From Vision to Viable Policy
Making Sustainability Personal with Lucia Athens, author of The Sustainability Revolutionists
April 26, 2023
Terry sits down with author and sustainability leader, Lucia Athens, who spent 10 years leading Seattle’s Green Building program, and recently retired following over a decade of service as the city of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. Terry and Lucia discuss the details of climate-positive policy on a local, state, and national scale, as well as the release of her latest book, The Sustainability Revolutionists.
Learn More About Guest Lucia Athens
Lucia Athens is the author of several books about sustainability, and served as the City of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer for 12 years.
Lucia’s new book, The Sustainability Revolutionists: Heroes and Hope for Our Planet's Future, is available for order on Amazon or through Austin bookseller, Book People.
Terry Phelan: Welcome to the living shelter Podcast where we explore ways to create healthy, energy efficient and joyful places to live. I’m your host Terry Phelan, a Pacific Northwest native and an architect with over 30 years’ experience designing with a focus on sustainable options.
Our goal at Living Shelter is to help you expand your toolkit, so you can help build a resilient future that includes comfortable and sustainable places for all of us to live. Our guests share their years of experience in one or more of the many facets of the green and natural building industries, with topics from material choices for health and wellness, to energy efficiency and regenerative, site design, and some big picture ideas from thought leaders we think you’ll find inspiring.
In this episode of Living Shelter, we’re going to talk with Lucia Athens, one of the West’s leading voices on sustainable buildings and urban design. Lucia has spent 10 years leading the City of Seattle’s Green Building program in the early aughts and then became the City of Austin, Texas’ first Chief Sustainability Officer. She served on the board of directors for the US Green Building Council, Green Business Certification Institute, and Portland-based EcoDistricts. She has collaborated on projects with Evergreen State College, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and US Global Green.
Lucia is also the author of two books, Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies and Programs, and most recently, The Sustainability Revolutionists: Heroes and Hope for our Planet’s Future. She describes herself as a spark plug for positive change, and a practical idealist.
Welcome to the program, Lucia.
Lucia Athens: Thank you, Terry, great to be here with you today.
Terry Phelan: So, I love that you describe yourself as a practical idealist. I think that’s a term that many of us can relate to. But what does it mean to you? And, how has that viewpoint supported your work?
Lucia Athens: Well, I’m glad you asked that. I mean, it’s a bit of an oxymoron, right? Somebody who’s totally practical and somebody who’s totally idealistic may seem like they’re complete opposites. But…
Terry Phelan: It’s balanced. It’s all balanced.
Lucia Athens: It’s finding that happy medium, right? And for me, I have to be an idealist in the sense that I want to always have that vision of, you know, what is the kind of world I want to live in, and create, and the kind of world that I live in now that I want to continue? So, where am I going? What is the destination I’m trying to get to, and that’s the idealistic part of me, and always believing that, that all things are possible, and that somehow, we can get there. If we put our shoulder into it.
The practical part is kind of applying this way of thinking to what’s right in front of us, right? So how can I make a difference in something I actually have some influence over, people I have influence over, organizations, situations, projects, building projects, whatever kind of projects they are. So, kind of bringing, bringing the global down to the local, and actually trying to find solutions that are doable now. And if we are too idealistic, and we want something so perfect, it’s kind of like that saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. We’ve probably all heard that before. And so, I often find myself in situations where now I can’t have what’s perfect, but you know what, I can have something that’s pretty darn good, and is moving me in the direction of the perfect, and moving me in the direction of the ideal.
So that’s, that’s been the way I’ve approached most of my career in green building, working on, you know, projects that have budgets and deadlines. And you know, people that maybe are not quite on board, and I’m trying to cajole them and in many instances using what I would call a charm offensive to get moving in the right direction.
Terry Phelan: I like that. So, I find myself — I’m thought of as an idealist a lot of the time, and I can be distracted by that. I, you know, thinking, missing things that need attention. But I think the idea of being practical and idealistic is as important for the hard work that we have to do. And trying to change, change climate change, reverse climate change? I mean, that’s bigger than any of us. We have to be able to work within a framework that supports real change, and yet doesn’t, doesn’t depress us along the way. And that exactly, that can be hard for some people.
Lucia Athens: Yeah, finding that, finding that, once again, that balance in the middle, where you can see how urgent and huge the problems are that we need to tackle. We shouldn’t be putting our head in the sand about that. But if that’s all you can see, it can be debilitating and demotivating, right? So, we need to balance that with also embracing our capacity to solve the problem.
And, sometimes I feel like with the amount of information we get all the time now about climate change, which is great that it’s so much in the in the dialogue and the conversation, but I feel like there’s a massive amount of, kind of, societal and individual guilt around that.
