It's Not Easy Being Green
The city's Office of Sustainability is still trying to find a sustainable mission
Lucia Athens is the City of Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer. Hired in 2010, Athens became the official shepherd of the city's green image – a valuable asset for Austin's self-image, and a burgeoning economic driver of other things green. She inherited a pile of good intentions and such programs as the ambitious Climate Protection Program, the Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan, and the plastic bag ban, as well as other departments already working their respective sustainability angles.
In the harshest terms, the subsequent narrative goes like this: The city's sustainability efforts rest primarily upon a foundation provided by the Climate Protection Program. But beyond that meritorious ambition stand much less successful programs – like the city's complicated effort to green its vehicle fleet.
More generally, as currently practiced by our civic honchos, the idea of "sustainability" remains such an amorphous, evolving blob that it's very hard to determine or confirm any demonstrable benefits offered by the $1.38 million budget of the Office of Sustainability. With no single bottom-line standard as a measure of success – nor any real authority to push departments toward sustainability – Athens has found herself overloaded with the ambitions of administrations past, the uncompromising demands of a vocal environmental community, and little means to demonstrate to skeptical City Council members that she's accomplished anything.
Still, there is undoubtedly value in Austin's image as a sustainable place. "I think our reputation and our quality of life is a key attractor for businesses that are coming here," says Athens. "A lot of the businesses that have come here – we have a lot of high-tech, we have a lot of businesses that their value is really based on the intellectual capital within their company, so the kinds of creative people that they are relying on ... [are] attracted to communities like Austin." By "sustainability" the city means a three-part standard – "a balance," according to city PR materials, "among three sets of goals: 1) prosperity and jobs; 2) conservation and the environment; and 3) community health, equity, and cultural vitality." Together, these are meant to constitute not just a set of abstract values, but a set of common principles in action.
In Austin, sustainability's nuts and bolts begin with the Climate Protection Program, with roots that go back more than a decade. Council formalized the idea in 2007 as the Austin Climate Protection Plan. Former Chronicle reporter Katherine Gregor – who now works for the city's Sustainability Office – offered a summation in the Dec. 7, 2007 issue: "At the ACPP's February launch, it was clear that achieving the milestone goals – set for 2012 to 2020 – would be a marathon project. The Municipal Plan alone requires a wholesale re-examination of how every city department thinks, operates, and does business, in order to realize the maximum possible reductions in the city's carbon footprint."
From the beginning it was a daunting mission; a "wholesale re-examination" takes time. But it also takes authority – the power to corral the city's department heads and push for broad changes; the power to move freely through a bureaucracy; the power that only comes with across the board buy-in (a true civic rarity), some real iron-fistedness, intimate knowledge of and access to city leaders – or some kind of combination of all those elements.
As a major consumer of fossil fuels, Austin Energy played a major role in the ACPP implementation. Roger Duncan was named utility General Manager in 2008. As a former Council member and long-time Austin politico, Duncan had the experience, the contacts, and the skill set to run that kind of program. He wasn't a stranger to Council offices. He knew the right strings to pull. But Duncan retired from AE in 2010. Two months later, Assistant City Manager Robert Goode – temporarily filling in as the Austin Energy GM – presented the utility's Climate Protection Plan, the centerpiece of the climate protection program, to Council. The plan was an outgrowth of the 2007 program, and it was just as ambitious: that the utility would generate 35% of its electricity via renewable resources by 2020.
By September of that year, Athens was hired, and almost immediately absorbed the ACPP as part of her Office of Sustainability. In an important – if bureaucratic – note, her office reported to City Manager Marc Ott. The city's sustainability efforts would now all run through him.
Show Us Results
On Dec. 6, 2012, Athens delivered an update to City Council on her then two-year-old Office of Sustainability. Whispers about the efficacy – or lack thereof – of her office had preceded her appearance. Athens attempted to walk everyone through the full picture: what her office, and by extension, she, had been doing since 2010. She offered Council members a memorable visual: a slide full of dots standing for the myriad sustainability programs currently underway throughout all city departments. Yet many of those dots signified efforts managed by other offices, programs that predated her hiring, or both. To illustrate her role, Athens put those dots inside a cylinder. "A big part of my job has been getting my arms around all of the things that we are doing across the entire city organization – all departments, all 12,000 staff," she said. "Just because we have an Office of Sustainability, obviously that's not all being delivered by a small office."
Following Athens' presentation, Council Members Bill Spelman and Chris Riley had a few questions. Riley asked for metrics that might illustrate progress in involving the community in sustainability. Spelman broadened the line of Riley's questions. He pointed to the slides of Athens' presentation. "It occurs to me that if somebody looks at [these] they are going to say 'Wow, look at all of the great things that the city of Austin is doing.'" Spelman offered. "And that's fine, but what I'd really like to elicit from folks is, 'Wow, look at all the great results the city of Austin is getting.'"
