GoGreen Austin Green Line Series: Lucia Athens + Austin Inspire Cities Near and Far

Lucia Athens (City of Austin Chief of Sustainability)Austin is a city known for its illustrious music and cultural scene, but recently its been putting just as much force behind sustainability as it has entertainment. The result? Clean tech  companies and green startups are flocking to the city, with its natural beauty, vibrant personality—and its rising green street cred. Lucia Athens, Austin’s Chief Sustainability Officer and GoGreen Austin 2011 Keynote Speaker, gets us caught up on how her city supports green business, innovation and a bright future as a sustainable leader.  Here we come Austin!

GoGreen: How is the City of Austin working to become a more sustainable city?
Lucia Athens: One new initiative we just started uses a tool called the STAR Community Index. It’s being developed by a non-profit, Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), and the Center for American Progress, along with the U.S. Green Building Council. Star is a benchmarking tool for cities to measure their sustainability performance and it’s very comprehensive—it covers the entire triple bottom line of sustainability.

The STAR Community Index has 81 different goal areas within it, which include the kind of measures you would expect to see—energy, water efficiency and water quality, green building and greenhouse gas emissions reduction—but it also has a very robust set of indicators on economic and social issues.

This includes areas like workforce development; developing our youth workforce, and growing local businesses.It also looks at social issues such as affordable housing, health issues, and equity.

The reason the index is so exciting is that it covers the full multi-faceted spectrum of issues that comprise sustainability. It hits on all the things that cities need to be thinking about and planning for. And we expect this tool to have as much impact on cities and planning approaches to sustainability as LEED has had on the building industry.

This will be the first time we have a metric available to cities to use across the board so they can measure how they’re doing with a common set of standards. We’ll actually be able to do rankings and compare ourselves with other cities using metrics we can all agree on.

GG: Are there ways you directly support green business in Austin?
LA: I think the City of Austin has a really amazing array of initiatives and programs that support local businesses in general, which includes green business. For one thing our Department of Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services has done a stellar job of recruiting green businesses and clean tech companies into Austin. We also have a wonderful Small Business Development  Department that supports the growth of new and existing businesses by providing capacity, building information, tools and resources.

Then we support all kinds of innovation. Austin is a truly innovative community and I strongly believe there is a connection between having a community where freedom of expression and diversity are encouraged, and innovation and economic growth. We also hold environmental quality as a strong positive. There is a link between that attitude and attracting talent to our companies, who want to enjoy a good quality of life as well as a fun place to live.

We offer an amazing physical environment, with lots of natural beauty and scenic areas. There’s ample opportunity for living an active lifestyle with Ladybird Lake going right through the middle of town. But we also have a great deal of economic opportunity and a vibrant cultural scene with our music industry—which the City specifically supports and works to maintain our role as the Live Music Capital of the World. And all of those things are inextricably linked together. They work as a unit to foster a healthy business environment.

GG: Can the green business movement survive and thrive in the US without such robust local government support?
LA: Yes. In fact it is surviving and thriving without much support in many places. In my view, there are parallel things happening. There are areas where cities are specifically supporting businesses, but many times businesses are doing their own thing when it comes to sustainability.

Now, I also think if we create a more conducive environment for sustainable business—one that provides kind of a metaphorical HOV lane for businesses to get to green faster and be more competitive in the green arena—that’s a really valuable thing. Here we have a lot of incentive programs to help businesses with their own bottom line and operating expenses—like lowering energy and water costs.

GG: What about public-private initiatives? How does Austin partner with business to create inventive paths to sustainability?
LA: One good example of a major public-private partnership is Austin Energy Green Building. We work very closely here with developers and help guide them through the process of designing and constructing green buildings. We become partners through the development process.

The Austonian, a high-rise, luxury condominium project here in downtown Austin just received an award from the Austin Business Journal. And they mentioned, as they accepted the award, how much help they received from the City to walk them through the process and achieve a four-star Austin Energy Green Building Rating. These kind of partnerships are inherent in a lot of the programs that we offer, because unless we’re working together with people in the private sector, we can’t achieve the levels of sustainability that we’re striving for.

Another area where we have a great partnership is the Pecan Street Project. It’s a joint program between the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Environmental Defense Fund and Austin Energy to create a smart grid demonstration project in the Mueller Neighborhood redevelopment. It’s a very leading edge initiative—focused on innovation and clean technology.

