THE THINGS I LEARNED FROM [SUSTY-WOMEN]
1.When you’re building a new field, you need all the help you can get.
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.
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…