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.

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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.

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“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.

Add anemic city budgets and the burden of having a new, sometimes politically controversial, position to the mix, and it’s a lot of pressure. As a result, sustainability directors built up a sharing network, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. Members compare notes on what is or isn’t working in their cities, share plans, and even use regional networks to approach utilities or test strategies for communicating with their communities.

After all, when it comes to sustainability in municipal government, “We’re all making it up as we go along,” says long-time Minneapolis Sustainability Director Gayle Prest. The resulting camaraderie, energy, and mutual respect is rare to see in municipal government. Several of the interviewees described meeting Prest at a USDN conference in words and tones typically reserved for describing run-ins with rockstars.

2. To get anything done, you have to tailor your approach to your community.

Prest uses the term “Minnesota nice” to describe her approach to introducing new programs and interacting with her community. Minneapolis’ bikeshare is even named “Nice Ride.” Salt Lake’s Vicki Bennett uses Mormonism’s roots as a sustainable, independent community to break through with religious conservatives. Susanne Torriente, of Fort Lauderdale, plans for rising sea levels by pointing out recent flooding, rather than rehashing the climate change debate in polarized Florida. Lauren Riga argues that sustainability can be an important tool to turn abandoned, apocalyptic Gary, Ind., into a lauded example of urban renewal. Lawrence, Kan., Sustainability Director Eileen Horn uses local sports rivalries to convince otherwise-conservative Kansans to try energy efficiency programs.

3. While cities are carrying the torch on sustainability, they can only go so far.

Austin may have a high hip factor and cool new eco-districts, but if Texas continues to dry up, so will the city’s water supply. San Francisco might be bringing down greenhouse gas emissions and shooting for zero waste by 2020, but it won’t matter much if a good chunk of the city is underwater by the end of the century. And even the greenest cities have a long, long way to go. More on that in a minute.

4. Don’t count out people from small towns.

Some of my favorite interviewees were from smaller cities. I’ll never forget Maggie Ullman, of Asheville, N.C., and the groggy chickens. (A resident called to complain that the brighter, LED streetlights in front of her place were keeping her flock up at night. Ullman talked to the woman’s neighbors and turned that streetlight off.) Or K.C. Poulos and her experiments in trying to create a versatile, storm-resistant electricity grid.

While sustainability directors in major cities manage staffs that can number in the hundreds — especially if they are in charge of the waste department — small city departments are tiny. This means that sustainability directors have to be scrappy and buckle down on a handful of issues that are important to them. Plus, they are automatically closer to their communities. Which brings me to my next major lessons.


1. Read the comments.

There’s a rule that many in online journalism espouse: Don’t read the comments. There’s even a Twitter account by that name that offers justifications for never taking a peek below the fold. Due to the openness of the web, comment sections can brim with racism, sexism, and folks who are the reader equivalent of overzealous Yelp reviewers. Trolls abound. But despite all this, I read the comments. Every one.

When you’re a 25-year-old still struggling to hit her journalistic stride, this can be terrifying. It’s the sort of thing that makes you stumble out of bed at 6 a.m. to make sure you haven’t made a fool of Grist’s good name — and your parents and your editors as well.

But I’m glad I did. While I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, it has shown me the value of an engaged community.

2. There’s always more to learn. 

Take long-time commenter Swells22. Swells (I can call you Swells, right?) commented on many of my pieces. His comments often opened my eyes to an aspect of the city I hadn’t even thought of. After reading my article on Norfolk, Va., and its attempts to fight back sea-level rise, he pointed out that the city is built on marshes and so “no matter how much greenhouse gases are stopped, Norfolk will continue to slip into the mud.”

Many of you weighed in on missing pieces of my coverage. For example, Burlington, Vt.’s sustainability director pointed out the issues that stem from trying to plan public transportation in light of low-vacancy rates and sprawl. Commenter ltf wrote:

One thing I always found disturbing about Vermont, and much of New England, was how using aggressive zoning and permitting processes, all the prime areas with decent economic opportunities were reserved for the affluent and the “riff raff” were relegated to the boondocks with long commutes. The social and environmental costs of these practices offset a lot of their liberalism. Burlington does not ‘struggle’ with a low vacancy rate, they deliberately enacted policies which created it.

3. Even the greenest cities have a long, long way to go.

My praise of Portland, Ore.’s green efforts brought out some locals with stronger expectations for their city. From Nagurski:

If we all dressed in repurposed burlap coffee bags and stood outside our houses to pass groceries and other stuff to our neighbors bucket-brigade style instead of all of this wasteful traveling, we’d have hardly any impact on the planet! I get pretty sick of hearing how cool we are while we cut bus routes and build streetcar lines costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but travel at walking speed.

And hmnpwr:

This is truly a tallest midget contest. Perhaps we should call PDX the least unsustainable U.S. city. … Because of the abundant hydroelectric resources in the Pacific Northwest, the single largest contributor to climate change in this region is personal automobile use. If PDX can’t do any better than the rest of the nation does, then it should be ashamed. Some leader.

Snarkist sums it up succinctly:

Its not that we are so great, we just suck a little less than everyone else.


In doing these interviews, I sometimes ended up feeling a bit too much like a self-aware version of Parks and Recreation‘s Perd Hapley:

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But as Leslie Knope shows us, doing your job well means knowing your community. It means listening to feedback and not letting yourself make excuses.

Knope describes feedback in heated open meetings as “People caring loudly at me.” And it’s true: You learn from your community, even when it stings. That goes for the women who are leading the movement toward more sustainable cities — and those of us who write about them as well.

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