Go big AND stay green? How Austin is juggling growth and the environment

By Stephen Langford

Austin, Texas. A city that has become regarded as one of the top places to live in the U.S. A city known for its diverse music scene, its delectable restaurants and food trucks, its many parks and greenspaces, and in some circles, its accomplishments in the sustainability world. A city that, as much of the world continues struggling with the new norms brought on by the COVID pandemic, is experiencing rapid economic and population growth as big tech companies seek to relocate from burning and overpriced California to the bustling and thriving “Silicon Hills.”

As part of Proud Green Home and Proud Green Building’s Sustainability City series, we spoke to Lucia Athens, the city of Austin’s first and only chief sustainability officer. She is a landscape architect with a Master’s in sustainable design and helped develop Austin’s Green Building Program. In addition, she spent 10 years leading Seattle’s Green Building Program, served on the U.S. Green Building Council Board of Directors, and is the author of Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies and Programs. She is regarded, overall, as an acclaimed authority on sustainability, having served as an advisor, speaker and representative at various summits and panels all over the world. 

See her official city profile here

Proud Green Home: So, what all is going on in the Sustainability Office right now?

Lucia Athens: Well, there's a lot going on. We are wrapping up the process of updating our Climate Plan, which is on 5-year update cycles. We should be in good shape to be moving that forward to Council hopefully by end of March. Then it'll be ready for full Council adoption and approval. We are also working on getting ready to publish a green infrastructure atlas, a research project that we've been working with a consultant on for around a year now. 

We have also spent quite a bit of time assisting with the pandemic, supported by our team that works on sustainable food systems. One aspect of that is access to healthy food, and because the pandemic has overloaded City resources, my team has been helping with emergency food access. We also helped stand up a new program to get shelf-stable foods to people experiencing homelessness. We also worked with the school district on meal programs for students and their caregivers. We’re going to be continuing a lot of work on supporting those in need in our community as the pandemic continues to unfold. 

Then we're involved in a variety of different development projects, including a new master-planned community called Colony Park, and our new major league soccer stadium. The stadium project includes a variety of sustainability performance requirements and a partnership with the team. We’re also in the process of updating the City’s green building policy for our capital projects.

PGH: Would you say that having to pivot your focus and resources to food systems because of the pandemic has provided some helpful learning experiences? Insights?

LA: Absolutely. We were already planning on working on some regional food planning with partners, and now what we’ve learned from the pandemic will be finding its way into that process. I mean, I think we were a little bit surprised at how unprepared we were with how the food system would be impacted by the pandemic, but all of those lessons learned will now go into some strategic planning for sustainable food systems across the region.

PGH: And with the five-year update to the Climate Plan, in January last year—January 2020— your office announced that, in addition to environmental efforts, this update would be focused on racial equity, accomplished specifically through workshops and creating advisory groups. Did the transition to working remotely or the events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, both of which happened after that announcement, have any effects on the update?  

LA: The pivot to remote-working actually went much smoother than expected. We haven’t really had too many issues. And honestly, it actually proved beneficial in terms of the workshops and community participation. More people were able to participate since they could just join in from home—they didn’t have to hire babysitters or leave work early or anything. 

To speak a bit more about the equity components of the plan—it was mandatory for every person that participated in our plan update to attend a full day in-person equity training (this was pre-pandemic, of course). That really helped us make sure everybody was on a level playing field, at least in terms of having had discussions about racial equity and having some shared terminology for everybody participating. We also created an equity lens with a series of questions that was asked about every one of the recommendations that's coming forward in the plan—so we used equity issues as a measuring stick. 

Lastly, we created a pilot program, which we're continuing into this year, called Climate Ambassadors. Its purpose is acknowledging that there's all kinds of people in our community, and particularly people of color, wo we don't really get to talk to very much. They're busy surviving. They may be working two or three jobs while they also have kids at home. They may be struggling to feed their families. They don't have time to come to community meetings.

So, we put out a call for people to participate in this pilot program to be our eyes and ears on the ground and to connect with their communities. This helped to solve another challenge, which is that a lot of times people don't want to talk to government. They don't trust us, and they may feel like we've asked for their input before and it never went anywhere. There's a number of different barriers involved. 

But with Climate Ambassadors, we had an initial group of 12, and we paid them stipends for their time, acknowledging that their time is important and that they might not have the available time to volunteer for free. These folks were selected because they had well-developed networks of their own, in their own communities, whether it's their church group, their neighborhood group, or any other kind of organization they might participate in.

