Building an EcoDistrict with Lucia Athens, Chief Sustainability Officer, City of Austin

Lucia Athens is the City of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer. In the increasingly humid Texan climate, strong leadership on sustainability is critical and Athens is focused on making the Seaholm EcoDistrict a leading example.

Located downtown covering twenty-two blocks and expanding, the Seaholm EcoDistrict is a cornucopia of green technology, placemaking initiatives, open space and community orientated developments. Athens works to influence three major components of the precinct: buildings, infrastructure and people.

The start of Electric Drive (W 2nd St) where you can recharge your electric vehicle, Seaholm EcoDistrict, Austin

The district is anchored by the decommissioned Seaholm Power Plant. Redeveloped into a mixed-use building with office, restaurant and residential the Plant served as an early visual beacon of the district’s transformation. Now the history and heritage of the building sits alongside a raft of significant water and energy saving initiatives creating a unique sense of place. The Electric Drive project, the Downtown District Cooling system, and the newly opened solar powered Central Library with a green roof, neatly integrate the old with the new.

Starting with a masterplan in 2001, early wins were key to the district gathering momentum and included a strong graphic identity, installation of public art and investment in a “Festival Street”.

Athens is a firm believer in learning from others drew on the EcoDistrict Protocol which originated in Portland, Oregon. This Protocol provides a comprehensive neighbourhood-scale roadmap for cities looking to build their own. In Austin, the Protocol assisted in providing a fresh look at equity and energy innovation issues and how they fit into the district’s overarching goals.

Rehabilitation of Shoal Creek outside the newly opened Central Library

There are key lessons Australian cities can take away from Austin’s journey. Athens says that we need to “identify neighborhoods that will experience the most change, whether through large scale redevelopment efforts or many individual smaller redevelopment projects. Those infusions of capital create opportunities for partnerships and new resources” adding that value-capture can be used to make public improvements that will benefit the entire community.

A Soofa Bench - a solar powered public recharging station in Seaholm EcoDistrict

Not that the development of the Seaholm District has been without challenges. One of the governance issues the City is working through is managing speculative developers who have since sold their interests in the District and have moved on to other projects. Athens sees that part of the solution is to engage neighbourhood tenants and residents in more meaningful, place-based ways. She also suggests that shifting players can be addressed by making the public sector a long term champion for sustainability.

“Some of the large organizations have long-term 20 year leases, so we see long-term advantages and opportunities for partnerships.” With Facebook recently doubling its office space, it looks like this strategy is having effect.

“Other challenges include the long term nature of the District’s unfolding. With decades of planning and progress, it is important to establish a clear vision and continue to tie back to it over time.”

While one EcoDistrict does not make a city green, Athens is eager to take lessons learned from Seaholm to other emerging neighbourhoods, particularly those experiencing new redevelopment and gentrification pressures. For Athens, the EcoDistricts model is not simply a sustainability framework but “an excellent tool to address diversity, equity and inclusion”.

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Level 23, 45 Clarence Street

Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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