Austin Plans to Keep Its Cool

Texas City Builds Framework for Taking on Climate Change

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Lucia Athens is chief sustainability officer for the city of Austin, Texas.

Bob Gedert is the resource recovery director for the city of Austin, Texas.

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Posted: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 9:18 am

When it comes to sustainability, Austin, Texas has a reputation for staying ahead of the curve. From developing the first municipal green building policy, which served as a model for LEED, to creating what could be the nation's first eco-industrial park exclusively for recycling and reuse companies, this “world headquarters of the armadillo,” is an innovative city where smart growth has been a cornerstone of a bustling economy for decades.

Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens said the city of Austin got its wake-up call in the early 1990s when unbridled development almost resulted in the loss of a beloved natural asset.

Barton Springs Pool is considered one of the crown jewels of Austin. Measuring three acres in size, the natural spring-fed pool maintains an average temperature of 70 degrees and is ideal for swimming year round. It draws nearly 800,000 visitors per year. But by 1990, after years of up-stream development, Athens said the quality of the water in the pool had begun to suffer, and authorities began closing it to the public after heavy rain events.

“The community was seeing that happen more and more and began to understand that if we didn’t get on top of how we were permitting development to protect water quality and address run-off issues and stormwater management, we might lose that asset,” she said.

When a local citizen group launched a “Save Our Springs” campaign, more than 1,000 people signed up to speak at a city council hearing that “went on all night,” Athens said. The event is remembered today as the “Barton Creek Uprising.”

“Elected officials heard loud and clear from their community that they were concerned, and (the city council) did significantly upgrade the water quality standards related to development at the time,” she said.

As a result, the city developed the first municipal green building policy in America, a project Athens herself was involved in as a graduate research assistant at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Green building really took off after that, but the city of Austin was the first city that had a green building program that was a menu-based, points-based system that existed before LEED. So, it really sort of set the stage for LEED,” she said.

Athens believes the city’s stringent development standards are one of the reasons the local real estate market largely escaped the huge downturn suffered by many other cities in the recent national housing crisis.

“It’s not the most economical environment to do a speculative development and then flip it,” she said. “A lot of developers in our market are here for the long haul and they really care about our community and tend to stick around.”

One of those developers, former two-term Mayor Will Wynn, was a leading advocate for sustainability in 2007 when the city adopted its first climate protection resolution. That plan set a goal that all city operations would be carbon neutral by 2020. In April, current Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the Austin City Council set a community-wide goal to be net-zero by the year 2050, Athens said.

But, the devil, as they say, is in the details. It’s now up to Athens, with the help of a diverse team of city staff and local industry leaders, to figure out how to actually make it happen.

“We’re right now in the process of assembling some technical assistance groups … figuring out some interim targets between now and 2050 and then coming up with plans for each sector to reach the greenhouse gas reduction goals,” Athens said.

City operations have certainly done their part. According to Austin’s annual report on climate protection, updated in 2013, the city’s non-regulated municipal carbon footprint declined nearly 67 percent between 2007 and 2012.

“These reductions were achieved through energy efficiency measures and the use of zero carbon renewable electricity at city facilities, as well as by using less gasoline and diesel and more B20-biodiesel, E85-ethanol, propane, compressed natural gas, and electric powered vehicles,” the report noted.

In 2011, Austin became the largest local government in the U.S. to power all city-owned buildings and facilities with renewable energy, which helped earn it the Green Power Partner of the Year award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012.

Austin was a pilot community for the STAR Community Rating System, which measures and rates communities in a standard set of sustainability metrics. The city received a four-star rating from the organization in March.

Athens said climate change has been an important motivating factor in the city’s strategic planning. But city leaders found climate impact projections in the U.S. National Climate Assessment didn’t adequately specify how the changing climate would be felt locally. So, the city commissioned ATMOS Research to conduct climate modeling for the Austin area to predict its impact on the city through the remainder of this century. Led by Dr. Katharine Hayhoe from Texas Tech University, the research helped city staff develop a climate adaptation strategy that will address Austin’s greatest vulnerabilities.

“Dr. Hayhoe’s research showed us that extreme heat is going to be one of our major risks,” Athens said. “We already experience periodic extreme temperatures, but that’s going to become much more frequent in the future,” she said.

While Austin’s average yearly precipitation is not expected to change much, the distribution of that precipitation will become more erratic. Floods, drought, wildfires, tropical storms, and even snow have already created havoc in the Austin area in recent years, and those events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the decades to come, according to “Towards a Climate Resilient Austin,” the city’s climate assessment report released in May.

Austin’s strategy will be to address climate change from two directions: mitigation and adaptation. The city will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with energy conservation, use of renewable energy, sustainable transportation, reforestation and using methane captured at landfills and wastewater treatment facilities. It will bolster its resilience to the effects of climate change by protecting its infrastructure, managing stormwater, preparing for wildfires, and developing plans for emergency response and business continuity.

Athens said success hinges on finding solutions to two challenging obstacles: time and money.

