Southern sustainability: Asheville’s Maggie Ullman says her city is greener than you think
Maggie Ullman takes an ecological approach to bureaucracy. “Everyone complains about silos in government, but it’s just like talking about monocropping,” she says. “If we cross-pollinate more and have richer diversity of thought and experience, we are going to have a more vibrant ecosystem.”
Ullman, 28, manages the office of sustainability in Asheville, N.C., a progressive city of 85,000 in the southern Appalachians. For episode 3 of Knope and Change, a series about the women working to make our cities more sustainable, I caught up with Ullman to chat about small-city government, groggy chickens, and what Coca Cola can teach us about getting people to go green.
Q. Your Twitter bio says, “I think government can be cool. I think sustainability is cooler. I think sustainable government is coolest.”
A. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I really believe in the democracy of local government. Having a community of people who have access to their elected officials is so powerful. It dispels the myth that government is evil and unwilling to work with you. All of my colleagues are just other citizens who have different perspectives and passions. I feel like my job is one of the most powerful ways to be a change agent in my community.
Q. How is being a sustainability director in the South different from working in, say, San Francisco?
A. People really discredit the South. Being from the Philadelphia area, I still hear very antiquated and dated comments about the South. My sister will sometimes say, “Do they issue you overalls when you move to Appalachia?” Come on. Do they issue you sunglasses when you move to L.A.? The Deep South has a lot of opportunity. It’s fun getting to do this work in places where we’re still figuring it out. I’m so excited to see where the South is in 20 years. I think the reputation for sustainability won’t lie on just the West Coast anymore.
Q. Tell me about Asheville.
A. Asheville is a great little city. We’re surrounded by the biggest mountains east of the Mississippi and we get a lot of outdoors tourism. Lots of new folks have been migrating in. Just in the last 10 years, we grew by 15,000 people. We have lots of folks who come here and say, “Look, the life I want is being a river guide and waiting tables.” It’s not necessarily the typical American career track conversation. We have 15 local breweries and were voted Beer City USA. We competed neck to neck with Portland for years and totally blew them out of the water.
Q. What’s your biggest project to date?
A. We are in the process of switching all of our streetlights to LEDs. The program gave us a huge carbon footprint reduction and we developed a model where the savings pay entirely for the reinvestment and then some.
Anyone who works in the energy field quickly hears about the idea of using savings to pay for investment. It’s not a new idea. The reality is that it’s hard to design in practice. We are one of the handful of municipalities who have been able to successfully do this.
When all is said and done, we will have spent just under $2 million on the investment. Once they are all changed out, which will be in about six months, we will have reduced our carbon footprint 5 percent and we will be saving $450,000 a year in our streetlight operating budget. [We’re using the savings to hire] two full-time people and funding a series of other energy efficiency projects on public buildings.
Q. How has Asheville received the change?
A. The new streetlights feel a lot brighter because the old lights were very dim. A typical call goes something like this, “Calling about a streetlight they just changed in front of my house. I’m really excited about the energy savings. Thank you so much for doing that. But it’s too bright.”
The best call was from a woman who was very concerned about her chickens not being able to sleep because it was too bright in her front yard. There were enough streetlights on her street and her neighbors agreed that they were sufficient. We took down the streetlight and her chickens went back to bed.
Q. Phone calls about groggy chickens. I haven’t heard about anything like that before. How else is working in a small city unique?
A. With a smaller resource pool, we provide less services. So what does that mean? It means when a [trend] hits communities across the country, such as local food, many cities have gone ahead and hired local food coordinators and started local food programs. But in a smaller community like ours, we can’t expand and contract our services as readily. Sometimes I have to say, “Unless you want to cut a whole fire station, we can’t start that new program.” It’s less about providing new programs and projects and more about transforming the services we already deliver.
Q. You’re involved in the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. What have you guys been up to?
A. I’m on the planning committee. We’ve recently started to prioritize regional networks. It’s so powerful when local governments can work together and align our goals. When you put together 10 North Carolina sustainability directors, you’re talking millions of North Carolinians who are represented in these goals. Suddenly when we talk to utility companies, like with the streetlight project, it’s a very different conversation.
We are doing a multi-city program right now where we are testing a social marketing message about laundry. We wanted to understand why people don’t use cold water. With old-school outreach, we assumed we knew why people weren’t doing something and we told them what to do in brochures. This time, we just asked them, “What’s up? Why don’t you do this?” We did a series of focus groups to understand behaviors, perceptions, and knowledge.
One interesting perspective that kept popping up was about health. People said, “Hot water is the most effective way to kill germs and bacteria on clothes.” Folks said, “My doctors told me that you should always wash your clothes in hot water.” Well, we can do the research and show that’s not necessarily the case. If you’re in high flu season and have four kids, maybe that’s the time to use hot water. But you don’t need to in your everyday life. I would have never thought of that.
Q. Talking to people about their perceptions seems so straightforward and yet …
A. Right? Coca Cola doesn’t guess what people want when they are developing a new flavor. [This new approach is about] adopting some of the better business practices and using it to change your community for the better.
Q. You started this position when you were 23. Do you have any advice for young women who are passionate about sustainability?
A. The best solution is when everyone wins. That sounds so simple, but you should really take the time to learn what other people’s goals are. Figure out how to green those goals or integrate your goals into theirs. Those people then become your partners. It’s no longer this adversary/ally game. That’s the worst trap — when we turn into just building allies all the time.
This isn’t war. These are our lives. These are our neighborhoods.