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Darby Minow Smith's Posts


Lessons from the women who are leading the sustainable cities movement


I've known for a while now that the real action on sustainability is happening in cities -- other than Washington, D.C., that is -- but a few months back, it came to my attention that many of the people leading the charge are women, often young ones.

While higher-up positions in city government are still skewed in favor of men, sustainability directors seem to be more evenly split between the genders. Because most sustainability director positions have been created in the last 10 years, there isn't the same good-ol’-boy hierarchy in place. And due to the fact that the field is so young, so are many of its practitioners. Take, for example, Katherine Gajewski, who was just 29 years old when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter asked her to head up the city’s sustainability department.

Inspired by the women who are leading the sustainability movement in cities big and small, I created Knope and change, a series named after Leslie Knope, the main character in the popular television show Parks and Recreation. Knope, played by the estimable Amy Poehler, is a mid-level bureaucrat working in her city’s parks department. She loves her city, works tirelessly to improve it, and never lets bureaucracy discourage her.

Over the course of the past five months, I found a lot of Knope-ish energy in the burgeoning field of urban sustainability. Although there are still female sustainability directors out there deserving of a profile, my compatriots and I felt 15 interviews were enough, so with this post, I'm wrapping it up.

I realize how lucky I’ve been to write this series -- talking to passionate women from around the country was like taking a carbon-free trip every week to a new city. I wish every young writer could do the same. I wanted to share a bit of what I've learned, in case you haven’t read and reflected on every piece. (Of course, you’ve read every piece. Right? Right?)


1. When you’re building a new field, you need all the help you can get.

“Sustainability” is such a broad term -- and the resulting city policies and programs are just as wide. A sustainability director must be versed in local food, energy efficiency, waste management, and public transportation. “You have to be ADHD” to do the job, jokes Oak Park, Ill., Sustainability Manager K.C. Poulos.


Oak Park test drives a blackout-proof, solar-powered smart grid

Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in Oak Park.
Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked in Oak Park.

The village of Oak Park might seem indistinguishable from its neighbors. A suburb on the western edge of Chicago, it shares a street grid with the city and a sustainability plan with a bordering village, River Forest. But this community of 50,000 people has a historic character all its own -- and is the hometown of an impressive range of talent, including Homer Simpson voice actor Dan Castellaneta, Ernest Hemingway, actress Betty White, political advisor David Axelrod, and journalist Tavi Gevinson.

Last year, Oak Park bundled its residential electricity accounts and went out to bid for a new energy supplier. Not only did it end up with a more favorable rate, but the deal included 100 percent renewable energy credits, adding 170 million kilowatt-hours of wind power into the regional grid.

And now, the village has volunteered to be a testing ground for “smart grid” technology that could someday revolutionize the way we generate, transmit, and use electricity. And we’re not talking about just smart meters here -- rather, a thoroughly digitized, completely transformed system that is tied into a network of renewable sources like wind and solar, and is capable of “self-healing” during storms and outages.

K.C. Poulos.
K.C. Poulos.

“Literally every piece of equipment along the way changes,” says Oak Park’s sustainability manager, K.C. Poulos.

The project, which will include a network of small solar-electric systems on residential roofs, is projected to cost between $5 and 6 million, and half of the cost will be covered by the Korea Smart Grid Institute. Oak Park is working with the International Institute for Sustainable Design to secure funding for the rest.

I talked to Poulos for Knope and change, our series about the women behind green changes in our city governments. Here’s an edited version of our conversation about their smart grid experiment. Hat tip to Oak Parker Doug Burke for the suggestion.

Q. Why are you working with the Korea Smart Grid Institute?

A. They did the demonstration on an island in South Korea called Jeju Island. It's kind of like their Hawaii -- it's a resort area. They were able to put up a demonstration that showed how distributed generation like solar can be connected to a network operations center. All of these houses got battery storage so when you weren't using your solar power in the house, you could store it in a battery system. When the grid on that island became overloaded with demand, the network operating system could send messages to those households saying, “You need to use to your battery. We're going to take all of the energy from your solar panels for the next four hours and put them right on the grid. And then we will send you a check next month. Thank you very much for letting us buy your power for four hours.”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Keeping a growing Austin green — and weird — is no easy task

A few months ago, an Austin writer took to the pages of the New York Times to fret about the fate of his city. Austin, it seems, is getting too big for its famously weird britches. Not too long ago, an older gentleman fond of wearing high heels and a thong in public ran for mayor three times, Richard Parker wrote. Now, Austin has a Grand Prix racing track, restaurants teeming with celebrities, and yuppies crowding out families.

“[I]n the wake of the Armstrong debacle, it’s hard not to think that pride does, indeed, go before the fall,” Parker wrote, referring to longtime resident Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his Tour de France titles last year amid growing allegations that he cheated. “Hopefully, Austin can handle success without letting it go to its head; after all, that is precisely what destroyed the hometown hero.”

