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Column: Big green city

Posted: July 15, 2014 3:36 p.m.
Updated: July 16, 2014 5:00 a.m.

One of the things I enjoy most about what I do is being invited to cities around the country. Whether I’m speaking at conferences, banding birds or taking part in archaeological digs, I look forward to being able to spend time in places that are different from small town South Carolina. One of the draws for me is getting to see the way other places address conservation issues. I absolutely love seeing the various approaches to environmental issues by municipalities and hearing ideas from diverse groups of conservationists. My most recent trip was no different, giving me hope that the sense of stewardship of one city will make its way to this town.

I just returned from a week-long stay in one of the most progressive cities in the country, where the citizens have decided to address the problems of pollution and have taken on the causes of climate change. In the profoundly conservative state of Texas, Austin is unmatched in this country in the number green and sustainability initiatives passed by the city government and fully supported by the people. While some areas of Texas may still deny the realities of climate change, that debate was long ago put to rest in the city of Austin. The citizens there decided years ago to move past the rhetoric of politics and embraced the scientific evidence of a warming climate and changing weather patterns. In doing so, they began moving their city towards a group of lofty goals to lower their carbon footprint as a community and looked to renewable energy sources as potential ways to generate power and operate utilities.

Set in central Texas, Austin constantly faces heat waves and is currently being gripped by a persistent drought. Precipitation rarely comes in abundance there and, when it does, it must recharge often-overtaxed aquifers. Grassy lawns are not encouraged. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite is true. With water being scarce, watering is hardly an option and anyone wanting a lush yard to mow several times a week would be sadly disappointed. The people of Austin embrace the use of native plants that require little water and xeriscaping is the rule for yards. The yards that did have grass were far from manicured and featured the native grasses of the area. One resident happily told me they were never cutting another blade of grass. They even joked about the silliness of people that spend large amounts of time and money on something as frivolous as mowing frequently.

One place plants and gardening are encouraged are on rooftops. Individuals and businesses that construct and plant rooftop gardens, which serve as unbelievably efficient insulation and offer beauty and produce, receive credits towards utility bills and future development projects. I saw some of the most amazing gardens atop restaurants where chefs grew fresh herbs and vegetables used in entrees, providing the freshest of ingredients to customers. Residents also harnessed as much rainfall as possible, using rain barrels and cisterns to store precious water to irrigate fruit, vegetable and herb plants.

Austin Energy, the city-owned power company, offers rebates to those wishing to install solar panels to harness the blazing Texas sun as power. The utility not only offers rebates on photovoltaic panels, they often help finance solar projects and customers can work towards selling electricity back to Austin Energy. Taking solar to another level, Austin also has ambulances that have solar panels to power batteries and drastically lower the amount of idling ambulances do on gasoline or diesel engines. This, in turn, lowers the emissions caused by the vehicles.

The most impressive form of everyday conservation in Austin is seen in every supermarket, department store, sporting goods store and any place of business in between. There are no single-use bags given to customers at stores in Austin. If you don’t take a reusable bag into the store with you, you’ll be carrying the goods in your arms as you leave. I am rarely even offered the choice of paper or plastic here. Austin residents overwhelmingly supported taking that choice one step further -- neither. With a population of just under 2 million in the greater Austin area, the number of needless plastic bags ending up in landfills is lowered by insanely impressive numbers. I’m encouraged by the community willingness to take on a minor inconvenience to make a positive impact on the environment.

When looking ahead, Austin has pledged to achieve 35 percent of its energy needs from renewable resources by 2020. In fact, the city is so committed to this goal that they are well ahead of the timeline set to achieve the 35 percent standard. They are currently sitting at nearly 30 percent, with six years left to go. I wish this enthusiasm for the environment would expand to other cities and towns. At this time, only Melbourne, Australia, has the number of green initiatives in place. None of this even begins to show how bike-friendly Austin is or how they encourage residents to find alternate ways to travel. Now you see why Austin is called the big green city in a big red state.

(Josh Arrants has worked with birds throughout South Carolina for more than 12 years, specializing in the management of the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, as well as songbirds and birds of prey. A graduate of the University of South Carolina, he has lectured on birds all the way from Texas to California, from Florida to Maine.)


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