2019 was quite a year.
For Austin’s local environmental community, it was one marked by a renewed focus on our city’s transportation woes, an increased sense of climate urgency, and the continued conversation over how to manage Austin’s rapid growth. A new generation of Austinites began to raise their voices and put more pressure on our city’s elected leaders to take meaningful and equitable action on environmental issues. And some of our city’s most vexing problems came to a head with the rewrite of our land development code and more serious planning efforts for what could be Austin’s first high-capacity transit system.
Before we start exploring what 2020 has in store for Austin’s environmental community, we thought now would be a good time to reflect on some of these themes and see how they played out in the biggest local news stories of the year. So here it is. Our list (in no particular order) of the biggest eco things to happen in Austin in 2019.
The Compost Pedallers hang up their helmets for good.
First launched in 2012 by Dustin Fedako and Eric Goff, the Compost Pedallers started out with a simple idea – to reduce the amount of waste that Austinites send to the landfill… by increasing their access to composting.
Seven years later, and the Compost Pedallers had helped to divert 1.2 million pounds of waste, built a distributed network of community composting sites, and powered the whole thing with a fleet of cargo bikes (burning about six and a half million calories in the process). All in all, they created about 300,000 pounds of fresh compost and saved over $30,000 in fertilizer costs for local farms and gardens.
The business officially closed its doors in early 2019, in large part because the Compost Pedallers team helped inspire the City of Austin to bring curbside composting services to all of Austin’s single-family households by 2020, a much larger scale than the Compost Pedallers were able to provide.
In their final goodbye letter, Compost Pedallers founders Dustin Fedako and Eric Goff wrote:
“Together we did what many said we couldn’t. And by rolling up our sleeves to take action, our work has inspired others around the world to do the same. Hundreds of people across dozens of countries have reached out to let us know how our efforts have motivated them to start or stick with a project in their own community.
If we have learned anything from our work in composting, it’s that nothing ever really dies. It just breaks down to fertilize what’s next, what’s new, what’s yet to come. This has been an amazing journey. Thank you all for riding along with us.”
Austin wins the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge
Launched in 2018 in response to a lack of national action on climate change, the American Cities Climate Challenge is a $70 million program (led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to help accelerate cities’ efforts to tackle climate change.
As one of the 25 winning cities, Austin received the resources needed to help us achieve our climate goals even faster than before. Specifically, Bloomberg Philanthropies helped (and still is helping) the city to work on six major programs:
- Advance innovative incentive programs to encourage sustainable commuting
- Work directly with local car dealerships to increase electric vehicle sales
- Perform energy efficiency retrofits and retro-commissioning in municipal buildings with high energy use
- Leverage data from existing energy benchmarking policy to increase Austin Energy commercial rebate program participation
- Implement new parking management and pricing programs to reduce vehicle emissions.
Red Bluff officially becomes a nature preserve
Tucked away in East Austin is a rare thing – a piece of undeveloped land, complete with panoramic views of the city that surrounds it.
For years, residents of the nearby Springdale-Airport and Hog Pen neighborhoods had been pushing for it be cleaned up (part of it had been used an illegal dump site) and turned into an official nature preserve. In April, they finally got their wish when Austin City Council officially voted to establish Red Bluff as city parkland.
Project Connect gets rolling
After approving the Project Connect vision in 2018, Cap Metro really got things rolling with its regional plan for high-capacity transit in 2019. Throughout the year, they hosted a variety of public input/outreach opportunities around the main components of the plan:
- The Orange Line – a proposed high-capacity transit line that if built, will run from the North Lamar Transit Center, south down Lamar, onto Guadalupe (and past Republic Square Park), and onto South Congress Avenue.
- The Blue Line – a proposed high-capacity transit line that if built, will run from the airport, down Riverside, and all the way to the University of Texas.
- An expansion of the MetroRapid bus system – a vast expansion of Cap Metro’s premium bus service
All of this effort is leading up to a likely election in 2020, when Austin voters will have the opportunity to decide the future of our city’s transportation system.
Capital Metro buys its first electric buses
In April, Cap Metro’s board of directors approved a contract to buy up to 10 electric buses and started work on its new smart charging facility in north Austin. Once complete (in 2020), the facility will be able to house (and charge) 214 electric buses, about half of the city’s current fleet.
