Sustainability and the City

With strong direction from city leaders, Coral Gables cuts a leading path for good environmental practices

Matt Anderson, Coral Gables’ resiliency and sustainability manager steps out of his car at Kerdyk Park and takes a deep breath. Immediately it hits him, the rich aroma of pine, spruce, and fir: the smell of Christmas. Even though it’s March in Coral Gables, Anderson isn’t surprised by the out-of-place fragrance. For him, it’s just a marker of the city’s progress and commitment to the future. 

For the last eight years, Anderson has headed up the city’s sustainability department, creating and implementing many of the initiatives that have made Coral Gables that much greener. One of the city’s more fragrant projects is its Christmas tree recycling program.

Every year after the holiday season, the city offers residents free disposal of their Christmas trees. But instead of transporting them to the landfill, the city turns them into mulch that’s used as groundcover in green spaces like Kerdyk Park.

Coral Gables’ Christmas tree project is just one of the ways the city is setting the standard for sustainability. Its other initiatives include everything from minimizing fuel consumption with electric vehicles to reducing fertilizer pollution to piloting environmental research programs with local universities and organizations.

“What we define as sustainability is a very broad spectrum of things, but all of it really boils down to reducing our operational impacts on the environment,” says Anderson. “We’re looking to keep and improve our City Beautiful, not only for our current generation but for future generations as well.”

Mayor Vince Lago, who has been a staunch advocate of green practices for the city (see “The Green Mayor” sidebar), puts it this way: “We have to prepare ourselves to consume less without affecting our quality of life, and that can happen through advancements in sustainability and the use of renewables.” 

For Lago, who is also an advocate for conservative fiscal management, good green practices are also good economics. “If your goal is to be as sustainable as possible, both to protect the environment and to put more money in your pocket… I am a big believer that there is a significant financial windfall from being sustainable, and that is evident in renewables like solar panels.”

Walking the walk, Lago drives an electric vehicle which is charged by solar panels at his home. “Solar saves me personally more than 90 percent of the electric bill, and [going electric] affords me the privilege of not going to a gas station.”

The use of solar and other renewables, however, is just one tool in the city’s arsenal of techniques and technologies to be a green city.


When it comes to making a city greener, most cities start with recycling. Outside of turning your old Christmas tree into festive mulch, Coral Gables offers myriad opportunities for residents to recycle personal items in addition to the recycling bins that all homeowners can use. 

Every year in April and November, the city hosts a recycling drive-through at the War Memorial Youth Center. The drive gives residents the chance to shred sensitive documents, donate gently used clothing, and dispose of electronic and household hazardous waste. 

Sustainability and the City
“People line up half an hour before we open up in the morning. I mean people are just delighted to get rid of this stuff, ” says Marlin Ebbert, chair of Coral Gables Sustainability Advisory Board, regarding the bi-annual recycling drive-thru.

Since the biannual event started in 2016, it’s grown immensely and has become a staple in the community. Coral Gables resident and chair of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Board, Marlin Ebbert, says that people wait in line for hours to recycle their items.

“After the 4th of July and the tree-lighting ceremony, our two drive-thrus are the most popular events in the city. People line up half an hour before we open up in the morning. I mean people are just delighted to get rid of this stuff,” says Ebbert. 

Over the last seven years, the city has collected and diverted about 400,000 pounds of electronic and household hazardous waste, clothing, and sensitive documents from the landfill. Anderson estimates that the drive’s success will only increase.

“We get anywhere from 400 to 500 cars coming every time, and I think it’s only going to grow,” he says. “I mean, everyone who shows up is really happy we have this event.”

 In addition to its biannual recycling drive-thru, the Gables has other unique recycling programs. Last year, the city started a battery recycling program and has already collected more than 1,200 pounds of the toxic fuel cells. Properly disposing of batteries has a massive impact on the environment as chemicals from just a few batteries can have devastating effects on the ecosystem. 

Coral Gables also offers residents an opportunity to safely dispose of old prescription medication. Residents can drop off their medications at the police and fire headquarters throughout the year, and once the collection bin is full, the medications are taken to the waste energy plant in Doral, incinerated, and turned into energy for the facility. Just like batteries, prescription medications can be extremely hazardous to the environment, especially if flushed down the toilet. A study by Florida International University found that all 93 bonefish in a random sampling contained commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals.

