chris Castro: [00:11:43] It’s one thing for Orlando to be a global leader in and a model for urban sustainability. But if it doesn’t expand beyond our borders, are we actually making the impact that we need to be making? And the answer is no.
Julia Scott: [00:11:56] So, last year, Orlando joined a regional resilience cooperative that stretches across five counties, 78 cities in central Florida. Together, they’re creating a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and a regional vulnerability and risk assessment for climate change. The roadmap that emerges will shape whether Florida remains a livable destination, and especially how local governments combine resources to survive and thrive in the wake of COVID-19.
Chris Castro: [00:12:24] COVID-19 has been such a disruptor for not just Orlando but cities around the world. It has tremendous impact on unemployment and closures of small businesses. It’s certainly hit our tourism numbers by more than 90 percent of what we were seeing this time last year. And, you know, it continues to to paint an uncertain future for where we’re headed. But one thing that does give me hope is that the importance of a green and equitable recovery continues to rise to the top as something that we realize is an opportunity for our community and for this country. We have an unprecedented opportunity to pivot, not build back the same way we were, but continue to build forward in a better way that is addressing at the same time a greener economy and one that isn’t so dependent on this extractive, you know, form of society.
Julia Scott: [00:13:29] And as we were saying, Orlando is shapeable. Its future is not yet written. The crises of the present will add another layer of change to a city already in transition, but it’s bold local leaders will step up to guide it. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Daring Cities podcast. Daring Cities is produced by me, Julia Scott, with engineering help from Chris Hoff. Special thanks to Chris Castro and Samantha Holsten from the city of Orlando. And to Kale Roberts and Ariel Dekovic from ICLEI.
The Daring Cities podcast is supported by major contributions from the Federal City of Bonn, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), and the Foundation for International Dialogue of the Savings Bank in Bonn.