A large leafy tree on the bank of a glassy green-brown
Investing in nature to make Cleveland a better place © Mark Godfrey

Mark Tercek

Sustainable Cleveland, Sustainable Future

Mark Tercek Former Chief Executive Officer


The 2017 Sustainable Cleveland Summit brought together more than 500 community leaders to help design Cleveland’s sustainable future. Below is the keynote speech Mark gave at the Summit on September 27, 2017.

Thank you to Mayor Jackson and Matt Gray for inviting me to speak today, and to the Cleveland Foundation for bringing this Summit to life. And thanks to everyone in Cleveland—citizens, community groups, environmental organizations, and business—for supporting Cleveland’s efforts to be a “green city on a blue lake.”

Today, I want to talk about two topics. First, I want to discuss nature-based solutions. How can places like Cleveland invest in nature to make cities better places to live?

Second, I want to talk about the need for bold leadership. What I’ve learned in my time at The Nature Conservancy—we call it TNC for short—is that making the case for investing in nature only takes us so far. What’s even more important is for individuals and organizations to step up, think big, and follow their moral compass. That means all of you.

But first, let me tell you a bit about me and about TNC so you’ll know where I’m coming from.

About Me

I’m very happy to be here today. As you heard, I grew up right here—on the east side of Cleveland in the Collinwood neighborhood. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid—but it wasn’t at nature preserves.

I shoveled snow, shot hoops, and delivered the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In fact, here I am.

A young boy wearing a floppy hat smiles while holding a
Historic Cleveland Mark Tercek grew up on the east side of Cleveland © Library of Congress

Just kidding!

I liked being outside of course, but it wasn’t these experiences that made me an environmentalist.

My grandparents were all immigrants from Slovenia. When they settled in Cleveland, they planted many fruit trees and a big garden. It was my job to weed the garden and pick fruit.

But that’s not why this memory stands out. In the late 60s, I remember the trees stopped producing good fruit. Some weakened, and even died. Even as a kid, it was pretty easy for me to see the likely culprit. I can still picture the smog that covered the city.

Then, in 1969, as we all know, the Cuyahoga River caught fire. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to know that something is terribly wrong when a river bursts into flames.

Two images, on the left an aerial view of black plumes
Laugh-In and the Cuyahoga River burning © Cleveland Press

Some of you might remember the show “Laugh-In,” the “Saturday Night Live” of that time. I’ll never forget the show’s running jokes about the fire. It was embarrassing to Clevelanders. Even as a kid…I didn’t like it.

These events opened my eyes, and a lot of other people’s, too.

Yet there was a silver lining. The river burning, the bad air and water pollution in cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, LA and all across the country—these all gave rise to the greatest period of environmental progress in U.S. history.

Under President Nixon we got the EPA, The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. None of this was easy. There was very strong opposition to all of these measures.

Take the Clean Air Act, for example.

The auto industry railed against it. It would destroy millions of jobs, they said. It would cost billions of dollars. But Congress, under great pressure from the public, enacted the bill anyway. And President Nixon signed it into law.

A man seated at a desk holding a pen and writing on a s
The Clean Air Act signed by President Nixon © National Archives

And guess what? Right after, America’s scientists and industries got to work, and good things happened. The catalytic convertor was invented and we shifted to unleaded gasoline. Today, thanks mainly to the Clean Air Act, cars today are 99.5 percent cleaner than they were in 1970. That’s why we can all breathe cleaner air as we enjoy blue skies over our cities.

There’s an encouraging takeaway here: We CAN build environmental progress out of challenging times.

We did it then. We can do it again today.

From Cleveland, to Wall Street, to TNC

So, how did I get from Cleveland to TNC? After college, I got a job on Wall Street, where I spent 24 years as an investment banker.

Two things happened along the way.

First—my wife and I are city people, but we made an effort to connect our four kids to nature. It was a bit late in life, but taking trips to nature preserves and spending time outdoors turned me into an environmentalist. In fact, I think there’s an inner environmentalist in everyone.

Second—as a business person, I developed the view—and I still believe this today—that business can be a force for good.

As a result, I jumped at the opportunity to lead Goldman Sachs’s first environmental initiative. My job was to look for win-win opportunities where businesses could improve both their bottom lines and the environment’s. I didn’t have to look very far. I discovered these kinds of win-wins were far more common than you might think.

By early 2008, I was ready for more. When I heard that TNC was looking for a new CEO, I threw my hat in the ring. And lo and behold, I got the job. It was the happiest day in my career.

TNC and Cities

So that’s my story. Now let me briefly introduce you to TNC and explain a little bit about who we are and what we do.

