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Austin’s sustainability officer looks to keeps things moving along

Monday, January 9, 2012 by Michael Kanin

On its web home, the city’s Office of Sustainability defines sustainability as “finding a balance among three sets of goals: prosperity and jobs, conservation and the environment, and community health, equity and cultural vitality.”

 

For the city’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Lucia Athens, the term extends to include another municipal challenge. “It’s easy when you start something to get really excited, and you have a lot of press, forgetting that this is a multi-year project that’s going to take a long time before we get there and we need to sustain the momentum,” she says.

 

“I want to really help sustain momentum.”

 

Athens arrived in Austin as the city’s first Chief Sustainability Officer in September, 2010 after a very public national search. Since then, she’s been engaged in multiple city efforts that find her office reaching across traditional departmental boundaries in an attempt to bring together the city’s wide swath of sustainably-informed programs.

 

She recently sat down with In Fact Daily to talk about what the office has been up to in the year-plus that she’s been here. Athens also looked ahead to a plan that will map all of the ongoing and upcoming sustainability-associated projects that are currently on the city’s radar.

 

“It’s been a busy year,” she said.

 

Athens acknowledged that the purview of her office is broad. “Yes, it’s a big plate,” she said. 

 

She cites several high-profile items. “It really ties back to a lot of the values of our community,” she says. “Something like the goal to be a no-kill city…that is a part of sustainability…Affordable housing is a huge part of it.

 

“You start to get these synergies of benefits,” she continues.

 

Athens came to Austin after spending more than a decade working for the City of Seattle. There she helped assemble a program that aimed to get builders thinking green. However, she’s no stranger to Austin. As was widely discussed during her bid to become the city’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, Athens spent her graduate school years at the University of Texas. Among other efforts, she helped write the city’s Green Builder Guide.

 

Over the years, Athens says she’s learned that one of the more sizable challenges for municipal governments is “capturing the lessons and the learning…what didn’t go so well and why.”

 

She points to a white paper the city is preparing about lessons learned from its experience with the redevelopment of the former Mueller Airport. “We want to capture what we’re learning from Mueller and take all of those lessons learned in to the next major project.”

 

She also cites Austin’s participation as one of 10 cities included in a pilot program designed to present something like the Community Action Network’s community dashboard–a set of metrics that would give observers a quick reference for the city’s progress on a host of economic and social issues–as a success. Athens further notes that the sustainability office has been involved in planning for the city’s new central library and a host of educational efforts across the city.

 

As for the sometimes-popular notion that Austin is a city of planning (and not much doing), Athens notes that “it’s true that the city has many, many plans, but we also are implementing many of the plans that we’ve created.”

 

She adds that she is a woman of action. “I think you always have to strike a balance between planning and doing,” she says. “I’m really focused on the doing and what is creating a tangible and visible change for the better in our community…I feel very strongly that we need to be focusing on the actions.

 

To that end, Athens’ department is putting together something of a map to illustrate all of the many sustainability efforts currently underway and planned for the city. In the process, she hopes to get at that whole “sustain momentum” idea. “We can really look at sustainability across the (spectrum) to see how we are doing,” she says of the project.

 

She adds that the effort will fit in to her department’s message. “That’s been one of my big focuses since I got here, to educate people and talk a lot about how sustainability is defined not only by environmental issues, but also by economic as well as social and cultural issues,” she says. “I think a lot of people still just think about the environment when they hear the term sustainability, but I feel so strongly that not only are the other areas important, but that they’re interrelated.”

 

Athens says to look for this sometime in February or March. Until then, look for Athens to keep moving things forward.

 

She also cites Austin’s participation as one of 10 cities included in a pilot program designed to present something like the Community Action Network’s community dashboard–a set of metrics that would give observers a quick reference for the city’s progress on a host of economic and social issues–as a success. Athens further notes that the sustainability office has been involved in planning for the city’s new central library and a host of educational efforts across the city.

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