We have an agreement with the Climate Ambassadors regarding what they will provide us in return for the stipend. They would go out and have meetings with people in their own community, gather intelligence about what people were concerned about, what kind of language they might use, or not be familiar or comfortable with, and bring that back to us. It's been very well received, and many other departments are actually asking us to give them presentations about how we did this. There are now conversations about replicating this kind of an approach to reach people who have been left out of City processes—like low-income people and people of color—who we just normally don't get to talk to.

PGH: In addition to the Climate update, Austin has been experiencing significant economic and population growth for several years now as more and more companies are relocating their headquarters here. How is the city approaching equity in terms of balancing the voices of these newer residents with those of current residents, many of whom, as you said, feel they are typically not heard? That is, how are you combatting gentrification while also experiencing significant economic and population growth?

LA: That is one of the really big questions for our city. One of the interesting things that’s happened is a huge urban rail tax measure that was passed in the last election. As a part of that measure, there's a significant amount of funding that's been dedicated to coming up with ways to counterbalance gentrification that could result from building rail stations, because, of course, as the property values go up, desirability goes up and then you end up with gentrification. Gentrification is obviously very complex and it's something that the city is actively working on to try to come up with some new solutions for how to address it.

There are always going to be differences of opinion about what the best actions are to counterbalance gentrification. And we don't always have full agreement on our council. We have two new council members, so we'll see now how that impacts the overall political dynamics. One of the things under consideration is an update of our land-use code, which would allow for alley-facing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) citywide. Some people are all in and some people feel like it will accelerate gentrifying neighborhoods. 

PGH: You enjoy talking with community members about greening alleys. Where is the difference between this increased density with ADUs versus these green alleys? 

LA: Previously, neighborhoods had to opt in for their neighborhood to accept alley-facing accessory dwelling units, or the neighborhood could vote and say, "We don't want to have those in our neighborhood." With the land-use code update, those would now be allowed, by code, anywhere. 

That's kind of where the green alley piece comes in, because with the green alley pilot project, which we did a few years ago, we were looking at a combination of factors—more accessory dwelling units, alley activation, addressing storm water management, butterfly habitats, native plants, and then beautification with some murals. 

We’ve seen other projects like that popping up that are more neighborhood-led. A good example, I think, is the Mueller neighborhood, which is a big new urbanist-style redevelopment that the city led on city-owned land. It's still in the process of being redeveloped, but they have neighborhood configurations that allow the alley to be put to use by the residents. When it's not COVID times, of course, they have community events in the alley—picnics and other things like that—so that those become more useful spaces instead of just leftover spaces.

Overall, these projects are taking previously unused spaces and improving the sustainability performance from both a human and ecological standpoint. With the alley that we did our pilot project on, the only function it really had was access for trash and recycling trucks. We maintained that but we also brought a lot more functionality to the space.

PGH: As an Austin citizen, what are your favorite sustainability effort?

LA: As a landscape architect, the natural systems piece of all this is so exciting to me. It's very challenging to maintain our urban tree canopy because of the rapidity of development. We're losing a lot of tree canopy. In a two-year period, we lost six percent of our tree canopy. We do have a very good tree preservation ordinance in place, but it only protects very large caliper trees.

That means there's a vast number of trees in our urban forest that are actually not protected. We have a pretty good commercial landscape code, but our residential landscape code doesn't require tree planting. We’re trying to figure out what we can do to address protecting the natural systems that are a lot of why people like Austin, and why they want to come here. They like all the parks, and the trails, and Lady Bird Lake. We call ourselves a city in a forest, so how are we going to maintain the forest with all the development? 

One pet project is Dark Skies, which deals with reducing light pollution and over-lighting of buildings and addressing our impacts on species such as birds and bats and nocturnal creatures. Austin is on a major bird migration flyway route, so we're going to be doing a voluntary lighting curfew during migration season in the spring and the fall. We just started working with a bunch of partners to roll out information to building owners and managers to get them to dim down their lights during migration season. 

Sustainability City is an on-going series that will be published by Proud Green Home and/or Proud Green Building on a regular basis. If these stories interest you, please be sure to follow along, and be sure to keep a lookout for a big announcement we’re developing as part of this series.

Topics: Civic and Cultural Centers, Great Commercial Buildings, Landscaping Architecture - Design & Maintenance, Office Buildings, Real Estate, Sustainable Communities

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