For 65 years, we’ve been known as a pragmatic, nonpartisan organization. We bring diverse groups together to advance conservation progress. That approach allowed us to become the largest conservation organization in the world. We have some 4,000 staff working in 50 states and 79 countries and territories.

We started as a US-based land trust—buying land to protect it. But as threats to nature became more complex, we realized this strategy would only take us so far.

So we moved into new areas like marine, freshwater, and climate change. And we began prioritizing conservation solutions that benefit people as well as nature.

Here in Ohio, you can see some of these strategies at work. For example:

·         So far, we’ve protected more than 60,000 acres of land across the state. Most recently, we acquired Snow Lake in Geauga County, just east of Cleveland. This is one of the state’s best remaining glacial wetlands, and we plan to open it to the public next year.

·         We’re working with farmers to minimize nutrient runoff to ensure that Lake Erie and the Ohio River provide clean water for communities.

·         We partnered with Ohio’s Congressional delegation to secure full funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

And we’re doing all we can to make the case that clean energy policies are good for Ohioans.

As we expanded these types of strategies across TNC, we realized there was another important area where we needed to focus our attention: cities.

So we recently started a cities program. It’s off to a great start—just 2-and-a-half years in, we’re already working in 25 cities.

A young girl holds a leaf up in front of her face.
Nature can help solve some of the biggest challenges © Devan King/TNC

Some folks weren’t sold on our cities initiative at first. Why take on a new priority so different from what we’d done before? Here’s our answer:

First, cities need nature. Nature can help solve some of the biggest challenges facing cities today.

Second, more than half the world’s population lives in cities. Soon, it will be three quarters. We need those people on nature’s side—we want to do work where they live.

To me, it’s a no brainer. By bringing nature into cities, we can help people and nature thrive together. We can make cities better places to live, and build a stronger more diverse base for our cause.

And that’s why I’m here today.

I was delighted to be invited by the Mayor and Matt Gray, Cleveland’s Chief of Sustainability. I’m very impressed by the great work underway in Cleveland. Congratulations on all you have accomplished and best of luck on reaching your ambitious goals.

I want to talk about some of the challenges facing cities today—and how nature can solve them.

City Challenges and TNC Solutions

We all know there are plenty of issues facing cities. Today I want to focus on three: heat and air pollution, clean water, and human impact.

A brown toned image of a city skyline.
Air pollution is causing health problems for Americans © Lei Han

Let’s start with heat and air.

One of the consequences of concrete and asphalt infrastructure is urban heat. It’s much hotter in cities than in surrounding areas.

Heat is the number one natural disaster killer in the U.S.—and the problem will only get worse with climate change. In Los Angeles, there used to be about eight days a year where the temperature was 95 or higher. By 2050, that number is expected to triple.

In addition, polluted air is causing health problems for Americans. Every mayor I meet brings up air quality in the first 10 minutes of our discussions. The World Health Organization reported this year that 92% of all people are breathing some form of bad urban air. This causes serious health consequences, like asthma and heart disease.

What can cities be doing to minimize the consequences of urban heat and air pollution? Well you can see for yourself right here in Cleveland. I’m talking of course about the very successful Cleveland Tree Project.

Science shows us that vegetation—trees, shrubs, urban gardens—can be one of the best and most cost-effective solutions to heat and air quality challenges.

Trees cool the air by casting shade and releasing water vapor. And they can remove up to 35% of pollutants in the air around a tree. In other words, trees have a direct impact on a cities’ air quality and temperature. The more trees? The greater the benefits.

AT TNC, we know that planting trees in urban areas is a great strategy. But we also know that decision-makers need evidence. So last year, TNC undertook a massive study and published the results in our Planting Healthy Air Report.

The goal of the report is to determine the return on investment for planting urban trees.

We overlaid maps of tree cover in 245 cities against areas where we knew that air quality was bad. We found that investing just $4 per resident on trees could improve the health of millions of people.


Three young adults take a small tree sapling out of a b
Planting trees in the city with TNC, The Brightside Organization, UPS and Brown-Forman © Devan King/TNC

I’m excited to tell you that we’re expanding on this work. Our newest report has just been released—we’re calling it Funding Trees for Health. It tackles some of the obstacles cities face in getting a tree planting strategy up and running.

This connection between nature and health is something we’re exploring more and more. Take Louisville, Kentucky.

Louisville has some of the worst air quality in the United States. Asthma and heart disease are big problems for the city—both are linked to bad air quality. So TNC, along with 60 partner organizations, started the Green Heart Study.

