Austin’s Sustainability Warrior

 

Lucia Athens has returned to Austin after years working in sustainability to make our already green city even greener.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of individuals trek to Big Bend, New Mexico and Colorado, inspired by the beautiful landscapes. While hoards of nature lovers leave the confines of their cities in search of nature’s inspiration, Lucia Athens brings nature’s inspiration back to the city.

After spending 10 years leading Seattle’s green-building initiative, followed by several years as the senior sustainable futures strategist for CollinsWoerman, a Seattle-based sustainable architecture, design and planning firm, Athens returned to the City of Austin in 2010, after being chosen to serve as the city’s first chief sustainability officer.

The path to sustainability

Athens, an alumna of the School of Architecture with a master’s of architectural studies degree, began focusing on “green living” or sustainability during her early years camping with her family.

Born in San Antonio, Athens traveled with her family to New Mexico, visiting cliff dwellings, pueblos, and kivas. Later in life, the ancient ruins of Greece became her inspiration.

“I have an amazing, magical memory of going up to the Acropolis at night” said Athens. “Everything was transformed by the moonlight, and I noticed things that were not apparent in the daylight, such as huge ruts in the floor where the massive doors have once opened. It was pure magic.”

When Athens left Seattle in 2010 and returned to Austin, she saw many similarities between the two cities. Both have a strong creative class and well-informed citizens; both have maintained fairly strong job markets and real estate economies while other cities have faltered; and both are well recognized as being progressive.

“The approach to advancing sustainability models is fairly similar for Austin and Seattle. The most successful projects are built upon strong coalitions with common interests, that can grow robust partnerships,” said Athens.

According to Athens, the number of cities that can be considered leaders in sustainability has grown in the past decade, both because there are more models to emulate, and because various cities focus on diverse realms of sustainability.

“Sustainability is a big topic that covers a lot of territory, from green building, renewable energy and local food to green collar jobs and affordability. Austin is providing leadership because we are defining sustainability so broadly; for us it includes our arts and cultural programs, hiring minority contractors, wildfire and flood safety, and even our no-kill animal shelter goals.”

Uniting Austin

Austin’s broad spectrum of sustainability has been both a blessing and a curse for Athens. The city’s sustainable measures are implemented at all levels of the three Es—environment, economy and equity—and are reflected in the city’s numerous and various programs. But getting her arms around the width and breadth of Austin’s initiatives was one of the biggest challenges Athens has faced since taking the office.

“The city has so many areas involving sustainability including planning, policies, incentives and pilot projects,” said Athens. “Confronting the challenges requires focusing on policy development and capacity-building with methods such as procuring financial resources in the form of grants or public private partnerships. There is so much going on in this city when it comes to sustainability.”

In an attempt to better unite the programs, Athens launched a Sustainability Action Agenda on Earth Day 2012 that provides a comprehensive framework for over 150 of the city’s sustainability initiatives, organized around 10 themes. For the first time, the city is able to tie together the various sustainability initiatives under one umbrella. The tool will be used to monitor and track progress and will allow the city to report back to its citizens every year on Earth Day.

One of Austin’s key sustainability projects, the Seaholm District redevelopment, is utilizing one of the most promising long-term models for urban sustainability, according to Athens. The program focuses on how to scale up sustainable development from the individual building to multiple city blocks. Key issues being addressed include equity, health, education, and finding governance models to address district scale energy, water, mobility, and waste systems.

“This program engages residents and tenants as part of the solution,” said Athens. “If they aren’t actively participating, our ability to get where we want to go is going to be limited.”

Creating a Sustainable Future

Athens is excited that sustainability is a core value of Imagine Austin, the city’s new comprehensive plan that defines how the city can grow in a compact and connected fashion to conserve resources over the next three decades.

“I’ve read the plan cover to cover and sustainability is the guiding principal for the entire document,” said Athens.

“It includes rewriting our land use code, which would have a huge and far-ranging impact. The location and proximity of our housing, commercial, and transit uses, as well as things like how and what we choose to eat, actually have a much bigger impact on our climate footprint and energy use than how efficient our buildings and cars are.”

According to Athens, some of the most successful cities in sustainability are those that are able to identify their unique strengths to capitalize on, while also identifying their biggest challenges to tackle.

“Some of my dream goals for the City of Austin include a fully built-out alternative mobility system that combines interconnected urban rail, more bikeways and a bike share system, and bus rapid transit. Another dream is to create a citywide program that challenges residents to take sustainable action and be able to measure results. The first needs a culture shift from everyone feeling they need to drive their own care everywhere. The second could be used to create competitions—for instance between neighborhoods, companies or dorms.”

This story was first published in Platform, the alumni magazine of UT’s School of Architecture.

Photo courtesy Lucia Athens.

 

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