Disposing of electronic equipment

Another recycling program that’s been the talk of the town — or rather the playground — has been the reverse vending machine at the War Memorial Youth Center. Thanks to a grant from the Florida Beverage Association, Coral Gables was able to launch a pilot program in November. Each time someone puts a container in the machine, they receive points, and at the end of the contest cycle, the top ten recyclers receive a sponsored prize from a local business. 

So far, the machine has been a huge success, collecting over 4,000 containers in its first three months. 

“Now the Youth Center grounds are completely free of any bottles because you have all these kids running around trying to find bottles to win the contest,” says Solanch Lopez, the marketing manager for the city’s Economic Development Department, and the liaison for the City Beautiful program. “And the kids love the crunching sound the machine makes.”

The Cleaning of the Gables

Over the last three years, volunteers have collected 245,000 pounds of debris from the streets and parks of Coral Gables. While much of this weight came from recycled Christmas trees, there have been numerous collection events sponsored by Keep Coral Gables Beautiful. A sampling:

Plogging at Matheson: 165 pounds
Hazardous Waste Collection: 8,804 pounds
Downtown Cleanup: 161 pounds

Recycling Drive-Thru: 12,979 pounds
Battery Recycling: 329 pounds
Downtown Holiday Cleanup: 121 pounds

Business Recycling Drive: 878 pounds
Christmas Tree Recycling: 88,550 pounds
Battery Recycling: 420 pounds
2023 Holiday Cardboard Recycling: 7,495 pounds
UM Waterway Cleanup: 77 pounds


After recycling, cities look at ways they can limit their impact on the environment via reduced energy consumption, and here again Coral Gables is a leader. One of the city’s crowning sustainability achievements is its use of electric transportation.

The city has more than 70 electric vehicles (EVs), about 12 percent of its fleet. This is the highest percentage for any city in the state. The city also has 41 EV charging ports with plans to add 190 more in the next four to five years.

According to Ariel Manso, the sales director of Mercedes-Benz of Coral Gables, Coral Gables residents have jumped on the EV movement. Manso has seen demand for EVs steadily increase at the dealership, and he projects that as EV infrastructure develops and more models are made available, people will make the switch.

“At the beginning, I didn’t believe in them. And you know what? Now I believe in it. You have to drive one of these cars to see how nice it drives and how convenient it is,” says Manso. “Electric vehicles are the future. Slowly but surely, once you see more charging stations, you’re going to see the demand increase.” In 2023, Mercedes will produce 40,000 to 50,000 EVs – around 15 percent of its total cars for the year. 

Coral Gables’ adoption of EV infrastructure also attracts more economic activity downtown. “We’ve spoken with a number of both residents and people that don’t live in our community that actually drive to Coral Gables to charge their electric cars,” says Anderson. “And while they’re charging their electric cars, guess what? They’re visiting our local businesses.”

As Lago notes, the use of EVs also protects the city from fluctuations in fuel prices, “and they travel in silence, alleviating some of the noise pollution.” 

Another way the Gables uses EV technology is with Freebees. These funny-looking, elongated electric golf carts zip around downtown, toting Gables residents at no charge; residents need only download the Freebee app to request a ride. Not only do they avoid the use of polluting fossil fuels, but ridesharing services like this reduce total energy consumption.

Coral Gables is also looking to solar energy to reduce its energy needs. In 2018, the city installed 11 solar-powered charging benches in its public parks for free use by residents; they are especially useful during electrical outages.

Sustainability and the City
An electric car charging station in Coral Gables.

The city has also waived permit fees for residential solar installations, and has expanded the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program. This program allows residents to borrow money for home energy improvements and pay back the loan through their property taxes. Mayor Lago used PACE to help finance the solar panels on his home.  

On the commercial side, in order to mitigate the environmental impact of new development, the city has implemented a green building initiative that requires all new buildings over 20,000-square-feet to be constructed to LEED Silver standards. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the widely used rating system by the U.S. Green Building Council. Buildings built to LEED standards use, on average, 18 to 39 percent less energy than their conventional counterparts. 

In order to encourage LEED building practices, the city requires major development projects to set aside three percent of their construction cost as a “Green Building Bond.” The project then has two years to earn a green certification. Otherwise, the money is forfeited so that the city may take appropriate actions to fulfill the green building requirement.  