The idea is to green-up a neighborhood by planting trees and shrubs—and compare the health of its residents to those in non-green areas. We’re leaving the medical expertise to the University of Louisville, who will help us quantify the health benefits of planting trees.

NIH is funding the University’s research. And we think this is a very big opportunity to make the case for bringing more nature into cities.

Water rushing down a street drain with cars in backgrou
Clean Water Stormwater runoff in Arlington, Virginia © Tyrone Turner

Now I want to talk about water. Water quality is another major worry for cities.

Stormwater is the fastest growing source of water pollution. When unfiltered rain pounds down on pavement, it collects pollutants. With nowhere to go—it flows into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

I’ll use D.C. as an example—my home for the last 9 years. The state of stormwater runoff in Washington, D.C. is not great—for every 1 inch of rain, 525 million gallons of polluted water enter the Anacostia River alone. That’s the size of nearly 800 Olympic size swimming pools.

Even worse, when stormwater and sewer systems are combined, as they are in many U.S. cities, big storms can cause overflows that send raw sewage into nearby waterways.

So what can cities do to address the problem of stormwater without breaking the bank?

I’m sure most of you know about the benefits of green infrastructure like rain gardens, biowswales, and restored wetlands. These features soak up stormwater, slowing it down before it reaches overburdened sewer systems. They also add valuable green space to neighborhoods, and create jobs for construction and maintenance workers.

So, how can we take these nature-based solutions to scale? Let me return to D.C.

People planting grasses along a church parking lot
Nature-Based Solutions Planting a rain garden in a church parking lot © Misty Edgecomb/TNC

Like many cities, D.C. now mandates that developers retain stormwater runoff from their properties.

What’s unique about D.C.’s regulation is that it allows developers to use offsite, green infrastructure solutions.

Developers can meet up to half of their stormwater retention requirements by buying credits from projects built across the city. Right now, D.C. is the only city that allows developers to do this.

This system allowed TNC to raise money from institutional investors to fund a development company that is building green infrastructure projects. Those projects generate credits that developers can purchase to meet their stormwater retention requirements.

We think these projects will be a big win for everyone in D.C.:

First, these projects will protect the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Second, they’ll create green space in underserved neighborhoods. Third, they’ll ease financial burdens on tight government budgets and local rate payers. And fourth, they’ll create returns for investors from the sale of the credits, attracting even more capital for this kind of work.

We think this is a strategy that we can really take to scale—we’re eager to work with other cities around the country to implement similar programs.

Four young children gather around the glowing screen of
Human Impact Kids captivated by technology © Jim Bauer/Flickr

We can’t talk about challenges facing cities without talking about the impact on people.

As more and more people move to cities, it’s on us to develop urban areas where people can thrive.

Today, we’re more disconnected than ever from nature. The average kid in the US spends less than 30 minutes of unstructured outdoor time per week but up to 7 hours of screen time per day. That’s pretty different from the way I grew up. And today’s high school seniors can identify 1,000 commercial brands but less than 10 native plants.

I hate to break it to you—but TNC doesn’t have the solution for getting kids to put down their iPhones. What we do have are programs that help connect youth with nature at the local level.

One of these is our high school internship program called LEAF, or Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future. For 22 years, LEAF has provided paid opportunities for teens to get involved with local conservation programs. We recruit a diverse group of high school students and open their eyes to career possibilities in the environmental field.

And it’s working: Over the past 20 years, 1 in 3 of our LEAF graduates has gone on to pursue an environmental career, and more than half volunteer for environmental causes.

A collage of student conservation workers.
Student Interns for Our Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEA © TNC

For too long, nature has been viewed as a nice-to-have, “parks and recreation.” We want it to be essential infrastructure.

We’re making good progress, but it’s just the beginning. We need more and better evidence to make the case. And we need more leaders willing to step up and invest in nature.

So now I want to shift gears and talk about the “how” behind these big plans for sustainable cities.

If you’re here today, you’re already taking the first step. Thank you for coming and supporting Sustainable Cleveland. I want to thank the Cleveland Foundation, in particular, for their support of this conference and for their great work to improve the lives of all Cleveland residents.

There’s great work going on here, and it needs the backing of people like you. And that’s because leadership is a critical piece in this movement. We can develop all the plans in the world, but without leadership at the local level, the Cleveland level, it’s not going to be a success.

There are many ways to approach leadership, and I want to leave you with a few of those today.

Environmental Leadership in Cities

Let me take a step back here. Nine years ago, I left Wall Street to run The Nature Conservancy.

