Committing to sustainability can drive prosperity

Austin is a shining example of how sustainability initiatives positively impact civic life. Illustration by Timothy Wells and courtesy of Page.

By Kathleen M. O’Donnell

Austin, Texas, is a shining example of how sustainability can contribute to the development and growth of a city. Through its Office of Sustainability and the work of local architects, Austin provides a thoughtful framework for other cities to consider when crafting sustainability initiatives that drive more wholistic development and help cities achieve economic prosperity.

With a five-year economic growth rate of 6 percent, and about 150 people moving to the city daily,  Austin has been identified as the fastest-growing city in America. Though widely known as a center of creativity and art, Austin is experiencing rapid growth in other industries. “We’re seeing this really interesting convergence of government, academic, and technology,” says Wendy Dunnam Tita, FAIA, a principal at the Page architecture and engineering firm and longtime Austin resident.

One of the reasons Austin is so attractive to incoming residents and sectors is the city’s commitment to sustainable development. Austin has prioritized sustainability initiatives for decades, ensuring that current and future Austinites have the highest quality of life possible. “I appreciate how the city has invested in being a thought-leader. It’s a great city that’s continuing to do research and create healthy communities and buildings,” says Dunnam Tita, who also serves as 2018 President of AIA Austin.

Austin has set national standards for a sustainable built environment, recognizing that buildings, public space, and infrastructure are all critical contributors to a thriving population. As early as 1990, the city created the Austin Energy Green Building program, the first of its kind in the U.S., predating the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. Since that time, Austin has invested in research centers, supported sustainability-focused nonprofits, and implemented progressive codes and policies.

The massive influx of new residents, and particularly young professionals, has required developers and architects to prioritize sustainability goals in new buildings. “Sustainability resonates with the people here in our city,” says Dunnam Tita. “The people who are moving into apartment buildings and condos want a healthy lifestyle. They’re moving to a healthy city, and they feel like their apartment should have that component.” Austin’s commitment to sustainability mirrors Page’s design philosophy and approach, says Dunnam Tita, noting that in the last 10 years the firm hasn’t designed a single multifamily project in Austin without a LEED or Austin Energy Green Building rating .

To solidify its commitment, Austin created the Office of Sustainability in 2010. The office oversees policy development and implements programs that put community health, the environment, and cultural vitality at the center of civic life. “We’re change agents,” says Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens. Describing the work of the office, Athens, a licensed landscape architect, outlines a two-pronged approach. “We function with an internal lens on city operations and then a broader, community-based lens with what’s going on in the entire Austin and central Texas environs.”

Citywide sustainability initiatives cover a variety of environmental and social topics. Though the office tracks performance in 10 major areas, Athens says the most significant strides have been in climate change and resiliency, sustainable food systems, and sustainable neighborhoods called “EcoDistricts.” “All three areas come into play in meeting some of our goals for having a compact and connected city,” she says.

“We’ve also put mandatory requirements on all kinds of large projects that the city may be entering into, such as public-private partnerships or master development agreements,” says Athens. After years of research, Austin’s also developing a draft landscape code that will heavily incentivize green infrastructure. “I think that’s a very exciting leadership play that I hope other cities are going to be looking at,” she says. “And it’s very doable and financially feasible.”

Architects are also leveraging the creative and social infrastructure of Austin to create a more sustainable local economy. “We’re very interested in engaging local makers and artists in the work that we do,” says Dunnam Tita. “It is really important to us that the prosperity of the construction and design industry permeate all the way down to local talent and small businesses. We want the prosperity of our city to raise everybody up as opposed to edge out the creative culture.”

Considering the needs and unique characteristics of Austinites in citywide development is a priority for architects and city officials alike. The Office of Sustainability’s programming includes a dedicated focus on equity, livability, and creativity, and AIA Austin leaders meet monthly with the mayor’s office, where they encourage design thinking as a means of achieving an inclusive and sustainable future for the city. “We know from those conversations that the issue of equity is definitely in the front of their minds,” Dunnam Tita says. “We would like to create that expectation in every single project that the city touches—to have it seen through the lens of health and sustainability.”