Going Big to Become Resilient: Austin, TX

One of my favorite sessions of the Greenbuild conference thus far was the last of yesterday afternoon. Entitled “Connecting the Dots in a Big Way @City of Austin” and helmed by Lucia Athens, the Chief Sustainability Officer of the Texas capital city, the presentation summed up exactly why working toward sustainability matters so much. That is because we want and need our communities to still exist and still have fulfilling jobs with livable wages, clean air and water, and places that we want to go for recreation and entertainment when we are gone and our kids and grandkids run things. To ensure we get there, we must THINK BIG!, as I wrote in an enormous font on my notes. Basically, almost everything that a local government does can contribute to building a resilient community, hence the “connect the dots” theme.

The City’s Office of Sustainability has structured the Rethink/Austin plan with ten action areas to ensure Austin will indeed be prosperous and healthy for the long term, the true meaning of the nebulous “sustainable” mantra. Athens emphasized focus on three types of sustainability that each action area requires: economic, environmental, and equitable. As an aside, I also suggest a fourth one, most relevant to our built environment: aesthetic sustainability (or esthetic, if you want to keep the “E” theme going). This is an idea I gleaned from Doug Kelbaugh at the University of Michigan, where he convincingly argued that people will be more likely to want to save things that are visually appealing, that have a sense of beauty. What counts as beautiful is admittedly subjective, but it is tough to argue with some of the basics: open space near where we live, streets that can accommodate people and not just cars, and architecture that is built to last and with local influences are generally what most people want in their communities and will fight to save once it already exists. Happily, Austinites seem to get this, according to Athens.

ImageAnyhow, the plan is carefully tailored to the cultural, environmental, and economic uniqueness that is Austin. For example, the healthy and safety action area includes a component on wildfire safety, a common concern in south Texas. Also, the arts & culture action area is closely tailored to large events that Austin hosts annually: South by Southwest, the Austin City Limits festival, and even Formula 1 racing. These events are reducing their impact on the air, food systems, and traffic impact in collaboration with the City, and out-of-town attendees will soon be able to purchase carbon offsets along with their tickets (Greenbuild itself offered this in 2012, too).

To ensure the sometimes nebulous plan is visually appealing, the City used icons from the (highly recommended) Noun Project. Simple and evocative graphics can go a long way toward grabbing and keeping the attention of residents and other potential stakeholders you want to be involved. And I mention this because I know from experience that not everyone has the time or interest to read through many pages of planning documents to the extent that I do.

Stay tuned to this blog; I’ll be back tomorrow to post some other Greenbuild and San Francisco highlights.

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Rethink/Austin logo courtesy of City of Austin, Texas. Greenbuild/Moscone Center logo photo mine, and snapped harriedly on an iPhone.

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