When it comes to the environment, few cities have the street cred of Austin, Texas. Perhaps most famous for its 2006 Residential Design and Compatibility Standards, also known as the McMansion Ordinance, which limited the gross square footage of future houses relative to lot sizes, in 2010, Austin decided to up its green game and created a new position: Chief Sustainability Officer.
Lucia Athens, a landscape architect turned public servant who began her career in Austin before taking the helm of Seattle’s green-building program, seemed destined for the role. Elegant, witty, and Texan through-and-through, Athens is charged with asking the big questions while implementing innovative, results-driven programs, such as Austin’s Green Alley Demonstration Project, which is why we brought Athens into the editorial fold.
Our free-wheelin’ conversation begins below.
gb&d: What are some of Austin’s recent green projects?
Athens: One project our office is working on is the Seaholm Redevelopment, which is right on the edge of downtown. It has a historic power plant—an Art Deco power plant—which is kind of in the center of the neighborhood. It’s going to have our new downtown library, which Lake Flato Architects is doing. It’s really cool.
gb&d: I’ve been following it. What all is happening on a district scale?
Athens: We brought this EcoDistrict framework from the Portland Sustainability Institute to look more broadly across the neighborhood at what it means to scale up sustainability by looking at buildings, infrastructure, and also people. And partly what we realized is that there was no larger vision for the neighborhood and nothing that was connecting things together from a branding and marketing standpoint—to explain to people what all these cool individual things add up to—and then for also continuing to engage with people living in the neighborhood.
One of the projects at the power plant is a huge rainwater-collection system where they’re using old vaults that were underneath the power plant and converting them to cisterns. And hopefully, if it continues to rain—and it’s raining today—they’re going to be capturing more water than they need on-site, so they’re going to be providing irrigation for adjacent park property. So cutting across these site boundaries is part of it.
gb&d: One thing our feature on green infrastructure shows is that municipalities around the country are beginning to realize that these more sustainable, vegetated strategies save water, clean the air, and beautify the streetscape all for the same or even less cost than some of our traditional methods of storm-water management. Where is Austin on this?
Athens: We have a wonderful watershed-protection department, which is our storm-water utility, and they have a very comprehensive view of how to manage storm water to create a lot of different benefits including a more resilient city. For example, we’re looking right now at our development standards for stream buffers, realizing that in the past we’ve allowed development to come too close to natural streams and riparian areas. Over time, those waterways have eroded severely. Then we have to come back in and do more engineered solutions to stabilize the banks, and it erodes people’s property.
If we maintain a very healthy stream buffer that has native plants that we don’t mow, if we provide a big enough setback that we can maintain the ecological health of that natural system, that’s a much more cost-effective way to go, as well as much more aesthetically pleasing. People would much rather have their properties facing a gorgeous natural area—in fact, I’m looking for a lot right now, and I want it to face a riparian area, because it brings privacy, it brings habitat, it just has all these benefits.
gb&d: Does Austin have a lot of green roofs?
Athens: We have some, but being in the South and having such severe, long droughts—which appear to be getting worse—we have to be very careful about the placement of green infrastructure, the type of application, the type of plants, because we don’t want to create an increased irrigation burden from those if we can’t justify it with other benefits. We have two possible projects that the University [of Texas] is trying to get going with living walls. We don’t have any living walls yet in Austin, so we need to kick the tires on that idea and see how it can work in this climate. The idea right now is to link those with projects that have air-conditioning condensate so that the condensate can be recovered to irrigate the living walls.
gb&d: It seems like the recession barely touched Austin, and we’ve heard a lot about the growth going on around the city and in the downtown core.
Athens: That’s a really interesting topic. One of my theories about why we, from the real-estate/economy standpoint, weren’t more heavily impacted is that we adopted very stringent land-development requirements and codes related to water-quality protection very early. I think that kept some of the more speculative developers or people who wanted to flip property out of this market. There were other cities to go to where it was cheaper. We ended up with more developers who were really invested in the community in the long haul, who really wanted to do quality development and who would go the extra mile to do it. I think that contributed to the stability of our real estate economy.
The other thing I was going to say about accommodating all the growth was that one of our unofficial mottos is “Keep Austin Weird”—
gb&d: I was about to ask about that.