Parker painted a lovely, nostalgic portrait that simultaneously made me want to preserve Willie Nelson’s old stomping grounds and move there myself, furthering the problem. And indeed, to use Parker’s analogy, Austin is growing like it’s on steroids. The city’s population increased a whopping 51.1 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Lucia Athens.
Jeff Wilson
Lucia Athens.

Is it possible for a city to grow quickly and retain its character? Can they keep Austin Austin? Lucia Athens, the city’s sustainability director, hopes so.

A Texas native, Athens grew up going to Sierra Club protests and outings with her father, who was chair of the San Antonio chapter. She learned the necessity of community organizing and why it’s important to get out in nature. “If you’re never out engaging with it, you never understand what you’re in danger of losing,” she says.

While she was well-trained in the old green tactics of protesting and planting trees in front of bulldozers, she saw a chance to effect change in a new way. “The green building movement became an opportunity to leverage something that was going to happen already in a better direction,” she says. She helped craft Austin’s first green building program in the early '90s before spending 10 years turning Seattle into a LEED case study. In 2010, she returned to Austin.

I talked to Athens several times over the phone for Knope and change, our series on the women working hard to green our cities. Here’s an edited version of our conversations:

Q. With SXSW's ongoing success and Austin’s perennial national reputation as a contender for coolest city, is Austin a victim of its own success? Is it possible to stay weird while getting big?

A. I think that’s the big conundrum. We’re experiencing very significant growth and we will be into the foreseeable future. That’s partly because we do have a very high quality of life here and a pretty good hip factor. We have a lot of young people who want to move here. We have a lot of jobs. With all that, it’s good for the economy, but we have to manage that increase in growth and population. That’s where we are going to be butting up against issues related to mobility, transportation, air quality, water. We’re trying to do a good job of balancing economic development and [population] growth with environmental protection and measures for quality of life. But there’s a long way to go. We just adopted a comprehensive plan that uses sustainability as its core principle, [and] it’s a pretty significant guiding document, [but] there are cranes all over town. We’re really trying to focus on steering that new development in the right direction and figuring out how we’re going to maintain the quality of life we have now with such a big increase in our population.

Q. How have you been able to steer development and population growth?

Read more: Cities, Living


Ignore the Midwest at your own risk, says a Kansas sustainability director

Kansas was once a very progressive -- radical, even -- place. Before and during the Civil War, the state was a hotbed for the anti-slavery movement. In the late 19th century, the leftist, pro-labor People’s Party took root in the wheat-filled plains.

Things have changed a bit since then. In the past 100 years, the state has gone for the Democratic presidential candidate only three times. And now, “If you want to know what a Tea Party America might look like, there is no place like Kansas,” writes Annie Gowen in the Washington Post. Kansas even has an “Office of the Repealer” to offer recommendations on laws and regulations to cut.

Despite the change in political mood in the rest of the state, Lawrence held onto its progressive roots. In the 2012 presidential election, not only did Douglas County vote blue in a state that overwhelmingly went red, it matched the state’s zeal for Romney (59.7 percent) with how strongly it went for Obama (60.5 percent).

Eileen Horn.
Eileen Horn.

Eileen Horn, a native of the sunflower state, became the city's and county's first sustainability director in 2010. Her position was funded -- as was the case with those of many small cities -- through the Energy Efficiency and Conservation block fund, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the stimulus bill. (Last summer, representatives voted unanimously to fund Horn's office on a more permanent basis, through the general fund.)

I talked to Horn for Knope and change, our series on the women working to green our cities and towns. Here’s our edited conversation on the power of a little good-natured competition, the food movement in the bread basket, and why the country can’t move forward without a constructive conversation with the Midwest.

While progressives might be tempted to write the state off and pray for the good folks in Lawrence, Horn says, “Ignore Kansas at your own peril.”

Q. How often have you heard the joke, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”?

Read more: Cities, Living


Norfolk, Va., has a plan to keep its head above water

Norfolk, Va., offers a hint of what's to come for many coastal communities as climate change pushes tides higher and storms continue to worsen. Norfolk sits at the southeast corner of Virginia, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Chesapeake Bay. Surrounded by water on three sides, the city of 243,000 will experience more sea-level rise than other locales, scientists say. Some areas of the picturesque old city -- home to a major Navy base and full of old houses and cobblestone streets -- already flood regularly.

Denise Thompson.
Denise Thompson.

Agencies, residents, and businesses, have already banded together to weather the rising waters, says Norfolk’s manager of Environmental Protection Programs, Denise Thompson. “We all speak the same language,” she says. “Everyone tends to help each other out. People might say to their new neighbors ‘You need to move your car up the street’ or ‘The city’s getting ready to open up the garages. You’ll be able to move your car there for free so that you won’t have to worry about flooding your vehicle.’”

