Office of Sustainability 2020 Annual Highlights

Reflecting on 2020 while celebrating 10 years of sustainability leadership in Austin

10 Years and Going Strong

Our team is often asked, “What does ‘sustainability’ really mean?” To us, it means protecting and improving Austin’s quality of life now and for future generations. The ways we work towards this are numerous. Specifically, our office leads efforts to strengthen our local food system, achieve net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions, and identify ways to make Austin resilient in the face of climate threats. We also work across multiple City departments, helping to connect the dots in sustainability efforts happening across our organization and more broadly in the community.
When Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens, a pioneer in green building and sustainability, was hired to lead the office 10 years ago, she was tasked with establishing priorities for the newly-formed Office and setting a course for its future. Today, she leads a staff of 12 full-time employees focused on developing initiatives to lower our emissions and reach community members to help them make sustainability a priority in their daily lives. Here are our top 10 highlights from the past 10 years:
  1. Achieved 100% renewable energy for all City operations starting in 2011, resulting in a 72% reduction in annual carbon emissions reduction.
  2. Led the creation and implementation of the City’s Community Climate Plan including a 2020 Equity-focused update and the first Community Climate Ambassadors Program.
  3. Developed a Climate Resilience Action Plan to increase the resilience of City assets and operations in the face of extreme heat, flooding, drought and wildfires.
  4. Selected as one of 25 US Cities to be awarded a $2.5M support and technical assistance package to participate in Bloomberg’s American Cities Climate Challenge.
  5. Created the Austin Green Business Leaders program, a voluntary scoring system to recognize local businesses for sustainability and provide a peer group of 279 businesses.
  6. Launched the Bright Green Future Grants program to fund K-12 teacher- and student-led sustainability projects, which has funded 397 projects at 83 schools since 2012.
  7. Collected data to inform policy decisions, published in the State of the Food System Report (2015 and 2018 update) and the Food Environment Analysis (2017).
  8. Piloted the Good Food Purchasing Program to adopt healthy, sustainable, and humane foods with Austin ISD, the University of Texas, and the Austin Convention Center.
  9. Helped launch the Fresh for Less program, which brings fresh food to neighborhoods with lower access to healthy food through mobile markets and corner stores.
  10. Built a building performance dashboard that gives City facility managers better visibility to their energy and water usage, helping departments save money and resources.

Awards & Ratings

  • Achieved a 4-Star rating for community-wide sustainability as part of the inaugural pilot of the STAR Community Rating System.
  • Became the first city to receive a Climate Leadership Award from the Environmental Protection Agency in 2013.
  • Received international recognition with a Special Mention Award from the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact in the Social and Economic Equity category for our work on food systems.
  • Championed the inclusion of a rooftop solar array at the new Austin Central Library, ultimately allowing the project to achieve LEED® Platinum Certification.
  • Achieved Climate Registered Status from the Climate Registry after a rigorous process to have the City’s carbon footprint third-party verified.
  • Helped create the first urban forest carbon offset registry designed to offset emissions by planting trees in cities. The City of Austin was then one of the first in the country to use the program to create offsets on City land in collaboration with City Forest Credits and TreeFolks.

2020: A Lesson in Adaptation

The year 2020 was a year like no other. Across the world, we were called on to stay at home – shifting work and social lives to virtual platforms. For our team, that meant significantly changing the way we work, and trying to adapt to a “new normal”. Since the pandemic began, our small food team launched a coordinated effort on emergency food access – helping to link up emergency feeding providers across the City to feed Austin residents in need. Our climate team shifted a face-to-face community-focused effort to reshape Austin’s Climate Plan to completely virtual. And, we worked to pivot our office’s K-12 grant program to a simpler, more adaptable model to meet the moment.

2020 by the Numbers:

  • Collaborated with Austin Public Health to lead the Food Access Task Force in response to COVID-19, which includes over 75 participating organizations, with a distribution list of over 300 individual contacts.
  • Helped launch the Eating Apart Together initiative, which has served over 700,000 meals (and counting) to people experiencing homelessness.
  • Drafted an update of the City’s Climate Plan through a unique equity-focused, community-driven process that created 17 new goals, 74 specific strategies, and 4 overarching strategies. Over 130 community members donated over 5,000 hours of time to help develop the plan.
  • Launched the first Community Climate Ambassadors program, which recruited 12 individuals who connected with over 70 community members about issues related to climate change, racial equity and sustainability.
  • Awarded Bright Green Future grants to 28 area schools, 12 of which fall into the Title 1 category, which includes higher numbers of students from low-income families.
  • Worked with Austin Energy through the American Cities Climate Challenge to create an EV Buyers Guide, which helped put 4,000 additional electric vehicles on the road.
  • Championed and coordinated leasing 9 acres of City-owned land to Urban Roots, which will allow the nonprofit urban farm to employ 200 teens and young adults and nearly double output to 50,000 pounds of food grown annually. 
  • Conducted a heat mapping project with the University of Texas and community organizers that recruited 12 volunteers to collect data covering 100 square miles to understand where people are most at risk for heat waves in Austin’s Eastern Crescent.

Feeding Residents Affected by the Pandemic

Since the pandemic began, the need to provide emergency food access has skyrocketed. For example, In March and April of 2020, there was a 160.5% increase in calls related to food needs, compared to 2019. In response to this growing crisis, City and County staff have been working with nonprofits, local food businesses, school districts, faith-based groups, and other direct service providers to support a range of strategies that will improve access to food.

Community-Focused Climate Planning

Because the climate crisis can only be addressed fully when we also address racial inequality, our team set out to create an inclusive Climate Plan that would make our city cleaner, healthier, more affordable and accessible for all. To do this, we built a process that intentionally centered community voices and racial equity. As part of that effort, we launched the first Community Climate Ambassadors Program to connect with groups that have been historically and systemically left out of the climate conversation.

Keeping Classrooms Green during COVID-19

This year was anything but normal – particularly for schools. In a typical year, schools submit applications to our office’s Bright Green Future Grant Program in the hopes of receiving funding of up to $3,000 for original school-based sustainability projects.  However, given the uncertainties around the COVID-19 pandemic, our team proactively made several changes to the program knowing how many challenges teachers and students were facing.

Austin Civilian Conservation Corps

The Office of Sustainability helped to launch this new initiative in 2020. Taking its name from the federal program to help Americans after the Great Depression in the 30’s and 40’s, the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps was designed to help Austinites who have been affected by the global pandemic. On  May 7, 2020, the ACCC was created following the adoption of an Austin City Council resolution that aimed to help community members who have been economically impacted by COVID-19 to earn income, serve their community, and gain skills to launch sustainability-related careers in new fields.