Athens: —and one of the aspects of that is what I call the “funk factor.” I’ll give you an example. The Broken Spoke [is] this old bar that’s been around for 50 years. Everyone knows the Broken Spoke. It’s super funky on the outside. But at the moment, development is surrounding it on three sides. We don’t have any codes in place right now to protect it as a cultural or historic asset because it’s definitely not a historically designated building on the Register, and it never will be. So I’m really concerned right now about losing those cultural icons.
I was just having a conversation with the city planning director for the City of San Francisco because they’re trying to tackle this, and he said [he was] looking for models in other cities but hasn’t found any. I’m thinking we need to go look at Europe and see what we can find.
gb&d: Do you have any idea what European cities you might look at?
Athens: One city that we have looked at in the past year, one country actually, is the Netherlands for bicycle infrastructure. We had a delegation including the city manager and the public works director go to the Netherlands and go on a biking tour and really look at how they deal with a very high level of cycling they have in that country and what infrastructure they’re providing.
gb&d: You’ve said that “the role of the public leader transcends that of a regulator; it can be one that provides vision, hope, and empowerment to any global citizen,” which I like a lot. How can municipal governments begin to lead in this way?
Athens: We’re very lucky. Not every city owns its own utilities. Having financial resources to work with gives you a foundation to start creating more tools to create that transformation and inspire people. So the fact that we own all of our own utilities, everything except gas, generates revenue that can go into conservation programs such as our solar-incentive program—we have both residential and commercial solar incentives—or our Green Choice program, which is a voluntary subscription for renewable energy.
gb&d: Some critics have implied that your office isn’t aware of the benefits of a results-oriented approach, but your background in landscape architecture and your work in Seattle seem to suggest that you are very aware of those benefits.
Athens: Well, one issue is that you can’t do a simple cost-benefit analysis for everything you do as a city. We are public stewards, and we have to take a very long-range view of what public stewardship means and what the right decision is. Every single decision we make isn’t going to pencil out with a simple, bottom-line calculation. An example would be ending homelessness. It’s very difficult to give a cost-benefit analysis of that, but over the long haul, there are community benefits that are fairly wide-ranging, but you’re probably not going to see a return immediately.
gb&d: What sort of metrics have you been able to gather?
Athens: One of the completely metrics-based projects we’re spending a lot of time on, and piloting, is the STAR Community Index, a benchmarking tool for citywide sustainability ranking. It was created by teams of subject-matter experts across the country—that’s how LEED was created as well—coming together and crafting what they thought were the most important benchmarks in a broad variety of different sustainability applications for a city. And it is point-based, so at the end of the day if a city goes through the process of collecting all that data, we will be able to compare how we’re doing to other cities.
There’s a big interest in this because every time you turn around, there’s another ranking of cities that comes out. Usually they’re black boxes, and you don’t know what they’re really basing it on. So cities actually have quite an interest in creating something like this, where they can contribute to the creation of it and vet the tool, and then look at how they’re doing compared to one another. We should have our STAR ranking complete by sometime in the late fall.
gb&d: You grew up in Texas, in San Antonio, the daughter of the head of the local Sierra Club. Does it feel like fate that you’ve returned to Texas to work in sustainability?
Athens: It feels very much full circle for me. I wouldn’t say I planned to move away from Texas and then finally move back, but I finally reached a point in my career where I paused. I took a two-year break from government work—I was little burned out on government work at the time—and I was finishing up my book, Building an Emerald City, but I realized that I really loved working as a public servant. And then this job came up—I was contacted by their recruiters—and it was just the perfect position for me, and the timing was great. So there’s a lot of kismet for me in the things that I’ve done and how one thing has led to the next. I’m very lucky.
gb&d: It reminds me of my own story. I grew up the son of a landscape designer and a soil conservationist—
Athens: Oh wow.
gb&d: —but once I got the journalism bug and became interested in media and publishing, I didn’t necessarily expect to wind up back in this world at all, and yet here I am. Something about sustainability values stays in a person a long time.
Athens: It does. And it’s great that you guys are doing this work because there’s such a tremendous need for us to communicate and learn and get that information out to a really broad audience, so having people involved in the media is really key. LEED really helped transform the marketplace because it created a common language for people. It’s a rating tool, but it’s also a communication tool. And, having a tool with a point system is actually really useful for market transformation because everyone wants to win and get the most points. They want to outshine their peers, whether its an architect, a developer, or a mayor who wants to have the most green buildings in their city.
gb&d: It sounds like the perfect setup for a reality TV show.