Thompson, an environmental health scientist by training, has been looking at the way humans and the environment interact since the 1970s. The issue first piqued her interest in high school, when her debate team was discussing whether the federal government should regulate pollution. In her research, she came across DDT and pesticides and closed beaches. “The light bulb went off for me,” she says.

Thompson says there were times in the 1980s when she wondered "if the environment was a good place for a career,” but today, "sustainability really has become the lens in which businesses and governments are starting to view the world.”

Norfolk, for its part, opened Virginia’s first light rail system (called The Tide) a little over a year ago, and daily ridership is already up to 5,000. And the Navy has turned out to be a swell partner in going green -- it just launched Virginia's largest solar farm and the base has a green roof and LEED-certified aircraft hangars.

Of course, it all comes too late to stop the waters from rising -- even with drastic cuts to our emissions (cuts that seem improbable, even impossible) sea level will continue to rise for the foreseeable future. What is Norfolk doing about that? I talked to Thompson for Knope and change, our series on the woman working to green city governments. Here's our edited conversation about coping with the current and coming floods, cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, and why she feels optimistic about nature's ability to recover from all the damage we've wrought.  

Read more: Cities


Surrounded by water on three sides, San Francisco fights to keep climate change at bay

If San Francisco were a popular band, it’d be Radiohead: Overachieving, arch, holier-than-thou -- and yet undeniably well-loved and two steps ahead of everyone else. Plastic bag ban? “Duh -- and expanding.” Mandatory composting and recycling? “Everything in its right place -- and let’s shoot for zero waste by 2020.” A solar financing program? “Definitely. And let’s model it after Groupon, while we’re at it, to catch the zeitgeist.”

But even a city on the cutting edge has its share of difficult realities to face. The city has the second-most expensive housing market in the U.S. and middle-class families are being priced out. California could see a 16-inch sea-level rise by mid-century and 55 inches by 2100, according to one estimate [PDF]. Surrounded by water on three sides, the city is particularly vulnerable.

Melanie Nutter.
Melanie Nutter.

Still, San Francisco Department of the Environment Director Melanie Nutter is optimistic. “Cities are so well-poised to take action and make a collective impact,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons I love working on the local level. You can really see that movement and that change.”

Nutter has tried the alternative: She was working for then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi when national climate bills seemed attainable. “It takes so much to try to move policy at the federal level,” she says. “Waxman-Markey was very disappointing to see fall apart.”

I talked to Nutter for Knope and change, our series on the women working hard to green our cities. Here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Q. I recently saw a map of San Francisco looking at possible sea-level rise scenarios. It wasn’t pretty. What are you planning for and how are you planning for it?

A. This is very much on our minds in light of Sandy and the extreme weather events that we are starting to see. Just in the past two weeks, we’ve had torrential downpours in San Francisco. Rain is common this time of year, but there’s been a number of atmospheric conditions that created a [Pineapple Express], which was basically a complete dumping. There are pictures of places in San Francisco where it’s up to people’s knees on certain streets where the storm drains got flooded from what we thought was going to be a simple rainshower. We are reminded again and again how vulnerable we are.

Read more: Cities


Susanne Torriente fights to keep ‘America’s Venice’ from slipping into the sea

Susanne Torriente.

In Fort Lauderdale, Assistant City Manager Susanne Torriente is working to get her city government prepared for rising sea levels -- and for good reason: Depending on what happens on worldwide climate action, 48 percent of South Florida could end up submerged.

Luckily, Torriente has experience weathering storms. In 2009, County Mayor Carlos Alvarez appointed the 20-year Miami-Dade County employee as sustainability director. Alvarez was the rare Republican who was very supportive of sustainability, says Torriente.

Two years later, the political climate changed. Upset over staff pay increases, property tax hikes, and a new stadium, local billionaire Norman Braman led a wildly successful recall effort against Alvarez and flooded the recall with $1 million of his personal money. “At the end of the day, Alvarez got caught up in an anti-government, anti-tax frenzy from a very conservative community,” Torriente says. After the recall, she decided to cut her losses and move on.

For a little over a year, Torriente has been restructuring and refocusing Fort Lauderdale government. "How do we look at what we do, and in light of what we know [about climate change], how do we need to start doing our jobs differently?" she asks. I talked to Torriente for Knope and change, our series on the women working to green, and in this case, save our cities. Here’s our edited conversation on talking climate in a politically polarized state.

Q. Fort Lauderdale has been called the Venice of America -- and in fact, Venice is your sister city. Venice is currently experiencing historic floods.