Athens told Riley that it was difficult to design performance metrics for community engagement, but that she and her colleagues were working with UT-Austin on measuring the potential impact of the implementation of all of the city's sustainability plans, and what effects that might have on the city's overall carbon neutrality. To Spelman, she said simply: "Excellent point. Couldn't agree with you more."
There were more questions, but as a whole they merged roughly into one: As the director for the organization charged with a key city mission, we're wondering – what is it that you do?
It remains a question that reverberates around the second floor at City Hall. "We certainly haven't received any hard metrics," Spelman, the Council's resident data hound, told the Chronicle. "I think it's great to have a visionary person as the head of the department, but we also need to back up the vision with some clear evidence that we're accomplishing something of value."
In partial response, Athens points to cost-benefit analyses done on the Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan, and "a cost-benefit analysis for a proposed policy to eliminate all desktop printers, and convert the city to 100% multi-function networked printers." Broader metrics may be more difficult. "Cost-benefit analysis is more difficult to apply to more complex projects or programs, that may have far-reaching or long-term impacts that are difficult to quantify in a simple cost-benefit analysis," Athens continued via email. "These might include factors such as health impacts due to improved air quality, or long-term financial as well as environmental benefits for investment in a compact, connected city. Many of these long-term or embedded issues are often referred to as 'externalities' and would require more intensive study using something referred to as a Life Cycle Cost Analysis. This is much more difficult than the simpler cost-benefit analysis referenced above. This is not something our office has undertaken as yet."
Athens adds that such an examination may be coming: "[W]e just helped get a federal grant with CAMPO that will help us assess the vulnerability of transportation infrastructure to climate change," she wrote. "A life-cycle analysis could potentially be applied to this area, but it's too soon to know exactly how the grant will be spent."
For his part, City Manager Ott insists that some portion of what Athens does may never translate into hard data. "The value proposition associated with that office, and the mission that it has, is more complex than just the quantitative notion of cost-benefit," he told the Chronicle.
Spreading the Word?
Whether or not the office can show adequate metrics, it's clear that Athens and her team have struggled in getting the word out to the wider environmental community – the folks that should be her strongest allies – about what it is that she and her department are up to. On a recent Thursday, Sierra Club Vice Chair Roy Waley and environmental engineer Lauren Ross were waiting their turn to address Council members on the lingering issue of the city's project duration ordinance.
"If I knew someone that knew something about that office, I'd send 'em your way," Waley told me. He turned to Ross. "What do you know about the Office of Sustainability?"
"The Office of Sustainability – well, they were here earlier today. Lucia Athens is the head," Ross said.
"Yeah, but what were they doing?" asked Waley.
"I don't know," replied Ross.
"No one does," Waley fired back. "That's [the] problem. ... What do they actually do? They've been moved from one place to another to another, and what have they actually done?"
"Nothing that I know of," said Ross.
"I helped them hang up some signs for a Great Streets event one time. So I know they hang signs up," concludes Waley. "But I don't know if they take 'em down and reuse them."
Wherever the fault lies, this lack of successful outreach is a clear problem for Athens and the Office of Sustainability. Paula McDermott is the chair of the regional Sustainable Food Policy Board. By name alone, one would presume that McDermott and her city-side colleagues would fall under – or at least within the purview of – Athens' office. In fact, they reside in a division of the Parks Department, under the supervision of the same guy who watches over the park rangers. This bureaucratic oddity is a remnant, because what amounts to the city's sustainable food policy program grew out of – and remains severely limited by – its beginnings as a community gardens program. It has never truly migrated to Sustainability.
McDermott acknowledges that she is not the best source on Athens or her work – simply because they haven't worked all that closely. And she notes that Athens has been supportive of the board. Still, she offers some thoughts about Athens and her office – in so far as she can. "We're still trying to understand their role," she says.
Similarly, Paul Robbins, the city's self-designated-and-overloaded citizen advocate for all things utility, should also know something about the city's Office of Sustainability. Robbins used to work for the city department – alongside Athens – that was something of a precursor to the Office of Sustainability. And Austin Energy – with Austin Water one of Robbins' two major preoccupations – is responsible both for what is certainly one of the larger obstacles to environmental sustainability – the Fayette coal plant – and the pending solution to that problem: the Climate Protection Program.
Robbins says he "honestly [doesn't] know what they are doing."