The Green Mayor

Part of what makes Coral Gables a model of sustainability is leadership from the top. Mayor Vince Lago, first as city commissioner, then as vice mayor, and now as mayor, has left behind a long record of pro-environmental legislation which he initiated. What follows are highlights of what he sponsored:

A resolution discouraging use of polystyrene in the city
A resolution to waive all city permit fees for solar panels

An ordinance to prohibit the use of polystyrene by the city
An ordinance to create a waterway advisory board
An ordinance for the city to purchase sustainable goods first

An ordinance protecting the tree canopy and prevent tree removal
An ordinance reducing residential street speed limits to 25 mph
An ordinance limiting the use of single plastic bags for carry out

An ordinance to establish electric vehicle charging stations
An ordinance to transfer development rights in return for open space a resolution to use park impact fees to purchase new parks

An ordinance to recycle residential cardboard rather than disposing as refuse
A resolution to explore the cost of undergrounding power lines
A resolution to oppose state statutes that permit polystyrene and plastic bags

A resolution declaring a climate emergency and requesting state and federal action
A resolution to urge the county to complete the old cutler trail bicycle path
An ordinance strengthening penalties for discharging trash into waterways

A presentation to advance the storm water purification program
A presentation to re-establish native oysters to combat waterway nutrient pollution
A resolution to strengthen protection of trees in city rights of way 

A resolution to waive permit fees for residential ev charging stations an ordinance requiring businesses to maintain their sidewalks and swales
A resolution to cease the use of gas operated leaf blowers

A resolution to install solar panels atop the granada clubhouse
A discussion on the use of a program to recycle green waste into concrete
An ordinance strengthening penalties for abandoned construction signage

People and Businesses

On the community side of sustainability, Gables residents and businesses alike have made significant efforts for a greener city. From planting pollinator patches to enlightening citizens about climate change, the community is doing what it can to advance sustainability.

Greg Hamra, a member of the Coral Gables Sustainability Advisory Board (SAB) and group leader for Miami’s chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, is an educator who has taught at the University of Miami. He believes in looking at the big picture and advocates combating climate change through policy change. 

“It’s a global problem. It’s called global warming,” says Hamra. “This means that governments have to act with other governments.” And even though Coral Gables can’t dictate global policy, it can serve as an example and a leader.

Two years ago, the city joined with 130 other local governments in passing a municipal resolution to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. This act would charge large producers of greenhouse gasses a fee for every metric ton of CO2 they emit. Last year, the Gables passed a complementary resolution supporting a carbon border adjustment that would apply fees on imported goods based on their CO2 emissions.  

Hamra suggests that Coral Gables residents get involved with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby to influence elected leaders for serious policy change. “We realize politicians don’t create political will. They respond to it,” he says. 

Ebbert is another notable resident heavily involved in the community’s sustainability efforts. In addition to her work as head of the SAB, she’s also chair of the Coral Gables Art Cinema Board and a member of the Coral Gables Garden Club. Ebbert, along with Hamra, is one of the 11 members of the sustainability board, which advises the city commission on progressive actions.  

“Having recycling bins – these small things can have a huge impact,” Ebbert says.

Ebbert has been an integral part of city programs like its recycling drive-thru and is partially responsible for the Coral Gables Art Cinema joining the list of “green businesses.”

The city launched its Green Business Initiative in 2019 to recognize and award local businesses for sustainability practices and educate them on further measures they can take. Businesses can apply for free for certification based on their solid waste reduction and recycling, energy and water conservation, and pollution prevention.

 Ebbert says it’s important for businesses to take part in the larger conversation about sustainability because they have such a wide reach.

“The cinema gets hundreds of patrons through the doors, and I think that it’s our duty and responsibility to set a good example. Simply changing out the light bulbs to LED bulbs, using timers, using paper cups instead of plastic, and having recycling bins – these small things can have a huge impact,” she says.

Lopez is another local leader who understands the impact of small changes on sustainability (see “Keeping Coral Gables Beautiful” sidebar). As the volunteer head of Keep Coral Gables Beautiful, the city’s marketing manager for economic development has affiliated the city with the national Keep America Beautiful movement.

This has translated into three years of organizing volunteer programs to collect trash from Matheson Hammock, clean city streets, and recycle waste. All told, including Christmas tree recycling and hazardous waste collection, Keep Coral Gables Beautiful has removed more than 245,000 pounds of debris from the city. 

Sustainability event: plogging at Matheson Hammock Park

“Anybody can have an idea. And as long as you push forward and try, you can make something really wonderful that has a really big impact,” says Lopez. 