Wally Gobetz

A. We have 300 miles of canal coastline and 52 bridges in the city alone in 33 square miles. We’re all about the water here. Two or three weeks ago, we had Hurricane Sandy going through the Bahamas and the tail end of that was coupled with our full moon high tide. We experienced major tidal flooding in the city of Fort Lauderdale.

Q. Does your community seem concerned about climate change?

Read more: Cities, Living


A green Salt Lake City? Thank the Mormon pioneers, says Sustainability Director Vicki Bennett

Dave Gates

If you said "Salt Lake City" during a game of free association, not too many folks would shout "sustainability" back at you. Unless they've spent some time in the burg of 200,000, you'd probably hear a variation on one of three things: Mormons, snow, or sobriety.

The Mormons part is true -- this is their promised land and world headquarters -- but the city’s politics are decidedly progressive, never mind that over 70 percent of Utah went to Mitt Romney. “Those of us who live here in the city are almost responding to the rest of the state being so conservative,” says Salt Lake’s sustainability chief, Vicki Bennett. The snow? That’s real, too, but wait 40 years -- the climate will take care of that. As for the dearth of alcohol, Bennett assures us, “Yeah, you can get a drink.”

And there are serious discussions about what makes a city sustainable here, too. Mayor Ralph Becker (D) is an environmental planner by training, and that, says Bennett, makes her job much easier. “He really understands how this broad term of sustainability can be applied,” she says. “It wasn't a matter of having to educate an elected official as to why you are there. He’s usually five steps ahead of us saying, ‘Here’s where we need to go.’”

But where Salt Lake needs to go is directly tied to where the greater metropolitan area, population 1 million, needs to go. Between workers at local businesses and students and employees of the University of Utah, the population in Salt Lake doubles during the work day. The city suffers from poor air quality, due in large part to the never-ending river of cars pouring in and out from its burgeoning suburbs. Part of Becker’s, and Bennett’s, job is reaching out to much less progressive populations and governments.

I talked to Bennett for Knope and change, our series on the women fighting the green fight in our cities. Here are some snippets from our conversation about working with Republicans on environmental issues, a climate-changed Salt Lake, and whether or not Jon Huntsman is a freak.

Q. How does Salt Lake’s high Mormon population affect your work?

Read more: Cities, Living


Breaking: Portland sustainability chief admits ‘Portlandia’ isn’t really a parody

Being the sustainability director of Portland is a bit like being the oil minister of Saudi Arabia. You don't exactly run the place, but you do have the region's chief export on tap. Portland’s public transit system is held up as a model for the country. Per capita carbon emissions are down 26 percent since 1990. Portland consistently tops lists for most bike-friendly city. The city even has an eco-pub.

Susan Anderson.

Of course, you already knew this, thanks to Portlandia. But show creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein should thank sustainability chief Susan Anderson: She's been pushing the city in this direction since the early ’90s. Anderson started off at the energy office and was a key figure in its first climate action plan in 1993. She’s headed the sustainability department since 2000, and now runs the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, the result of the Bureau of Planning merging with the Office of Sustainability in 2009.

“[Sustainability] doesn’t happen by chance,” she says. “There’s all the stuff that some people think of as the mundane side of city planning. But it’s the bones, the framework for allowing so much of this stuff to happen,” she says.

And just like Saudi Arabia's future oil woes, Portland's resources can dry up: The public transportation agency, TriMet, is facing up to $17 million in budget shortfalls next year. Even a place with designated ecodistricts has its challenges.

I talked to Anderson for the latest episode of Knope and change, our series about the women who are leading the charge to green our cities. Here's our edited conversation about how Portland got to where it is today, some of the challenges it faces, and how it really stacks up against the caricature we see on TV.

Q. Your city will now forever be thought of as Portlandia. What’s the biggest mischaracterization in the show?

Read more: Cities, Living


Phish Food for thought: Even Burlington can get greener

Historically sustainable.

Burlington, Vt.: It's the land of socialist senators and Ben & Jerry’s, of Phish and Burton snowboards. So it probably won't surprise you to learn that Vermont's largest city (at a whopping 42,000) is not new to the sustainability game. Residents voted for a $11.3 million bond for energy efficiency in the ’90s and the city has been working on climate change since 1996.

And while the city already has a lot to brag about (like getting around 8 percent of its food from within city limits), sustainability director Jennifer Green says Burlington still has its work cut out for it -- especially if it is going to be prepared for a climate-changed future.

The seventh installment of Knope and Change, our series about the women who are leading the green cities revolution, features an edited conversation with Green about Burlington's city-owned utility, urban farms, and unique approach to sustainability.

Q. Some folks would say, “Hey, this is the land of Cherry Garcia and Bernie Sanders. Why should we care what a liberal utopia like Burlington has to say?”

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy