The city of Asheville has announced its new chief sustainability officer.
Amber Weaver, who previously served as energy and environmental project manager for the DeKalb County government in Georgia and director of Keep DeKalb Beautiful, joined the city in July. Asheville’s first chief sustainability officer, Maggie Ullman, was hired in 2008 and stepped down last November.
Weaver spoke with Xpress about her background in environmental efforts in Georgia and her plans for sustainability efforts in Asheville.
Xpress: “Sustainability” is sometimes criticized as being a vague buzzword, and it seems like everyone defines it a little differently. What is your personal definition of sustainability?
Weaver: The city of Asheville’s vision and guiding principles of sustainability is “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. These solutions meet the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ by balancing environmental stewardship, economic growth and social responsibility.” I’m fortunate to be in a city whose guiding principles align with my personal beliefs and values. I look forward to working with both the city and the community to enhance Asheville’s already robust leadership in sustainability.
Tell us more about your background as an energy and environmental project manager for DeKalb County.
While working for DeKalb County government, I held two positions, both focusing on environmental education and outreach and strategies to improve efficiencies, minimize negative impacts and ensure stewardship within county operations and the environment as a whole.
During my tenure with DeKalb, I worked directly with the citizens on environmental education efforts from backyard home composting to rain barrels, as well as creating policy for DeKalb County government that included energy efficiency and conservation, sustainable procurement, air quality, alternative work schedules and sustainable landscaping. I was most fortunate to work with a talented group of professionals that really never discouraged any of the aspirations I had for the county.
Will that work inspire any new initiatives you bring to Asheville? You mentioned a green business program in your Asheville City Source interview as something you would like to start here. Can you tell us more about that?
The city of Asheville is so inspiring! Over the last several weeks I’ve had the opportunity to meet with many passionate and uplifting community groups who have accepted me with open arms. Their inspiration alone is a magnetic driving force that will carry the work and vision of sustainable communities to fruition.
The Green Business Program is an example of community work, created by a team of environmental professionals energized to bring the principles of sustainability into the community. Over the last decade, government and institutions have focused on internal operations when it comes to sustainability, and I believe now is the time to share those practices and knowledge with community businesses, bringing them on board to help both their carbon footprint and pocketbook.
In your interview with Asheville City Source, you also said that the city is looking to reduce its waste stream by 50 percent by 2035. How does the city plan to accomplish that goal? Can we expect to see a city composting program?
In 2014, Asheville’s City Council passed Resolution No. 14-27 establishing a waste-reduction goal and benchmarks for the city. The long-term waste-reduction goal of 50 percent by 2035 will require several waste-reduction strategies. When addressing waste-reduction efforts and “zero waste,” it’s critical to understand the waste stream, ensuring there are the right avenues in place to divert organics and recyclables from the landfill.
The city will be exploring multifamily housing, businesses, residential and community recycling opportunities to have something to offer everyone. It’s a big goal, and I know this community can achieve it.
You mentioned increased recycling efforts in multifamily housing, but recycling is not currently offered in every public housing community. Will expanding recycling programs to Pisgah View, Dearview and Klondyke be part of this effort?
The city of Asheville has partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville in order to develop a public housing recycling pilot project, to be implemented in the 280 units of the Erskine, Walton and Livingston Street communities. The residents of these communities will be able to utilize “Big Blue” recycling roll carts just like other Asheville residents, which will greatly enhance their ability to recycle and reduce waste.
The pilot project will run from October 2015 through June 2016. The city has been awarded a Community Waste Reduction and Recycling grant from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in order to help fund this pilot project. Once we have gathered the results of the pilot program and shared them with NCDENR, the city’s intentions are to expand the program to all the residents within the public housing community based on the success of the pilot program.
The city has previously mentioned the possibility of a “pay-as-you-throw” initiative for solid waste. Should we expect to see any developments there in the near future?
At the beginning of 2015, the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy & the Environment proposed that City Council approve a “pay-as-you-throw” waste management system in light of City Council’s stated goal of accomplishing 50 percent waste reduction by 2035. To date, city staff has been working with a consultant to explore components of PAYT and gather the public’s opinion on such a system.