Athens herself notes that community engagement is indispensable for her program. "[A]nother challenge we face is mobilizing everyone in our community to become a part of the solution and to take action," she says. "We can't just expect government to solve all our problems for us. Granted, government has a key role to play. But we have to work together. It is going to take the creativity and ingenuity of people from all walks of life, to forge solutions to the challenges ahead and ensure the continuation of the current wonderful quality of life we enjoy here in Austin, the beloved city we call Home."
The Limits of Neutrality
The lack of public awareness contributes as well to a widespread misunderstanding of the three-pronged, triple bottom line repeatedly emphasized as sustainability's central principles. There is no better example of this dynamic than the ongoing struggle to incorporate alternative fuels into the city's vehicle fleet. It's a complex problem. The city, of course, uses a wide variety of vehicles to fill the service needs of its personnel; not all of those needs can be met with hybrids or ethanol-fueled automobiles. The Austin Police Department, for example, presents a particular and large challenge, and APD managers insist that alternative fuels cannot fulfill the mission requirements of patrol cars.
Still, in 2007, Council members approved a directive, as part of the ACPP, instructing then-City Manager Toby Futrell to achieve fleet "carbon neutrality" by 2020. By May 2010, the Office of the City Auditor had already issued a critical audit that included two recommendations: "centralize alternative fuel policy and enforcement, and produce a comprehensive plan to bring the city's fleet to carbon neutrality by 2020."
In January, Athens was in front of the Council's Audit and Finance Subcommittee to answer questions about that project. She had inherited the program, its goals, and its issues – including questions about whether ethanol is really an environmentally suitable alternative fuel. She was now at least partially responsible for the program's success (or failure), even if she does not have the authority to direct the head of the city's fleet department, Gerry Calk, on the matter.
Charged as she is with shepherding citywide sustainability progress, Athens had to answer for what was now clearly – given the ambitions of 2007 – a policy shortfall. A 2012 audit found that, though use of alternative fuels by city vehicles was growing, it was still far below the 80% line for dual-fuel vehicles mandated by what became the 2020 Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan (penned under Athens' authority).
Athens found herself in a curious position: defending a more conservative approach to sustainability. "We are very excited about the policy direction that Council has set for us to achieve a carbon neutral fleet by 2020," she said. "It's an ambitious goal, but really admirable. We are up to meeting it, and working diligently on meeting it, but it's not something that is common practice. ... We don't have models to follow. It is a constantly moving target with advances in technology and changing costs.
"I think we're doing a good job of working towards that, but it is a process that we're going to have to adjust as we go," she continued. "We're learning as we go."
Later, she reminded the Chronicle that green-as-possible doesn't always coincide with the overall mission of sustainability. "Sustainability itself is defined as finding an appropriate balance among environmental issues, cost and economic issues, and social equity and community issues."
In an email following a lengthy interview at her City Hall office, Athens returned to the subject of the Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan. "As I expressed recently to the Audit and Finance [Subcommittee], this is a very ambitious goal. Indeed, according to a study done by the Carbon Disclosure Project, Austin's government operations emissions reduction target is among the most ambitious in the world, with the City of Melbourne being the other city with the same aggressive goal," she wrote. "This is a very exciting goal to be working towards, and it is this kind of visionary thinking that makes Austin a green leader, as well [as] a place that attracted me to take on the position of Chief Sustainability Officer. I love this stuff, it's what gets me up in the morning! However, no one yet, as far as I know, has achieved this goal. There are few models to follow, and we are working hard to find practical ways to meet the goal without 'breaking the bank.' The lessons we learn as we strive to get there will provide models for other cities following our lead. It is worthy work to be doing, and I am thrilled to be helping to lead the charge for Austin. However, let's not kid ourselves by telling ourselves this is going to be easy."
Wish Upon a STAR
That concept – of the difficulty of achieving sustainability – may also be the toughest sell for Athens. After all, as the Chief Sustainability Officer of a city whose green reputation nets it cultural cachet, press, and jobs, it's not exactly easy serving as the voice of caution, a role that Athens seems to find herself playing at least some of the time. That goes especially when you are applying said caution to the image you've been hired to promote, one so central to the city's identity.
Many of the troubles associated with the most recent version of official Austin sustainability go back to its origin story – or at least the origin story recalled by Paul Robbins. Robbins takes credit for the idea that eventually led to a Chief Sustainability Officer. "The Sustainability Office, in one sense, was entirely my idea, but it evolved for a different reason," he says. In the run-up for the May 2009 election*, Robbins and a group of environmentalists were sitting around a table coming up with questions for an environmentally focused candidate forum. Robbins says he brought up the idea of a need for an independent environmental office – "the way things used to be in the Nineties," he says, referring to the city's former Planning, Environmental, and Conservation Services Department. It was an independent entity within the city structure that corralled portions of Austin's energy, water, land development review, and solid waste departments into one, presustainability fiefdom. Roger Duncan was its director, but it disappeared in the late Nineties.