Terry Phelan: Yeah.
Lucia Athens: Which can really be paralyzing because we feel bad, you know, and we feel bad about what we’ve “unintendedly” done. I think, you know, nobody set out to create climate change. Nobody thought when the Industrial Revolution was taking off that, you know, we were going to be changing the entire global climate in a disruptive and very negative way. We didn’t plan for that. But it was an unintended consequence. So, I feel like that guilt is something we really need to try to release. Because feeling guilty all the time, you know, is not going to be very motivating to get out there and solve the problems.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, well, and if you push people towards making the change, they resist, and I think they resist out of, I think guilt has something to do with that, fear has something to do with that, but if you can guide them towards information, and then let them make up their own minds, I think that can be more powerful in many ways.
Lucia Athens: Well, and a lot of the right decisions are becoming much more economic, so that we can actually make the best economic decision at the same time as we’re making the best sustainability decisions.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, yeah.
Lucia Athens: When all that comes together, there’s no question what we ought to be doing.
Terry Phelan: Right. Right. And with codes, changing the support, the things that need to happen, that also puts it to a place that there, there aren’t as many bad choices available to make, or that are illegal to make. I know that you’ve been working on climate policy for a long time. And how far do you think we’ve gotten from where we need to go?
Lucia Athens: Good question. Well, there’s obviously a lot more that needs to be done. But my career has been very much in the municipal city government sector, first in Seattle, as you were saying, and then, you know, here in Austin, and so that’s where a lot of the action’s been happening and is continuing to happen. Yes, there’s stuff happening at the federal level, also, especially with our current administration, here in the United States. But for quite some time, you know, cities have been incredible actors in making strategic moves and investments to help us with climate change. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
We’re really beginning to get our arms around all this and have a much better idea of what needs to be done. All of those things are not yet economically viable, or, you know, policy requirements. But I was involved for quite a few years through my job with City of Austin with a a global network of mayors from cities that are doing a lot of work on climate change. And, it was very heartening to see how much progress was being made, how much innovation was being supported. And, this organization called the Global C40. It was originally the 40 largest cities in the world working on climate change, and it’s since expanded to many other cities as well, but, just from my personal experience, when I first started going to those meetings, it was all staff giving all the presentations and the mayors were kind of sitting on the sidelines very quietly because I don’t think they really knew what to say. And, in the last meeting I went to, was last year in Copenhagen, and the mayors are giving all the presentations, the mayors are on fire. They’re very articulate, they know what’s going on with climate change, and they know what needs to be done. And they’re sharing all of their best practices information. They’re kind of in a race to the top. And that competitiveness between elected officials is actually very useful for this. So yes, lots more to be done. But I am very heartened by, you know, how much shift I’ve seen just in the last 10 years.
Terry Phelan: That’s wonderful because sometimes we, I feel like cities like Seattle and Austin are in this bubble of, you know, progressive thought. And, you know, what’s happening in the Midwest? What’s happening in the South? Are there shifts that are visible there, as well? Because I mean, we got to get into all corners, right? So, are you seeing some of these mayors come from areas that are more traditionally thought of as conservative?
Lucia Athens: Yes, I would say that’s true. And also, there are hundreds of Chief Sustainability Officers across the United States and across the world working on these issues, working towards sustainable communities, combating climate change, equity issues, climate resilience. So, I think that, you know, small cities as well as larger cities, and cities, there isn’t a state you could point to, that isn’t doing some work in this area.
Terry Phelan: That’s wonderful. That’s really good. Good news to have and to share. I know you just recently retired from your position as Chief Sustainability Officer at the City of Austin,
Lucia Athens: I did.
Terry Phelan: Are you still going to be working on your own in forwarding this movement? Or, are you…
Lucia Athens: Absolutely.
Terry Phelan: Oh, good to hear.
Lucia Athens: This runs through my veins. In a way that I could never stop. Thank you for asking. But yes, I absolutely will be continuing the work, public speaking, a little bit of consulting, volunteering with different organizations, both locally, but also, hopefully, you know, more national and international level. I’m on, I have been on an advisory group for the lead for cities and communities tool, which is just beginning to wrap up, but I’ll be continuing to kind of track that and promote the LEED for Cities and Communities tool. I’m also a co-chair of an advisory group for the Well rating system that’s also kind of focused on wellness and health for cities. So yes, I’ll definitely be continuing the work. And part of that work is also through my writing. And I haven’t figured out what my next book is going to be; right now I’m just kind of trying to try to promote the two books that I have in hand, but I will be continuing to write and blog and push in any way that’s available to me.
