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Koos: Smart cities can also mean smart surfaces

a home with solar energy panels on the roof
StraightUp Solar
Normal Mayor Chris Koos said his town will update its sustainability master plan starting this fall. The first step will be a request for proposals for firms to conduct the study, followed by public engagement and council discussion. He said the update will likely happen next spring.

A lot of attention has gone to state and federal policy initiatives to address climate change, but some measures need to happen at the local level, including so-called "smart surfaces" that Normal Mayor Chris Koos says could become a larger part of the town's look.

Smart surfaces include features like reflective white roofs, green spaces, porous concrete, extra trees in moderate- and low-income neighborhoods, and broader adoption of solar panels. Smart surfaces also can reduce flooding.

Koos said governments at every level will need to respond faster to climate change.

"I think that's the direction we need to go in the long term. And I think it's something we should build into our zoning code for future development," he said.

 Normal Mayor Chris Koos at a podium
Jeff Smudde
WGLT file
Normal Mayor Chris Koos.

Koos, speaking on WGLT's Sound Ideas, said the town tends to put white roofs on its buildings and most big town-owned structures are LEED-certified, an energy efficiency standard.

But national studies show that neighborhoods with low- and moderate-income residents and communities of color tend to be about 10 degrees hotter than tree-shaded, largely white neighborhoods. Koos said he would need to see a local study on that before addressing it in policy.

What he thought would be easy, low-hanging fruit in green energy has turned out to be difficult, said Koos, adding ground-mounted solar panels over parking lots may become a good idea.

"In this community, throughout the United States, there is so much surface parking that you would think would lend itself to shading those lots with solar panels and making them a better place to park your car and generating power at the same time," said Koos.

He said the technical barrier to solar parking lots has been connecting the installation.

“It's how you utilize that electricity and put it into the grid, or power a building adjacent to that, that is the tougher challenge,” said Koos, noting it will become worth doing and the cost for solar is coming down.

“There was an interesting statistic that was floating around ... that there's actually more real estate dedicated to parking than there is to residential facilities or buildings. And so we value parking more than we do places for people to live,” said Koos.

Until now, energy-saving technologies have had to pay off in dollars over a defined period of time to become widely adopted. Federal and state incentives have shortened that time in some cases, but Koos said that payoff requirement may not remain the case.

"Climate change is getting to be a significant issue and we're going to have to do things outside of the realm of just makes economic sense," he said.

Koos said it is a broader topic than just one issue. It also can include housing design and architectural features that are energy-friendly, adding there is a strong argument that looking to the past will be helpful.

“Houses pre-1950, to turn of the 19th century were built with passive energy savings heating and cooling as part of their design process," he said. "I notice that my 1923 house, I have south-facing trees that shade my house and the placement of windows in the house actually, if everything's open, feels like a whole house fan is running. To say older houses aren't energy efficient is probably not accurate. It's going to be more and more important in a larger context, that we look at everything in terms of saving energy.”

Koos said the town will update its sustainability master plan starting this fall. The first step will be a request for proposals for firms to conduct the study, followed by public engagement and council discussion. He said the update will likely happen next spring.

Gun violence commission

Koos said the town should be part of a Bloomington initiative to curb gun violence. The Bloomington City Council recently created the Safe Communities Commission. Koos said he's talked with Mollie Ward, the originator of the proposal and a Bloomington council member, to see about taking part and generating ideas.

"A better understanding of what is actually happening in the community and then coming out with strategies to reduce gun violence in the community," said Koos.

Mclean County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council also has asked to be part of the effort.

Koos said some of the takeaways from commission work could be how to expand on existing strategies.

"Youth interaction and reaching out to youth starting at the 10 to 13-year-old age group for the issues they are dealing with, whether those are family or school issues. I think we have found reaching out to that group through the school system has been rewarding," said Koos.

Various church and community groups have been active in at-risk youth involvement over a period of decades.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.