I came to TNC guns blazing, convinced that businesslike, investment-oriented approaches were exactly what the environmental movement needed. I even wrote a book on investing in nature. I thought that we could solve every environmental problem using tried and true market tools.

I wasn’t wrong—we’re employing a lot of those strategies, and they’re going very well. Yet I now understand something even more important.

Economic arguments only take us so far. What we really need are bold leaders willing to step up, stick their necks out, and lead from the heart.

That’s what I want to challenge you to do today.

In my job, people often say to me, “I get how someone like you can make a difference for the environment; you’re the CEO of an environmental group. But what can I do?” I love when people ask that question.

My answer: “There’s a lot each and every one of you can do.” There’s no shortage of ways you can make a difference.

What Can You Do?

I want to go over three areas of leadership: at home, in politics, and in your neighborhood.

A mother, father and two children sit on the edge of a
At Home A family enjoys time together on the beach © Karine Aigner

First, let’s talk about leadership at home. As parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, neighbors, or in many other ways, you can help young people build a conservation ethic.

Connect young people with nature. Take kids outside. Teach them about why it’s so important to protect the lands and waters that sustain us.

Help kids see the role they can play in keeping cities clean and safe. Teach them about recycling and composting. And not just in terms of chores. Talk to them about the impact of reducing waste.

One way to do this is to pull back the curtain on the work that goes into providing resources, like fresh drinking water. Schedule a tour of a local plant! One of the big, important sponsors of this event, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer, offers tours of their plants that are open to the public.

Historic Cleveland City Hall in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
In Politics historic Cleveland City Hall in Cuyahoga County, Ohio © cmh2315fl/Flickr

Second, let’s talk about leadership in the political space. Ask yourself: are you doing everything you can—as a citizen—to show your government leaders that you care about a resilient future for people and the planet?

I know this can be tough. Every day I see a new headline about how divided we are as a country. But I really believe that finding common ground and engaging in political discourse is as important as ever.

In particular, I encourage you to draw on principles that we can all agree on. Clean water. Clean air. Food security. These are common-ground principles that make it into every political speech on both sides of the aisle—but more importantly they are real issues that affect people across the country. And we’re close to real solutions.

Speak up about the risks of climate change. Your representatives are listening. Whenever I talk to leaders in Congress, they all tell me that hearing from you makes a difference.

Every year at TNC, we bring hundreds of our volunteer trustees to Capitol Hill to talk about environmental issues facing their communities. Climate change is always at the top of the list. Clear messages from community leaders like you will help reframe the climate policy debate.

And also, vote. This may sound obvious, but it’s important to vote for leaders and initiatives that prioritize the environment.

View of downtown Cleveland and the Detroit-Superior Bri
In Your Neighborhood view of downtown Cleveland © Erik Drost/Creative

And finally, let’s talk about leadership in your neighborhood. What can you do to make Cleveland a more vibrant green space to live?

I want to point to a few projects in Cleveland today—many of these are supported by leaders in this room right now. By 2019, you can look forward to the first freshwater offshore wind project in North America—right here on Lake Erie.

You’re currently updating the Cleveland Climate Action Plan with more focus on equity, green jobs, and resilience. Between 2010-2015, Cleveland’s emissions fell by about 5% while increasing economic growth.

Climate action at the state and city level is more important than ever, and can help pave the way for stronger action from the top. So kudos to all of you on your leadership here.

You’re also continuing to grow the Cleveland Climate Action Fund. Already it has supported 25 resident-led, neighborhood-based projects the last couple years.

Going back to my earlier point about the importance of urban trees, I’m encouraged by the success of the Cleveland Tree Plan so far. You’re on track to plant 50,000 new trees by 2020.

If any of these projects sound interesting to you, don’t wait. Get involved. If you can, then you should make a difference.

And I urge you to look beyond Cleveland, too. The old saying “Think global, act local” is no longer enough. Today’s big environmental challenges require action at all levels.

So, keep up the great work here at home. But let’s all do what we can to push for state, federal, and global leadership on the environment, too.

Looking around the room, I can tell you’re all ready to accomplish important work. You’re motivated by opportunities to make a big difference.

So I encourage you to think hard about what you can do to champion the idea of vibrant green spaces and sustainable cities.

You don’t need to accept grey infrastructure as “the way it is.”

It’s time to make nature an indispensable strategy so that our cities are sustainable, future-proof, and a more enjoyable place to live.

Let’s get to work. Thank you.

Mark Tercek is the Former Chief Executive Officer of The Nature Conservancy, the global conservation organization known for its intense focus on collaboration and getting things done for the benefit of people and nature. He is the author of the Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling book Nature’s Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature.

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