The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden: Why it's the 'greenest' zoo in America

The zoo has become the environment's best friend

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden seems like any other venue, but there's more going on than meets the eye.

While families enter the zoo to visit the lions and tigers and bears (Oh my!), what they don't know is that the institute is on an environmental mission; not just to provide wildlife experiences but to change the city for the better.

The zoo and botanical garden was named the "Greenest Zoo in America" in 2010 and rightfully so.

To the naked eye, it may not be so obvious. Despite the eco-friendly gardens, solar compactors and composting bins displayed throughout the 80-acre park, many green initiatives aren't visible, hidden in the infrastructure of buildings and underneath the zoo's foundation.

The innovative sustainability program, set into motion in 2006, has transformed the park into the most eco-friendly institute of its kind in the nation. The zoo is feeding Avondale's "food desert" by growing its own food from their off-site farm and partnering with local outreach programs.

The facility has become virtually self-sustaining and is on a mission to further develop projects under the highest certification of environmental sustainability efforts.

"Walking the walk has helped push green initiatives in our industry," said Fia Cifuentes, sustainability coordinator at the zoo.

How the zoo became the environment's best friend

Opening its doors on Vine Street in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo is the second oldest zoo in the United States. It opened a year after the Philadelphia Zoo (1874).

Hundred-year-old buildings, although historic icons in the Queen City, eventually needed re-vamping. Instead of pouring money into construction of brand new buildings, they updated the existing structures to ensure the preservation of history.

In 2006, the zoo hired Turner Construction to re-structure the Harold C. Schott Education Center. The project manager, Mark Fisher, headed many previous projects at the site, but this would launch him into a permanent spot on the team. When he joined the staff he began to head green initiative programs around campus by first focusing on water consumption and green structures.

Fisher is now the Vice President of Planning Sustainability and Facilities. 

With his passion to conserve water, Fisher took a specific look at the facility's usage. In 2005, the zoo used 218 million gallons of water per year, not including irrigation.

Cifuentes said Fisher reviewed the park, spoke with staff to figure out why so much water was used, how it was being used and what needed to change to decrease consumption.

"He was asking these questions that had been asked for years but never answered," Cifuentes said. By implementing innovative programs and creating reduction practices in the use of natural resources, Fisher "blew the program out of the water."

"It's ridiculous, even for a zoo and botanical garden," Cifuentes said. "If you include irrigation, that's another quarter million [250,000 gallons of water]." Fast forward to 2013, the zoo now uses 58 million gallons, which Cifuentes called a "drastic reduction."

Following construction, the education center was awarded the silver certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the U.S. Green Building Council. The zoo became the first institute in Cincinnati to be awarded for LEED.

The walls inside the building are edible, although staff would prefer if you didn't chow down. Made of strawboard, the walls were constructed from 100 percent straw waste, sunflower seeds and recycled materials, finished with an eco-friendly sealant. The carpet is 100 percent recycled plastic, installed in squares so that replacement could be easier and more cost efficient.

Every detail was planned, even down to the color of the paint. Because the building uses solar panels for heating and cooling, low-volatile organic compound paint was used on the walls in specific shades of yellow and green to prevent over-heating. 

"On a nice, spring day we are completely off the grid," said Tiffany Barnes, public relations manager for the zoo. "The building can maintain itself, using no heating or cooling and little to no energy consumption. The education center does this on average for 50 days per year. Barnes said they are "performing better than expected."

Since the construction, the Cincinnati Zoo has publicly committed to building all new projects to LEED standards, making it the only zoo in the country that is "certified LEED," with six projects underway, more than any other zoo.

As you enter the park, take a look across the skywalk to the top of the parking garages. The main lot features a 1.56MW solar canopy which provides the institute with 22 percent of its total electrical needs. When installed in 2011, it was the largest publicly accessible display of solar panels in the country.

The historic Vine Street Village is certified with the highest level of LEED, a platinum certification, with three designated areas within a 7,000 feet spread. Glance to the top of restroom building on the right-hand side after entering the zoo. There is a 19MW solar panel hidden on the side of the roof that provides the building with geothermal heating and cooling.

The restrooms in the village are self-sustaining and energy efficient making it the highest energy saving building on campus.

While you're walking through the park, pay attention to what you're stepping on. The ground looks like pavement tiles, but it's actually pervious pavement. Pervious pavement mimics Rice Krispies and is used as a drainage system. Retention underneath the pavement collects rainfall and increases water quality while reducing the cost of drainage systems.

