The 10 of 2010: Lucia Athens, Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer

The 10 of 2010: Lucia Athens, Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer

One of the world’s leaders in sustainable building is out to ensure Austin’s leading eco status.

Lucia Athens is the first “chief sustainability officer” for the city of Austin, a somewhat forbidding job title that evokes images of a stern cop who slinks down our alleys, peeking into our blue recycling bins and issuing tickets for the various eco-infractions we’re guilty of making from time to time. Lucia Athens doesn’t hand out tickets for putting greasy pizza boxes in the recycling bin, but the modern environmental movement has succeeded so well at making all of us feel responsible for saving the earth—and guilty if we don’t—that to hear Austin now has a chief sustainability officer conjures notions of lock-step compliance.

You can stop worrying. Athens has a simple explanation of what she does: “I want to make it easier for people to do the right thing,” she says. She thinks of her vocation as the “sustainability concierge” for Austin—someone who’s a trusted resource for citizens who are curious about how to live sustainably, whether those citizens are corporate or individual Austinites. Athens doesn’t directly manage each of Austin’s many environmental initiatives, but she is in charge of making the crucial links among those various programs so that the city’s sustainability efforts are clear to the public and present a unified, thoughtful policy intended to make Austin a beautiful, eco-friendly place to be.

A licensed landscape architect and San Antonio native, she began her career in public service in Austin, working for the city’s Water Efficiency Program in 1987, later working on the team that developed the city’s standards for its Green Builder Program, the first of its kind in the nation. She left Austin in 1994 and eventually settled in Seattle, where she led that city’s multi-million dollar green building program, instituting the world’s first LEED-based green building policy. The author of Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Green Building Programs and Policies, Athens has been part of an international community of leaders in the green building movement.

And despite the wide awareness of the environmental movement, Athens is out to change people’s minds. “I think some people feel like they have to give up something” to be eco-friendly, she says. “It’s a mind shift to realize, ‘I can have more’” by acting sustainably. By riding a bike to work, for example, you’re also getting in shape and connecting with your city and the outdoors. If you’re able to share tools with your neighbor, you don’t have to own and maintain as much stuff. “I think many of us still have this old-fashioned idea back to the Jimmy Carter era where the (energy efficiency) message was that we’re going to be wearing sweaters, shivering in the dark,” Athens says. “To me, sustainability means you can have more quality of life and more connections to your community.”

Growing up, Athens got a rare, up-close education in what it can be like to try to convince people of something they may not want to hear. Athens’ father was the head of the Sierra Club in San Antonio when the construction of the 281 freeway was a controversial issue there. “A columnist referred to my father as ‘the man with the Joe Stalin mustache and World War I aviator glasses,’” Athens recalls, laughing a bit at the memory. Environmentalists aren’t lampooned like that anymore just because they’re environmentalists, but “I’m very grateful to people like my father who were willing to be on that front line when it was not even close to mainstream,” she says. Her parents, frustrated that foreign films weren’t played locally, did something about it by forming the Cinema Society of San Antonio, raising enough money among their friends and other interested moviegoers to bring arthouse fare to San Antonio during the 1960s.

The tendency to create a solution to a problem rather than pout about it seems ingrained in Athens. She says Austin is in an enviable spot, poised to continue and advance its leadership role as one of the nation’s most sustainable cities. “There’s a great legacy to build on of things we’ve already done and innovations we’re currently advancing with the Pecan Street Project, the Mueller neighborhood, and our solar program,” she says. “And then there’s so many new challenges we need to address—and it’s an exciting time to be involved in this.”

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The 10 of 2010: Lucia Athens, Austin's Chief Sustainability Officer