The Sustainability Office, Sanitation Division and the Communication and Public Engagement Office are gathering data to create a project page that is specifically designed for residents to view and interact with. The public can expect to see the city’s Zero Waste AVL project page very soon.
Many of our readers have expressed concerns about walkability in the city. The 2004 Pedestrian Plan Update identifies a need for 108 more miles of sidewalk in the city, but since 2006 only 18 miles have been constructed. Does the sustainability office have any plans to expedite this effort?
We share your readers’ concern for walkability. The city’s capital budget has planned $30 million in multimodal transportation investments in the next five years, including more than $10 million in sidewalks. That includes sidewalks on Hendersonville Road and New Leicester Highway, which are funded in part with federal grants awarded by the French Broad River Metropolitan Planning Organization, $1.7 million in the new neighborhood sidewalk program, and sidewalks on Riverside Drive and Lyman Street that are part of the River Arts District transportation improvement project.
The city is also investing in greenways. In the same five-year period, the budget anticipates constructing the Town Branch Greenway, French Broad River West Greenway, Clingman Forest Greenway and a greenway along the east bank of the French Broad River as part of the River Arts District transportation improvement project.
In addition, the city is kicking off a pedestrian and bicyclist safety campaign next month. Watch for Me NC is a campaign developed by N.C. Department of Transportation to partner with local communities to make walking and bicycling safer and more comfortable. The Watch for Me NC program involves two key elements, safety and educational messages directed toward drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists; and enforcement of associated laws. The kickoff was National Night Out on Aug. 4, and the campaign will run through November.
In a related note, the city has been working on a Multimodal Transportation Plan and held a few Asheville in Motion charrettes earlier this year. What did the city learn from that effort, and how do you think we’ll see transportation in the city begin to change in the next 10 years?
The city’s mobility plan, Asheville in Motion, is still under development. The symposium held in November of 2014 allowed the community to express what is important for them in terms of mobility and what they would like to see in the future. The exercises showed that planning for pedestrian facilities was the No.1 priority, followed by safety and transit, bicycles and neighborhoods.
The charrettes earlier this year explored what is possible to achieve in a constrained environment through several demonstration projects. Consultants are now developing the strategy and prioritization process, which will allow the city to look at the transportation network in an integrated way and plan for all modes. Transportation is already changing; we are developing the first truly multimodal project, the RADTIP, which considers all modes and plans for private vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. Asheville in Motion will give us the tools to plan and prioritize projects that provide alternatives to all users.
As a community, Asheville is often criticized for not being as inclusive as it could be, particularly in the environmental movement. How do you think diversity relates to sustainability, and does the city have any plans to contribute to environmental equality?
Balancing environmental stewardship, economic growth and social responsibility includes every citizen in Asheville. Presently, the city is working diligently to address affordable housing and equitable development within Asheville’s city limits. The city received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, Building Blocks for Sustainable Communities, to address equitable growth and development.
Additionally, the city is preparing for the 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which will allow the citizens of Asheville opportunities to participate in envisioning future goals and aspirations for their city. The process will allow the city to converge areas of equitability into the Comprehensive Plan, such as walkability, transportation, green affordable housing and greenways.
Since the Sustainability Office was created in 2007, the city has seen the creation of the Big Blue recycling program and a 2 percent reduction in its carbon footprint each year since 2009. What do you feel have been some other successes of the department since its inception?
How fortunate to work for the city of Asheville. Maggie Ullman, my predecessor, really paved the way, allowing many avenues to explore and enhance the city’s reduction in its carbon footprint. The Sustainability Office has led the way in energy efficiency and conservation efforts, waste-reduction goals that support zero waste for the community, solar-powered electric charging stations for vehicles and climate adaptation exploration, just to name a few.
But there is much work to be done, and creating sustainable communities touches all departments and the community it serves. I look forward to partnering with both city departments and the community at large to explore and strengthen sustainability in the city of Asheville.