It’s all part of a plan to completely electrify Austin’s public transportation system, helping to reduce carbon emissions and improve local air quality.
The Texas Brewshed Alliance launches
The Texas Brewshed Alliance is a coalition of breweries, environmental nonprofits, and individuals, all working together to host fun and educational events that raise awareness and funds around land and water conservation issues.
The idea is that by pairing up brewers and environmental nonprofits, entirely new groups of people can be connected to opportunities to help protect and improve the world around them.
The group officially launched in June (as an initiative within the Wimberley Valley Watershed Association) and has since hosted several educational events across Texas, preaching the message that “protecting your water is protecting your beer.”
Austin City Council passes two big climate resolutions
Together, the two resolutions basically did three things:
- Plan for the electrification of Austin’s transportation system (especially electric vehicles)
- Announce the city’s support for the Green New Deal
- Take the first step toward developing a climate resilience plan
City Council makes some big changes to the way Austin polices homelessness
In June, Austin City Council voted to change three ordinances that deal primarily with homeless individuals, scaling back its bans on camping, sitting, and lying down in public areas.
The decision spurred a great deal of controversy throughout the entire city and debate over the best ways to care for and house the homeless continues today.
The Texas Legislature returns to Austin
“We won some and we lost some, but overall this session turned out to be a net positive for the environment,” said Luke Metzger (executive director of Environment Texas) in a press release at the close of the session. “Clean air and parks will get big boosts in funding and we fended off attacks on wind and solar power. On the other hand, oil companies are a step closer to being able to dump their wastewater in our rivers and toughened penalties on peaceful protesters of their pipelines. Still, given the power and influence of big polluters in the Legislature, it could have been worse.”
One bill that did pass this legislative session that raised a lot of concern from the environmental community was HB3557, aka the protest bill. As the Sierra Club explains, the bill “adds significant criminal penalties to any protest activity which destroys facilities, or impairs or interferes with the operations of ‘critical infrastructure.’”
In this case, “critical infrastructure” means things like oil and gas pipelines and according to several different environmental organizations, makes protests like the ones orchestrated against the Dakota Access Pipeline more difficult.
In an interview with AEN, Jennifer K. Falcon (campaign manager with the Society of Native Nations) explained that for her, this is really a social justice issue, calling the new law an, “over-criminalization of black and brown bodies, who often carry the burden of society’s waste, and are often the ones protesting this industry coming into their communities.”
The Sustainable Food Center makes some big changes
What does that mean? Well, for starters, it’s a renewed mission statement, “to cultivate a just and regenerative food system so that people and the environment can thrive.”
On a more practical level, SFC began shifting some of its focus away from its for-fee gardening and cooking classes (its last ones were held this fall) and toward policy work further upstream on our local food system. That means things like helping to increase the production of local food/improve farm viability and making sure we have a supply chain in place to get that food to local consumers. (In Travis County, less than 1 percent of the food consumed here is actually produced here.)
“And then from an equity standpoint, making sure that this is not just for some people,” said Joy Casnovsky (deputy director of SFC) in an interview with AEN. “That this type of food can be accessed by folks no matter their income, their neighborhood. That’s really important to us as well.”
The Equitable Green Jobs Grant program launches
In response to a changing climate (and the stresses it puts on a city already dealing with inequality), the City of Austin’s Innovation Office, Equity Office, Office of Sustainability, and the Economic Development Department teamed up to promote climate justice and equitable access to green jobs through an “Equitable Green Jobs Grant” program.
The goal of the program was to research and design ways to close to the gap on workforce development approaches for communities of color, particularly within the green jobs sector.
Several new programs and partnerships have emerged from the green jobs grant program, including a partnership between American YouthWorks, the Austin Carpenters union, and several local employers to train low-income young people for careers in the green energy construction industry (particularly solar installation) and an initiative from Solar Austin and Huston-Tillotson University to pilot an internship matching program to place women and students of color at solar and other clean energy companies.