Terry Phelan: That’s great. That’s really good to hear. We need your voice and your energy. So, what do you think is next on the policy front? Do you see anything looming that that is, like, bubbling up?
Lucia Athens: One of the exciting areas that’s kind of coming into the fore more in policy is around equity and diversity and inclusion, and we’re seeing a whole layer of that being added to the Federal Inflation Reduction Act, dollars that have rolled out to cities. So, there’s a lot more thoughtfulness going into how we make sure that no one is left behind as we’re tackling climate change and getting into sustainability. So that’s really exciting to see.
I think also, you know, we have a lot of work to do on the policy front around energy. There has been good progress made. But. you know, in some of the more conservative states you mentioned earlier, and oil and gas states like the one I’m in, Texas, there’s a lot of resistance to renewable energy policy. So, even though we have really good wind production and solar here in Texas, we have seen a move at the state legislature to prevent us from requiring building electrification. So, that’s partly because we’re an oil and gas state, they don’t want people getting off of natural gas here. So, there’s a lot to be done around that.
I think there’s some really exciting policy movement happening in the transportation sector around electric vehicles, so much activity there as that whole industry, you know, really, we’re seeing it blow up with all the different vehicles, we’ve got a lot of infrastructure to build out so that we have the recharging infrastructure available, you know, to actually support all those electric vehicles on the road. So, I think those are really exciting areas.
And one last one, I think I’d mentioned is just, kind of, a circling back to a focus on natural systems, and green infrastructure, and parks. Our state legislature here is considering a big funding package for open space and parks. And so, I think it’s important to just mention those things because they’re related to climate change. I mean, they create these amazing, amazing carbon sinks, they help us, natural systems help us with, you know, tempering our urban heat islands and absorbing flooding and a lot of the adverse impacts of climate change and extreme weather. And also, we’ve learned during the pandemic, I think, very clearly, how important those outdoor areas were for our health and that we needed to make sure everybody has access. So, a lot more funding coming through and lot more attention at the same time on natural systems.
Terry Phelan: You’re listening to the Living Shelter podcast. I’m your host Terry Phelan and I’m talking with Lucia Athens. The recently retired Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Austin, and the author of Sustainability Revolutionists. Lucia, let’s talk about your latest book, The Sustainability Revolutionists. Why did you decide to write this?
Lucia Athens: I’m glad you asked, Terry, because it’s definitely been a labor of love. Took me seven years to get this book done.
Terry Phelan: Oh my God.
Lucia Athens: There had to be some good reason. But you know, one of the things in my work over 30 years now working in the sustainability field, one of the things I started noticing over the last 10 years is that we were not making the kind of progress I was hoping we were going to make partly because what I saw happening is people coming around a table, and we all said, “We’re interested in sustainability.” But it turned out, we really weren’t talking about the same thing.
And so, there was a lot of confusion about what it really means. And then I realized that the triple bottom line are the three pillars of sustainability, as I like to refer to them: environment, economy, and society. I started realizing that most people come at sustainability primarily from one of those: they’re either all about environmental issues, or they’re about community and social issues. Or they’re more about, kind of, the economics of all this. And then we get around a table and we find out we don’t really care about the same things at all. It makes it hard to work together.
Terry Phelan: Yeah!
Lucia Athens: So, and, I found this very clearly in an experience I had working here at the City of Austin when we revised our urban farm ordinance, and we had people from the urban farming community on one side of the fence and the people from the social justice community on the other side of the fence, and they were just enemies. And they were not collaborating. And I was a little bit shocked at first, but then, you know, I realized they’re just, they want different things, the social justice people wanted affordable housing, they didn’t want farms in their neighborhoods.
Terry Phelan: They didn’t care about fresh food?
Lucia Athens: Well, they just didn’t want it to be grown on their streets. They wanted it somewhere else. So, all that to say, that was kind of why I decided to write a book that attempts to educate people in kind of a different way about what sustainability really means. And that unpacks the three pillars in a way that really kind of addresses: what are the core values underlying each of the pillars that those people that might be the champions really care about? What are they looking for? And of course, always reminding ourselves that we need to address all three of the pillars simultaneously, if we’re really going to achieve sustainability. That’s not always easy.
Terry Phelan: Right.
Lucia Athens: But you know, that was really was the motivation for the book. And then I decided to use storytelling as a vehicle, as a teaching tool in the book, because I love stories. I remember stories that, you know, my college professors told me, and I may not remember anything else from their classes, but I remember the stories they told. And also, nonfiction can be kind of tough at times, because it can be very dry. I can’t tell you how many nonfiction books I’ve picked up and started and ran out of steam and never finished.