“When we’re talking about looking at things 50 years in the future, that doesn’t match political cycles,” Athens said. “… And then cost is a challenge. We’re struggling to maintain our public parks and our urban forest. How do we find the resources to do that kind of long-term maintenance to keep those ecological systems healthy? We don’t have a utility structure for trees. We don’t pay a bill for our use of air in any given month,” Athens said.

She said the city is in “information-gathering mode” for now. “But I’m sure we will be looking at some different financial models to try to come up with some solutions. Can we fill any of these gaps with bond funding? Can we have special fees that would be tied to any of these services? Will the public be willing to accept that? As we begin to move into potentially a more robust carbon market in North America, will we be able to monetize any of our assets related to carbon offsets? Those are some of the different things we’ll be looking at.”

While it remains to be seen how much Austin citizens will be willing to pay for solutions, Athens said the local public is “acutely aware” of the impacts that have already begun to put a strain on local resources as drought, wildfires and tree loss continue to plague the city and region.

“We’re experiencing some very severe water shortages right now; our water utility is having some huge financial challenges because they’ve done so well with conservation,” she said.

In the four years Athens has served as chief sustainability officer for the city of Austin, she’s proud of the comprehensive framework her staff has developed for defining, tracking and measuring sustainability across more than 20 city departments. The framework tracks 153 city-led projects and programs in 10 “areas of innovation,” including water, energy, mobility, health, waste management, arts & culture, youth and other agenda items that address the triple bottom line of sustainability: ecology, economy and social equity.

“We’ve been able to cast the net quite widely,” she said. Her staff has grown to nine people with the recent addition of a sustainable food policy coordinator.

Athens knows city staff can’t do the job alone. Getting the public engaged and working toward common goals will be critical to success. To that end, her department recently launched a mobile phone app dubbed “Rethink/,” which uses games and competitions to encourage citizens to learn and adopt green behaviors. Education and outreach to take sustainability to the neighborhood scale will continue to be a major focus of her office, Athens said.

Bob Gedert is Austin’s resource recovery director, a title that acknowledges a recent change in the city’s attitude toward waste.

“The department used to be called Solid Waste Services but a couple years ago we changed it to Austin Resource Recovery because we changed our mission from picking up trash and taking it to the landfill to recovering resources,” Gedert said.

The Austin City Council passed its first zero-waste resolution in 2009, becoming the first Texas city to do so. That resolution was followed in 2011 by more aggressive goals to divert 50 percent of materials from the landfills by 2015, 75 percent by 2020, 85 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2040.

In order to reach these targets, Gedert’s department will need to continuously ratchet up its efforts to reduce waste at the source, collect more materials for recycling, and educate citizens on conservation practices.

In 2012, the council passed a Universal Recycling Ordinance, which phases in more stringent requirements through 2018.

“By 2018, every single building in the city will have the capability to collect recyclables and compostables,” he said. Private trash haulers are now required to report how much trash they pick up and what they divert from the landfill. The city’s recycling vendors are required to add one new item to their list of materials collected at the curb or accepted at collection points within the city.

The city banned single-use plastic bags in 2012, and Gedert said he believes 100 percent of Austin’s 14,000 retailers are currently in compliance. Next spring, his department will make recommendations for new requirements to divert construction and demolition materials from the landfill. City staff is also working on a proposal to green special events, requiring major festivals to develop and report sustainability plans of their own.

Half of Austin’s residents live in single-family homes, and half in apartments. City staff collects recyclables from 186,000 single-family households, and private haulers collect from the apartment complexes. Recyclables are sorted by two private companies contracted by the city.

Yard trimmings are collected weekly at the curb and turned into compost. Branded “Dillo Dirt,” in a nod to the iconic Texas armadillo, the compost is used in city parks and offered free of charge to local residents.

A pilot program is now collecting food scraps from 14,000 households. “We’re experimenting with the types of trucks we use and what type of containers work best,” Gedert said. “When we get all the kinks worked out in that pilot, then we plan on expanding it citywide.”

Austin closed its landfill prematurely after a recent airport expansion created concerns about airplanes hitting the birds that were attracted by the garbage. It now hauls its trash to a private landfill, paying $21 per ton, one of the lowest tipping fees Gedert has seen.

As a result of closing its landfill early, the city had to find a new use for a 107-acre parcel of land originally designated for landfill expansion. Perhaps ironically, the city decided to develop that vacant land into an “eco-industrial park.”

“The concept behind it is to invite major re-manufacturing facilities to locate there and consume our recycled materials,” Gedert said. He said many of these materials are currently exported overseas. “So, now, instead of shipping around the world, we’ve got a circular local economy around recycling,” he said.

The industrial park will be ready for tenants in 2015, and financial incentives will be offered to companies that agree to buy materials from local recyclers.

Whatever progress Austin has made in recent years, city leaders aren’t ready to declare victory or let the momentum wane. Athens said the city just launched a three-year project to rewrite its land development code to reflect the vision and objectives of its 2012 comprehensive plan, ImagineAustin, a roadmap intended to guide the city for the next 30 years.

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