The zoo created a "Go Green Garden" packed with information, plant varieties native to Cincinnati, a wind turbine, weather center and cellphone collector. Coltain, a black metallic found in cellphones, originates from Africa where gorillas are native. "Go Bananas" is an initiative to collect used cellphones to be recycled and therefore reduce habitat construction in Africa. 

A look at the figures: Building more but utilizing less

Since the first green building initiative in 2006, the Cincinnati Zoo has spent $2 million on utility upgrades, but has saved $5.6 million in energy costs. Instead of purchasing "grade-C" appliances, it invested in top-notch equipment that wouldn't need to be replaced every few years, said Cifuentes. 

The energy usage has been reduced by 15 percent, despite adding 25 percent more building square footage, allowing for more visitors and new equipment installation.  

In 2010, the zoo announced their mission of reducing storm water run-off by being 70 percent off the grid and collecting 30 million gallons of water to be re-used. Cifuentes says the goal was "very ambitious" as this is the "biggest environmental problem our city faces."

The zoo has captured 15 million gallons of storm water so far, 50 percent short of their original goal. The capture of current water run-off is through retention tanks built underneath the Africa exhibit, first introduced in 2010 and still under construction. Seventeen acres of the zoo's water shed was already draining into the African area, which sparked the idea for retention tanks, said Cifuentes. The system uses no capital collars, and can harness 13 million gallons of water on its own. The water collected is then filtered and poured into areas throughout the zoo, such as the polar bear pool.

"We've looked at every angle we have and it's going to be very tough to get to 100 percent off the grid. I think we can get to 50 percent. It'll be tough," Cifuentes said.

The zoo reduced their waste to landfill ratio to less than one percent, with goals of becoming a zero landfill facility. That would mean through recycling and composting, the zoo takes less than one percent of trash to a landfill - despite a rise in attendance since its green initiatives took off. More than eight tons of organic waste is composted every five days, according to Cifuentes. 

The Edible Zoo

The zoo owns a farm. EcOhio Farm in Mason was entrusted in 1995 to the zoo with an agreement that it never be developed unless in the interest of bettering the zoo, according to Cifuentes. The farm leased out 50 acres to Green BEAN Delivery to transform it into a 100 percent organic food ecosystem. The process took about three years and is now completely organic, while using compost to grow food. In 2013, the zoo doubled the lease to 100 acres in an effort to grow more local produce for those in the Greater Cincinnati area.

"We are connecting local food issues to sustainability and conservation and having people start to think about where their food is coming from, how is it grown, how far has it traveled to get here and what that has to do with wildlife," said Cifuentes.

In addition to growing nutritious, organic foods, the farm has a 40-acre hay area which is used to feed the elephants. It also has a 24-acre wetland area formed in a once abandoned area that has attracted locwildlife due to lack of sustainable habitat, said Cifuentes.

The Base Camp Cafe, located inside the zoo by the African exhibit, was certified as the "Greenest Restaurant in America" in the spring of 2013 by the Green Restaurant Association. Produce grown in the aquaponics building found next to the cafe supplies some of the food for visitors, and some for the animals. Gardens found throughout the zoo have specific plants grown for animal consumption.

The future: One big step for the environment

The zoo has been building its 8-acre African Exhibit for four years now, with Phase I, II and III completed by summer of 2013. Phase IV is currently underway and is set to open this summer.

During the construction of Phase IV,  the Wild Dogs and African Savannah exhibit, the Zoo is going above and beyond the previous LEED sustainable standards. The zoo is shooting for the Living Building Challenge (LBC), which is described by Cifuentes as "LEED on steroids." It is one of the highest standards for environmental sustainability that can be awarded to a facility.

To become LBC certified, "It calls for the creation of building projects at all scales that operate as cleanly, beautifully and efficiently as nature's architecture. To be certified under the Challenge, projects must meet a series of ambitious performance requirements, including net zero energy, waste and water, over a minimum of 12 months of continuous occupancy," according to the LBC written standards. There are only a handful of LBC challenge projects underway in the world, according to Cifuentes.

"It's really having us look at what's going into this building. It has to have very little waste, little storm water run-off, little water usage. Just doing that in a building is one thing, but doing it in a building that is housing animals that need specific living requirements, is a whole other challenge," Cifuentes said. 

Cifuentes said that while they currently have green building projects underway, they aren't ignoring existing buildings that require attention. "We're taking a look at how can we make these buildings that have been here since 1875 as green and efficient as possible." 

The final phase of the African exhibit will be the "largest and most ambitious wildlife exhibit" in zoo history, are they attempt to bring back the beloved hippo. The zoo last had a hippo on exhibit 17 years ago. 

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