Terry Phelan: Oh, me, too. I’m with you on that I have a hard time. And there’s so many really good ones with lots of great information and thought-provoking ideas. But, you gotta have a story to catch my attention and I’m sure there are a lot of people like that.
Lucia Athens: Yeah, and this, this genre, narrative nonfiction, as it’s called, which uses storytelling to tell true stories. It is the number one nonfiction genre out there, lots of people are reading it and enjoying it and wanting more. And then the other thing, I guess, Terry, is that I wanted to restore a sense of hopefulness for people. Because most of the books out there on climate change, for example, we wouldn’t necessarily use the word “joy” to describe this, right?
Terry Phelan: Right.
Lucia Athens: And Betty Sue Flowers, who wrote my foreword, talks in the foreword to the book about how the stories of the heroes and the hope in my book kind of help people realize that tackling the challenges are well within the realm of the possible, that there’s actually a lot we can do and a lot we already have done. We often tend to just move on after we’ve accomplished something and we just don’t even, we don’t even celebrate it and we quickly forget, you know, our collective societal memory is kind of short.
Terry Phelan: Right. How did you choose the heroes that you use in your story?
Lucia Athens: Well, it’s interesting because it was actually quite a process to choose. I have three main archetypal heroes, one for each of the pillars. One for environment, that’s Jacques Cousteau. One for economy, that’s Anita Roddick who started The Body Shop, one of the first green businesses. And then one for society, César Chavez, the farmworkers’ rights advocate. And I didn’t start out with those three, I played around with so many different possible people I could have been writing about in this book, I even polled a lot of my friends and asked them who they thought would have been good heroes. I got a lot of input. I ended up landing on these three; personally, I felt very fascinated by their stories. I grew up watching the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau with my family when I was a kid, so I was always kind of enamored of his story. I knew about César Chavez from that great boycott history that was happening when I was a young person. And Anita Roddick, I only learned about kind of later on, and she’s probably the least well known.
But I wanted to write about people who had lived in the recent past, so they were relatable. I didn’t want to go so far back in time that, you know, it was somebody that was kind of hard to relate to. I definitely wanted at least one woman in the mix. I wanted, I wanted gender diversity, I wanted, you know, ethnic diversity, and I also learned a little bit about the fact that if you write about people who are no longer living, their legacy is a little more set. You know, if I was writing about somebody who was still alive, it’s hard to know what may eventually happen with them. And there’s also a lot of liability issues involved. So I decided not to write about anybody who’s currently living, but people that lived recently, if that makes sense.
Terry Phelan: Yeah. That’s a good filter. So, you mentioned that three pillars of sustainability and the core values. So, I understand each of the three pillars has three core values.
Lucia Athens: Right.
Terry Phelan: Can you go through those?
Lucia Athens: Sure. So, the book starts out with Jacques Cousteau’s story, really, using those stories to explain three core values for environmental sustainability. The first one is Interconnected Systems. You know, really, when you study nature, you really understand in a very clear way, how much everything is interconnected in nature.
The second core value is what I call Biophilic Stewardship. So that’s like a love of life, and knowing that I have a responsibility to steward that life and protect it. And the third one is, we hear this term a lot, The Long View, understanding that things unfold in a very long timeline that transcends our own lifespan. And when you think about, you know, seven generations, going back generations, and forward generations, we have to take the long view, and think about the consequences of our actions far into the future.
Terry Phelan: Like Seventh Generation, for example?
Lucia Athens: Exactly. So, moving on to the economic pillar, that’s where I tell the story of Anita Roddick starting The Body Shop, which was, it was a big deal at the time, there were no green businesses out there. And she was kind of making it up as she went along. So the first core value under economic sustainability is what I call Mission to Serve — what is the mission and the purpose, the higher purpose that the this business or this organization is trying to serve beyond just turning a profit. So it’s very important to know, like, what is our purpose.
The second, very important in the economic realm, was what I call Ethical Transparency. So, we must behave within ethics, and we must be transparent about how we’re doing that. So, there’s a lot of that comes into play with things like, you know, products and value chains and supply chains. And then the third, is one that I call it Creativity within Limits. It’s all about how do we do more with less? How do we recognize, you know, the planetary, the ecological, and all the boundaries within which we must exist, and use our creativity to deliver what we’re looking for as a society. So, that’s all about what you can also kind of think of as the power of limits, it actually can unleash a lot of creativity, when we realize we have to do something within certain limitations.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, great.