GG: How can sustainable professionals and business owners support this kind of network that the City of Austin and its partners are building?
LA: We’re exploring some strategic partnerships with the business community that will give very clear pathways for businesses to get more involved with the City and to look comprehensively across our programs to find ones that can compliment what they’re trying to do at their organization—and be recognized for their achievements. So stay tuned on that note.

GG: What are some programs that Austin has built that other cities can learn from and perhaps seek to imitate?
LA: The Austin Energy Green Building program was the first in the nation and it’s been a leader in developing benchmarking tools for green building. Our Car2Go partnership is also a really interesting model. We have a very close partnership with the car sharing company Car2Go. They have a fleet of Smart Cars across Austin. The City partners with them by providing dedicated parking spaces for that fleet and in return our staff get to use those automobiles for City business. That helps reduce our greenhouse gas emissions footprint because it’s keeping lots of cars off the road. Someone can still take public transit to work, but if they need to go to a doctor’s appointment mid-day, they can get a Car2Go and do that.

We also have a fairly new addition to our programming using solar power to help provide backup power for our ambulances. Ambulances have a ton of medical equipment that has to be kept running while on-shift, which means the vehicle also has to be kept running. So what typically happens with ambulances is they just sit and idle while they’re waiting for another call. That adds up to huge air emissions impacts.

Our solution was to partner with an ambulance manufacturer to integrate solar photovoltaics on the rooftops of the vehicles, which provides the backup power supply while the ambulance isn’t on a run. Which means they can turn their engine off and they don’t have to idle.

GG: Sustainability, as you’re well aware, is a complex undertaking. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered and how did you work around them?
LA: One barrier comes in looking at first cost impacts. Not every sustainability related innovation has a first cost impact, but some do. Everybody’s bottom line is tight these days. We’re all on a budget. So the way we address that reality is to not only address the upfront costs, but to also look at the payback of an investment over time. We want to understand what the cost benefit is and how long it takes for the initial investment to be paid back.

Another barrier is working with development codes. In particular, there are often code barriers to integrating the most innovative green building technologies that are coming out on the market. We must work together with code officials to first identify what exactly those barriers are and then find appropriate solutions. It’s a very effective strategy we used in Seattle. This is another place where I believe public-private partnership is important, because in order to find solutions, cities need to be in a dialogue with the private sector about the challenges they’re encountering as they try to implement sustainability.

GG: Do cities influence each other? Is it competitive out there?
LA: Absolutely. Cities are very competitive with each other. That’s one of the reasons I think the STAR Community Index will be a really powerful tool. There are a lot of different rankings you see out there on the top green cities. But there’s nothing that cities have actually participated in creating. And there is actually quite a bit of desire to do this kind of ranking.

It’s a healthy form of competition to want to see who is the most green. Hopefully that can help us all to become greener—it won’t just be one city rising to the top without other cities also taking on leadership and wanting to win. That concept has been a proven driver with the LEED standards. Cities track how many LEED projects and green building projects they have going on and compare that to other cities.

GG: So what’s in the works? What’s next for Austin?
LA: We’re in the process of designing a new Office of Sustainability website. That will eventually launch with a new splash page that will be one of the primary ways to learn all about our citywide sustainability efforts. The plan is for that to be a Web portal that will lead visitors to information, programs and incentives in a variety of different areas, a sort of virtual green concierge.

GG: Are there any big goals or challenges you hope to tackle in the next three to five years?
LA: We’re in the midst of updating the City’s comprehensive plan, so we’re working through a very intensive process involving community participation and outreach to look at how we want Austin’s growth to play out in the future. We’re looking at what it really means to integrate all the different areas into one citywide comprehensive plan. We’re looking at how to ensure the protection of our urban forest and have land use that reduces our greenhouse gas footprint; how to create efficient transportation integration; how to build a healthy, local food production system. It’s a very exciting initiative with sustainability as an overarching principle that’s being designed into that entire process.

Lucia Athens is the Chief Sustainability Officer for the City of Austin. She is also the keynote speaker at the GoGreen Conference Austin, Wednesday April 6 at the Austin Convention Center. Register today to lock in Early Bird Rates (through March 1, 2011):http://austin.gogreenconference.net/registration

To learn more about the City of Austin’s sustainability initiatives, visit: http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/publicworks/sustainability/introduction.htm

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