The Amazon burns
Over the summer, a social media firestorm was ignited when photos of an actual fire in the Amazon rainforest were shared across the internet. More than 26,000 fires were recorded inside the Amazon rainforest in August alone, but as the Austin-based nonprofit Rainforest Partnership explained, these fires were, “record-breaking, but not new. Every year fires are intentionally set in the dry season to clear the forest for beef, soy, and other crops that we consume. Decades of deforestation in the Amazon is now pushing this self-sustaining system to the brink of collapse.”
The students go on strike
In September, Austin high school students skipped school and joined with thousands of others across the world to strike for the climate.
“So why are we all here?,” asked Emma Galbraith (one of the teenagers who helped to organize the Austin Climate Strike) during her speech on the steps of the Texas Capitol building. “We are here because our government is failing us. We are here to act on our power as constituents. And we are here because the climate crisis is a threat to our existence on this planet.”
Two new organizations launch aimed at increasing engagement in city politics
In the fall, two new organizations launched in Austin – PUMA and POC.
PUMA (People United For Mobility Action) is a new organization dedicated to “transforming Austin so that every person has access to safe, affordable, and convenient choices to get around and meet their daily needs.” In doing this, PUMA hopes to examine all of Austin’s proposed transportation solutions through the lenses of equity, affordability, justice, accessibility, and environmental concerns.
In doing this work, PUMA also hopes to authentically engage Austinites who traditionally haven’t had a voice in determining our city’s transportation future.
Planning Our Communities (POC) is a new organization focused on bringing more nuance into conversations around Austin’s land development code, as well as creating space for communities of color and working class people to share their perspectives about the future of our city.
Texas voters make a big decision for state parks
Texas voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 5 in the November election, guaranteeing that all the money from the sporting goods sales tax (which is already being collected) will go to fund our state parks.
“Prop 5 is a historic opportunity to make sure our parks get the funds they need and deserve,” said Luke Metzger (executive director of Environment Texas) in a press release in support of Prop 5.
The EV Buyer’s Guide launches
In response to community concerns (including an article written by AEN) about the difficulties associated with purchasing an electric car in Austin (low inventory, a lack of EV knowledge within local car dealerships), Austin Energy launched an EV Buyer’s Guide, an interactive website that allows users to research electric vehicles in the Austin area and compare models that fit individual needs and budget. Not only that, but Austin Energy is also now partnering with several local car dealerships to install interactive digital kiosks with additional information about electric vehicle range, charging levels, and nearby charging stations.
Austin City Council takes the first vote towards a new land development code
After years of debate, Austin City Council took the first vote (out of three) towards approving a new land development code at the end of December.
A land development code is basically a rule book for the city, explaining what can be built where, as well as how much can be built. It affects everything from transportation, to affordability, to the environment. With this new land development code, the goal is for more housing units to be built within the city (including affordable units), as well as to allow different styles of homes to be built (as opposed to just single-family homes or large apartment complexes).
In a Facebook post after the big vote, Council Member Greg Casar wrote, “Today was a big day at City Council. For the first time since 1984, we took a vote to begin a comprehensive reforms to our outdated land development code. More importantly, we’re doing what we should have done a long time ago: Put racial and social equity front and center in the conversation around how we plan for growth.
We changed the staff proposals to better protect affordability, to better help people stay in their homes, and to slow displacement and flooding.”
But not everyone on Council agreed that the code draft as its currently written is the best path forward in helping the city to accomplish its affordability, housing, and environmental goals. The final vote was 7-4.
“I have also been vocal about this process being rushed, and I’m disappointed in the failure of the majority of this council to recognize our public’s right to protest the zoning that is part of this code and map,” wrote Council Member Leslie Pool (who voted against the new code) in her District 7 December newsletter. “And of course, I am concerned about the excessive mapping of transition zones into our neighborhoods when it may not be necessary in terms of our housing goals.
However, I believe I share common ground with my council colleagues on many issues, and I’d like us to pull together to make some real progress on getting more on-site affordable housing with all these new entitlements. And, I would like us to get specific about crafting an easier path for our current residents and struggling families to build more units and gain income off their properties.”
In other words, this conversation is not over yet. The final land development code will likely be approved in the spring, so stay tuned for more information about ways to get involved.