Lucia Athens: So, third, moving on to the social sustainability area where I tell the story of César Chavez and his childhood, and how he grew up in a farming family and then became a migrant farm worker. It’s quite a story, if you don’t know it. In that story, and in the social sustainability area, the first pillar is Nonviolent Action. So, we must do this work using nonviolence. There’s all kinds of ways that can be interpreted, but also the action pieces — we shouldn’t just be nonviolent at home with our doors closed and doing nothing, we have to act, we have to do something.
Second core value is called Inclusive Empowerment. That’s where I get into the diversity, equity and inclusion part of this. And what I realized through my studying of this area is that the purpose behind all of these DEI initiatives and equity is to empower everyone so that we’re all equally empowered to fulfill our life purpose without limitation, so that we’re all on an equal and level playing field.
And then finally, the third, and the final out of the nine core values is Collective Impact. So, that idea that we all, if we’re all kind of pulling in the same direction, we will get to where we need to go through the collective impact of all of our efforts added up together. No one person can do it alone. But if all of us act, it will make a difference and it will get us there eventually.
Terry Phelan: I love it. I love it. And synergy is something that I’ve long believed in and and tried to teach people, that if two things support each other, you get more than the sum of the parts. And that collective impact is a wonderful reflection of that.
Lucia Athens: That whole “more than sum of the parts” is part of that, that systems thinking in the first one the interconnected systems.
Terry Phelan: Yes, yeah. So actually, the core values all seem to support each other, too. I love thinking about this all together. And I think your book is a great way to introduce, especially people who are just kind of dipping their toes in the sustainability world and mindset and giving them some wonderful reference points. And, again, heroes to give them hope along the way.
Lucia Athens: Terry, I should tell you, too, you know, talking about the nine core values, you know, there’s probably nothing that I mentioned in there that you’ve never heard of before, right? Some of them are familiar ideas.
Terry Phelan: Right.
Lucia Athens: So, I didn’t come up with the individual ideas myself, but I did decide to assemble them into this framework of nine key pieces for sustainability that really kind of have to be a part of sustainability for us to get there. So, somebody asked me, you know, where did those nine come from, was that, you know, something that was already established previously, and it was not. So, bringing them all together in this way is my own way of thinking about it, that I hope others will enjoy and share.
Terry Phelan: Oh, and I love how it really addresses ways to talk to people or think about people who are coming from different places, different values themselves. I like the idea of meeting someone where they are and then seeing where we can go together. This is a wonderful example of how we can do that and how we can visualize that. You were talking earlier about how you don’t know what your next book will be. Sounds like you are interested in writing more. Do you believe writing has changed you in any way?
Lucia Athens: Well, that’s an interesting question. I have to say yes. I mean, for one thing, the book we’re talking about now, through the exploration of the, and through the research I did on the three heroes, I learned a lot. And their stories actually informed the nine core values, you know, I played around with a lot of different iterations of the nine core values. And they really evolved through the course of writing the book. And being inspired by the stories of the three archetypal heroes of sustainability that I was writing about.
I also learned a lot about diversity, equity and inclusion — out of you know, the three pillars, that was my weak area, I think, in terms of my personal experience, and my, my expertise and knowledge. So, I had to do a lot of extra reading and research, so that I felt like, you know, I had kind of what I needed in my toolkit to be able to address those issues, you know, with confidence, and so that was really enriching. I love learning more about that piece of it and learning about Cé00sar Chavez and the farmworkers. So, I’d say absolutely, yes. And I really enjoy the writing process. And one thing I’ve learned through writing and through the pandemic is that I actually really enjoy alone time. To have to enjoy alone time if you’re going to be a writer, or it’s a problem.
Terry Phelan: Right, right. I had no idea I mean, seven years to write a book, I guess you don’t sit down every day and write, I mean, some people do but you had other things. You had a career and a family and a life outside of writing. So, I can see it taking time but that’s a big commitment for someone who’s thinking about writing that hasn’t written yet.
Lucia Athens: Well, I think that you can write something every day, or at least, you know, set aside some time on certain whatever days are your good days, you know, where you can set aside a couple of hours maybe. And if you’re thinking about writing, you know, just write, you don’t have to know where it’s all going — write about something that interests you. And you know, it could evolve, it could turn into a blog, it could turn into an article, it could turn into a book. So, I feel like one of the most important things for writers, the advice I would give is, don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just get something down on paper. Because the other thing about writing is, writing is rewriting, editing and editing and editing, you’re going to do so much editing. So don’t ever worry about, oh, this sentence has to be perfect. It really doesn’t.
Terry Phelan: Right, yeah, I imagine. How many different versions of this book? Do you think there were along the way?
Lucia Athens: God, I don’t know. Probably three or four. By the time I got an editor and hired an editor, there was probably about three versions.
Terry Phelan: How do you know when you’re done?
