Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tonight I attended the Eco-Change event at Austin City Hall. A lot of environmental groups and activists came out to get word out about their activities and also let the Council know what's important to them. Several city council members were there including Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, Laura Morrison, Randi Shade and I think I saw Sheryl Cole pop her head in. Mayor Lee Leffingwell gave a quick speech before heading off to another event.

After a brief meet-and-greet we went in to the chamber to decide what environmental and sustainable issues we'd most like to see the City of Austin act on.

There were many ideas, but here are the main themes:

  • Improved transportation: shifting away from a reliance on automobiles to mass transit, bicycling and walking. Shifting away from building new roads as the go-to option was one idea. Also changing the development process so other transportation options can be discussed.

  • Clean water: Austin is blessed with the Edwards Aquifer and many natural springs and swimming holes. Austinites don't want to see these polluted by development or industry. The Save Our Springs Alliance has been a major force in fighting for Austin's water gems for a long time. The 20 year anniversary of the major SOS fight is next year.

  • Managing growth, expansion and land use: Austin is growing rapidly and we are doing so at a cost to our environment. Gentrification is also a major concern to longtime residents of East Austin.

  • Keeping it local: encouraging locally grown, organic food. Incentives for restaurants to use locally grown food was also suggested.

  • Waste management: composting, recycling and diverting material from our landfills.

These are all great ideas and I'm glad to see the City Council interested in hearing the public's thoughts on where we think Austin should be headed in the future.

One problem I noticed time after time tonight was the perception people have of the solutions to a lot of our problems. I heard so many times that Austin needs 100 percent renewable energy, we shouldn't build more roads, or that 25% of the city's budget should be devoted to sustainability. The goals are noble, but the means aren't necessarily rooted in reality.

Education was brought up tonight as a crucial element for educating the public about sustainability, and I agree. But the public should also be educated about the realities of our options for a sustainable city. People want clean power, but don't want coal or nuclear plants - unless you want to pay significantly more for natural gas, coal and nuclear keep the lights on. People want solar and wind renewables all the time, but they're variable. There are certain realities that are often overlooked by the public that make or break policies.

From tonight's turnout it's clear that Austinites are very much concerned with making our city more sustainable. The details need a lot of work, but the conversation has been started. And that's a very good place to be at.