Robbins says the issue became a candidate question; then it became a campaign promise; the next year, in the person of Athens, a reality. But apparently not the reality Robbins envisioned. "After the election, it morphed from a Sustainability [Department] to a Sustainability Officer." The difference can be structurally important; a department carries with it Robbins' implication of independent watch-doggedness, and the theoretical power that goes with it. As it turned out, the Sustainability Officer, Athens, was attached directly to City Manager Marc Ott's office, under the authority of Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards, in principle as a peer to department heads. And Robbins says that when he asked Athens to take on the mission of water conservation – what Robbins calls the prime motivator in his drive to create the new officer – Athens had "no desire" to adopt that program.
Athens says she thinks direct adoption would have been counterproductive. "I strongly believe that conservation-oriented programs should be organizationally aligned within the same departments where their focus lies," she explained. "Water conservation programs should be within water utilities, energy conservation programs should be located within energy utilities, etc. Removing such programs from the rest of the organization sends a message that conservation has nothing to do with service delivery." But she added that her office still monitors conservation progress. "Water conservation and long-term security of our water supply is a key component of the Sustainability Action Agenda, and a key area of concern for the Office of Sustainability. We communicate and coordinate with Austin Water Utility regularly, and track their sustainability-related activities, just as we do for many other departments."
With the sustainability concept crossing so many departmental lines, it could be viewed as essential for Athens to have the authority to push department heads when she faces resistance – as in the case of the Carbon Neutral Fleet Plan. But she doesn't have that authority, so it's up to her superiors to wield it.
I asked Athens if her bosses provide sufficient authority to push for what she believes needs to be done. She paused briefly before answering. "I think that we have a tremendous asset in the department directors that we have leading the enterprise departments – all the different departments," she said. "There is a tremendous spirit of collaboration, I think, within city government here and an openness to talking about new ideas. I think part of the key, though, is my office does not have all of the answers. A lot of these departments, they're innovating on their own, without necessarily even coming to talk to my office. So all of this doesn't have to flow through us."
That raises the corollary question: If the departments are capable of achieving sustainability on their own, does the city even need a Sustainability Office? Council Member Riley, caught between meetings, offered a quick, "Yes, the city needs a Sustainability Office" as he flew out his office door. Spelman wouldn't comment for the record.
Edwards argues that Athens' managerial placement makes sense. "The City Manager made a very conscious choice in locating the Office of Sustainability within the City Manager's Office," she wrote in an email. "This sends a clear signal that the sustainability mission comes from the top. The Office of Sustainability collaborates with each department, finding creative ways to integrate sustainability practices into their respective service models. As a result, each department works individually towards the common goal of advancing the City's sustainability mission. The role of the Sustainability Office is to be the central point of coordination for those efforts." Edwards adds encouragingly, "In the short time that the Office of Sustainability has existed, it has been quite successful." Yet some on City Hall's second floor continue to wonder why Athens doesn't offer more frequent updates to Council about the office's progress. The community at large, it appears, could also benefit from a better picture of what, exactly, is going on in Sustainability.
Meanwhile, everyone could soon get the sort of measurement they're looking for: Athens will apply the STAR Community Index (Sustainability Tools for Assessing and Rating Communities, a voluntary matrix for rating sustainability efforts) to the city's Sustainability Program. It's "still in its early stages," Athens said, "but part of the desire with the STAR Index was to create a common benchmarking tool, kind of like LEED did for building, so that you could compare yourself to how other projects and in this case how other cities were doing. ... Once that's really up and running, I think that's going to provide a tool for cities to compare themselves to one another."
Riley provided a positive spin for the cost-benefit analysis question. "I think at some point we need to step back and take a look at the program and see whether the benefits we're getting from the office could justify greater investment – and that may well be the case; I don't know at this point," he said. "There are so many city interests at stake in sustainability issues; there may well be a good reason to expand the office. We can't do that without having a good handle on exactly what we're getting out of it, and I'm not sure we're at that point yet." The eventual implication, however, could also be that the program could require less.
"The time we generally look at each office and look at performance measures is budget season," Riley says. Budget season, which is gearing up in a few weeks, is also the annual moment when Riley and his colleagues get set to redistribute city funds. One question they will certainly be asking themselves: How sustainable is the Office of Sustainability?
*In the run-up to the May 2009 elections [date corrected from original version]
GRAPH SOURCE: Office of City Auditor analysis of data provided by Fleet Services (unaudited) in January 2013