Lucia Athens: That’s a good question, too. You know, you get to a point where it’s just gotta be good enough, because it’s never going to be perfect. And, you know, the minute you get the printed product, you find an error, you know, that’s just inevitable. So, you have to, at some point, except it’s never going to be perfect. And, you know, I hope this book will have some future edition where I can go in and update some things. But, once you get to the point where you’ve decided it’s a book, you know, you do have to create a structure and an outline. And, there is a target for different kinds of books for certain numbers of words. So, you know, if it’s getting too long, just know that you’re going to have to cut it back, because it’s probably not going to be, you know, economically viable to produce or sell that book. So, you know, I would tell people hire a good editor who can kind of, you know, guide you through some of those guardrails because some of it becomes very practical.
Terry Phelan: When you wrote your first book, Building an Emerald City, that was when you were at City of Seattle, is that correct? Or when you were finishing there?
Lucia Athens: Yeah, it was, it was towards the end of my City of Seattle career and kind of after I was done there, and I was working somewhere for a design firm. That one was with Island Press. So, I had a publisher for that book. This most recent book is self-published. And I would also say to any aspiring writer, author, out there, self-publishing is amazing. You can do so much yourself now — all the tools that are available. It’s really, really cool. So, don’t be intimidated to try it.
Terry Phelan: Yeah. Well, I know finding a publisher can be a real job for a writer. So, the idea that you can publish it yourself and have more control and ownership over the content, I think appealed to a lot of people.
You’re listening to the Living Shelter podcast. I’m your host Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with Lucia Athens, the author of Sustainability Revolutionists. Lucia, you talk about diversity, equity and inclusion; justice as another term that I hear a lot along those lines. And some people say that the green building movement has left people of, you know, lower income status, people of color behind because it’s like this thing that you can add on that, you know, it’s like a a bonus. And we’re looking at the need for affordable housing and the need for, you know, betterment of life for everybody. How do we address these needs? And in light of the overarching issue of our climate is changing, and there are going to be some huge impacts on everyone. How do we not leave people behind?
Lucia Athens: It’s such a challenging topic, right? But I’m so heartened that we’re finally talking about it.
Terry Phelan: Yeah.
Lucia Athens: And we’re admitting that we don’t have all the answers, but that shouldn’t keep us from talking about it. I think the sustainability field kind of in general tends to be quite white. So, you know, trying to make sure that we are including people from all ages, all ethnicities, all gender diversity, you know, there’s a lot of different aspects of diversity that we need to get our arms around.
We have a green jobs initiative here in Austin that I’ve been very excited about that I helped launch right after the pandemic got started. Well, I guess it was about a year after the pandemic started. We used federal disaster recovery money to focus on job training for people who had been economically impacted by the pandemic because there were a lot of service workers who lost their jobs. So, that initiative is growing. It’s got multimillion dollar funding behind it. It’s building a job skills pipeline for people who are working in construction, solar installers, and also people that are working in doing more field crew work, maintaining our urban forests here in Austin, removing invasive species, and so forth. So, that’s been really exciting.
Another area that we’ve been working on, which I think has been really interesting, is the area of climate resilience. And really realizing that when we have extreme weather events, the people who are the most negatively impacted by those extreme weather events that are being driven by climate change are low-income and people of color. They have the least resources, you know, to actually be able to be prepared to respond and to bounce back. And, for example, here in low lying areas, we had massive flooding events with loss of life, those were low-income communities, people of color, nobody else, you know, wanted to live in that area. And now nobody does. We’ve actually vacated those neighborhoods completely and turned those areas into parks and found other homes for those people.
So, the displacement that’s happening in cities like Austin, where there’s so much growth, that is a huge issue for us, because I live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood where there’s a lot of displacement. Our big Project Connect, which is our massive urban rail, voter-approved tax measure to build out urban rail, there is a significant funding package as a part of that that’s focused on anti-displacement. Knowing that, you know, when we go in and put these lines in neighborhoods, we’re displacing people and businesses, so we’re trying to find ways to keep that from happening, or to at least, you know, lessen the impact. So, that’s huge. And then back to the resilience piece, we’ve been trying to launch these facilities, neighborhood-based facilities called Resiliance Hubs, where people could go in the event of a disaster and get food, charge up their cell phones, get water, get information, and those are being located initially in some of our low-income neighborhoods.
Terry Phelan: Those sound like really, really good initiatives to be moving forward. And this is in the city of Austin. I’m hoping there are ways that other areas can find out information from whoever is, is moving these initiatives in Austin forward to echo this and other communities. Because, again, Austin is a fairly progressive place, much like Seattle, but in Texas. I’ve never been there, so, I’m speaking from what I understand. But there’s a need for this wherever we go, wherever we look.