The Coral Gables Garden Club is also, as you might expect, engaged in keeping the city green. Its Project Canopy focuses on planting native and flowering trees in Coral Gables public schools and green spaces. And its Red Mangrove Project, with help from member and City Commissioner Rhonda Anderson, retrieved hundreds of mangrove pups from Matheson Hammock last year and raised them in the Boy Scout property on Granada Golf Course for later re-introduction to the coastline. It was so successful that it attracted the attention of National Geographic.

Keeping Coral Gables Beautiful

Sustainability in action: recycling machine for water bottles
Matt Anderson and Solanch Lopez with the recycling machine at the Youth Center.

Solanch Lopez officially started her career with the city working in the city manager’s office after college. She soon became assistant to the city manager and began using her position to effect change.

In 2020, Lopez proposed that Coral Gables become an affiliate of the Keep America Beautiful movement. She felt the city was already aligned with the mission of the movement, and that becoming an affiliate would open the city up to grant opportunities and programming ideas. Through the Keep Coral Gables Beautiful program, Lopez has helped jumpstart the city’s reverse vending machine and battery recycling programs as well as organize a variety of cleanup events. 

Three years ago, Lopez helped put together the city’s (now) annual plogging event at Matheson Hammock Park, which kicks off Keep America Beautiful’s “Great American Clean Up” program. The project challenges its affiliates to pick up as much litter as possible from March 21 to June 22. Lopez introduced a concept she had recently heard about: “plogging,” a combination of the word “jogging” and a Swedish word that means to “pick up.” Volunteers were given trash-picking “arms” so they could jog while removing trash from the mangroves.

“Any litter that ends up in Biscayne Bay can come into the mangroves at high tide and then get stuck there, so it’s always a place where we can have a lot of positive impact,” says Lopez. 

She also helps with other community clean-ups like the Chamber’s Downtown Community Cleanup and similar events by organizations like the Coral Gables Woman’s Club and the Girl Scouts.

Lopez recounts the impact that a recent Girl Scout clean-up had at Matheson Hammock, saying, “It was great to see all the girls so excited. They got the opportunity to learn about their local environment. I think that experience really makes a difference because it shows them why it’s important to take care of the environment. And that matters because they’re our future. They’re going to have the biggest impact.” 

Out of 700 certified affiliates, Keep Coral Gables Beautiful was just named the Keep America Beautiful Affiliate of the Month for April 2023.


While sustainability measures are aimed at reducing present and future waste, the city must also figure out how it will deal with climate change and the ensuing rise of sea levels. 

The city now works with the University of Miami, Florida International University, and Miami Waterkeeper to look at research-driven solutions for problems like abnormally high tides as well as water quality in the Coral Gables Waterway. Tide gauges and water sensors line the canal to gather localized data.

By monitoring the bay and waterway on a regular basis, the city can get an idea of how much the water levels may increase in subsequent years. The data is part of the city’s larger resiliency plan to prepare for rising sea levels, for which the city has created a sea level rise mitigation fund. Every year since 2017, the city has set aside money for future generations to deal with climate change; the fund currently has $13 million, with a goal of $100 million by 2040. 

“As far as I know, we’re probably the first city in the entire country that’s looked at something like this,” says Anderson. “We know everybody is going to be looking for funding for resiliency and adaptation as sea level rise continues, and we want to have something stored away for when the worst comes.”

Coral Gables also contributes to its resiliency by acquiring more green space and expanding its already extensive tree canopy. Currently, the city’s canopy — with 38,000 trees maintained in public spaces — provides 41 percent tree coverage, and for the last 37 years, Coral Gables has been designated a Tree City USA. By expanding green space and maintaining its tree canopy, the city safeguards itself from extreme weather events, reducing stormwater flows and cooling the city during extreme heat waves. 

“One of the most important things we’ve done is the Parks Trust Ordinance, which places a 0.5 percent fee on every development permit in the city, which delivers the [funding] resources to purchase green space in the future,” says Lago.

Thanks to its plethora of green practices, Coral Gables is setting the example for how cities can operate a sustainable present and navigate the future of climate change. In 2015, the city came up with a ten-year sustainability master plan to cut energy use, fuel use, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent. So far, the city is well on its way to achieving those goals.

Thanks to its leaders, residents, and businesses, Coral Gables is showing the rest of the country how it can continue to grow while maintaining the environment. In the end, it comes down to each citizen doing what they can. According to sustainability chair Ebbert, “People want to do the right thing. You just have to make it easy for them.”