Lucia Athens: Absolutely. And a lot of great stuff is happening in many cities in the Midwest and beyond. Actually, Baltimore is a city that’s done a lot with these Resilience Hubs that I was mentioning previously. The City of Austin Office of Sustainability website has really great information on a lot of these different initiatives. And another one I’ll mention, is we’re doing a lot of work on sustainable food planning. And, you know, for communities like Austin, where we have a lot of wealth, it’s amazing how many people are food insecure, which means they may not know where their next meal is coming from sometime in the next month. So, we’re doing a community-based planning effort to create a sustainable food plan that will focus on, you know, access to fresh and healthy food, and also farmland preservation.
Terry Phelan: That’s wonderful. I’m so inspired by all these things. One of the issues in architecture, especially residential architecture, where I’ve been practicing all these years, is affordable housing and a need for affordable housing and these communities. And the new codes are more and more restrictive. So, there’s, you know, both on the federal level and, you know, some states — like Washington State — has a very ambitious energy code, which is following the 2030 goal of zero net carbon by the year 2030. And the codes have been shifted to support that and move this forward. But affordable housing can be a real conundrum with these new codes.
Lucia Athens: Yeah.
Terry Phelan: I know that there are things going on around affordable housing, and I remember seeing something on one of your profiles online about an initiative that you’re involved in.
Lucia Athens: Yes, yes, I was hoping you might ask about that. Well, one thing I wanted to say before I go there, is that the 2030 goal that’s really exciting and that’s very aggressive. I mean, we just updated our carbon neutral Austin goal to 2040. So that’s pretty amazing, 2030. The, I think, the initiative you’re talking about, Terry, is something called Initiative 99, and it was announced recently during the South by Southwest Conference here in Austin. It’s the brainchild of a really amazing guy, his name is Jason Ballard. And he has an organization called ICON. ICON is a 3D printing company that 3D prints buildings. And they’ve been working already on affordable housing with a really amazing organization here called Community First! Village, which, actually, a lot of affordable housing people from around the world have come to visit Community First! Village — it’s a permanent housing community for people who have been experiencing homelessness. So, it’s not temporary, they bring them in, and they offer them permanent homes for as long as they want to stay. It’s a tiny home community. It’s a micro home community.
So, ICON has already been 3D printing small footprint homes as a part of Community First! Village. Well, during South by Southwest, they announced this Initiative 99, which is, they’re offering a million dollars in prize money in an affordable design competition. And I’m going to be one of the judges in the competition. I was very honored to be asked. Liz Lambert, who some people may be familiar with, who is a part of a couple of very innovative hotels here and in starting something called El Cosmico out in Marfa in West Texas. They’re doing a project with her. She’s one of the judges. And then a really amazing architect that the audience may have heard of, Bjarke Ingles, who’s from Denmark, is also one of the judges, in addition to the dean of the architecture school here at the University of Texas at Austin (Michelle Addington). So, this is going to be going on over the next year, they haven’t even actually announced the ground rules yet. But you can sign up to get more information. If you go to the ICON website, you can sign up to get the announcements if you’re interested in becoming a part of this and throwing your hat into the ring in the design competition.
Terry Phelan: That’s exciting. I’m sure some of the design professionals that listen in here will be eager to take part in that. There’s so many things around the technology with, you know, the 3D printing, and AI, what’s going on with artificial intelligence. It’s this whole brave new world that 10 years ago would have only been in science fiction stories. So, 3D printing, I mean, to me being an “old-schooler”, it seems like it’s like, that can’t work. And that’s going to just disrupt everything, but we need disruption. I mean, disruption is important to making change. Are ICON’s 3D printing, is their material actually plastic free? Because that’s the one thing that is so important to me and moving any technology forward is to leave plastic behind.
Lucia Athens: That’s a great question. I wish I had the answer. But I’m going to find out and talk to them about that I’m not as familiar with all of their materials as I could be. But I think I’m going to be getting more familiar. One of the things that to me is exciting about their 3D-printed building technology is that they can print in any shape, they can extrude out of their printer in any shape you want. So, they can do curves that actually structurally become even stronger than straight lines. And so, it’s going to be very freeing in terms of, you know, the aesthetic possibilities that the 3D printing technology can deliver. As they were announcing their initiative during South by Southwest, they 3D printed an outdoor performance stage and had a concert and a little party to celebrate the design competition. And this 3D-printed stage is all curves. It’s really beautiful.
Terry Phelan: Wow, how long did it take to print the stage, do you remember? Did it actually happen during South by Southwest or was it done beforehand?
Lucia Athens: I think it got finished right before. I don’t know exactly how long it took but I don’t think it took very long.
Terry Phelan: Yeah. I know there’s some people in some parts of the world, I think in the desert Middle East, that are doing 3D printing with non-plasticized material. So, all earthen clay material, but most of the ones that I’ve seen are, you know, they have some plastics in them. So that would be a real boon to ICON if they could develop a non-plasticized material to use for moving this forward.
Lucia Athens: I’ll be sure to pass that on, Terry, thank you.
Terry Phelan: Okay. So, we’re getting near the end of our conversation here. And something I like to ask all my guests is, you know, with climate change affecting so many elements of nature that we rely on for life? What might you suggest people do to become more resilient around these changes? And this can be as small or large, as you think is appropriate?
Lucia Athens: Good question. You know, one of the most important things that anybody can do is get to know their neighbors.
Terry Phelan: I love that.
Lucia Athens: It’s just so amazing to me, especially living in this rapidly changing neighborhood. As I mentioned, you know, where there’s a lot of long-term residents and a lot of newer people coming in, and I am a newcomer to this neighborhood. Get out and walk around and get to know the people in your neighborhood. And, you know, that’s important for building community, and it’s also important when we do have disaster situations happening because one of the things that we’ve learned is that like in Superstorm Sandy, for example, first responders were not the first people to arrive, it was neighbors, neighbors helping neighbors.
So, if everybody just assumes that when a big disaster happens, you know, the emergency response is going to come help me, that’s probably going to take up quite a while, because they’re going to be completely overwhelmed. So the more you know your neighbors, the more you know, like you know, your elderly neighbors, people who might be shut in, people who might be dependent on electricity because of health equipment, or that kind of thing. It’s really important for us to just really be able to know who’s living in our immediate vicinity. Then, kind of, you know, scaling up from there, for sure, have your emergency kit.
I think in the Pacific Northwest, when I lived in Seattle, everybody knew about having an emergency kit and emergency plan, because it was earthquake country, and down here in Texas, it’s not as familiar to people. So, you know, have your emergency plan with your family assume your cell phone isn’t going to work, what’s your meeting place? Where are you going to go? Have emergency food and water supplies available? You know, you want to take it a step further, have rainwater collection. And you know, if you don’t have a treatment system then have, you know, camping water treatment equipment in an emergency, you could use that. Have rooftop solar, and if you can afford it, have you know, backup battery storage. What are the things that you could do, you know, to just become a little bit more capable if your utility services go down in a big weather event? And that’s happened to us multiple times here in Austin over the last couple of years. So really, we’ve experienced it upfront and personal. You know, do you have a way to get around without a car? What if suddenly the fuel supplies are interrupted? Can you afford an electric vehicle and charge it up? You know, with your rooftop solar? Or how about just a bicycle? These things can range from the simple to the complex.
Terry Phelan: Right. Well, those are really helpful ideas. And yes, the major weather events are happening more and more. There’s stuff going on in the Midwest now. And we all, I think, are seeing that this could happen to us. So, make yourself more, more ready. And I love the idea of relying on community and becoming active in your community and just getting to know your neighbors. And know their names, know how to reach them if you need help, or if you think they need help. We’re all in this together.
Lucia Athens: We are all in this together. It’s never been more true.
Terry Phelan: So, Lucia, where can people go to find out more information about your book, and anything else that you think is pertinent to being able to take next steps themselves?
Lucia Athens: Well, I have a website, it’s LuciaAthens.com, it’s L-u-c-i-a, and then Athens, just like the city dotcom. So, you can find out more about my books there. You can find my books on Amazon, or perhaps your local independent bookseller. And if they don’t have it, ask them to order it for you. And, as I said, you know, cities in the Northwest, Seattle and then also Portland — we didn’t talk about Portland — have amazing initiatives going on. So, check out what they’re doing. Get on their newsletters. Keep up to date on what’s happening. And then please do visit our City of Austin Office of Sustainability website, Austintexas.gov/sustainability.
Terry Phelan: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. It was great having you here.
Lucia Athens: Thank you, Terry, it was really a pleasure. And I look forward to keeping in touch.
Terry Phelan: That was Lucia Athens, sharing stories and helping us learn to recognize different aspects of the sustainability movement, wherever we find them. I also want to thank everyone listening in, and hope you’ll tune in again for more great content and inspirational guests from the world of sustainable design. The Living Shelter Podcast is a project of Board & Vellum, a multidisciplinary design firm practicing architecture, interior design, and landscape architecture for residential, commercial and civic projects. From our studio in Seattle, I’m your host Terry Phelan. Take care, and we’ll talk again soon.