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Wondering What ‘Sustainability’ Is? Just Ask Austin.

The city’s new open data website breaks down how sustainability is defined -- and how it’s being achieved.

The Office of Sustainability tracks data in 10 key areas.
What, really, does “sustainability” mean? Considering that the word is present in the aspirations of countless governments and in the goals of innumerable public programs, it would seem there’d be a standard definition out there. But ask, say, any sustainability director, and most will give different definitions. “Yeah,” laughs Lewis Leff, senior business process consultant for Austin’s Office of Sustainability, “we’ve struggled sometimes to define exactly what ‘sustainability’ means.”

That was, at least, until this October, when Austin rolled out a sort of public-facing progress report on how the city is doing in meeting its environmental goals. Austin’s sustainability dashboard tracks 50 indicators or data points across 10 categories: food and health, ecosystems, energy, water, zero waste, mobility, climate, equity and livability, the built environment, and economy and creativity. Each of these categories is tied to an aspect of the city’s sustainability plan or to a specific city program. The public and city employees can easily see where Austin is meeting its stated goals, and where it isn’t.

The dashboard has also helped define sustainability, says Leff. “It’s one of those things that you can’t just put down in six or eight words. It’s just too big and broad and complex for that. It needs to be shown and displayed in a way that’s easier to understand.”

The dashboard does that by visually highlighting an indicator in each of the 10 categories at the top of the site. These indicators also carry labels identifying whether a stated goal was “Achieved” or “Needs Improvement.” For example, Austin wants to reduce carbon emissions from city operations to zero by 2020. To that end, the city is tracking how many metric tons it must cut each year to meet its zero goal. A badge at the top shows that Austin met its 2015 goal, the most recent year of metrics.

Similarly, the city wants to increase the amount of waste recycled at city buildings to 52 percent by 2020. But so far they’re only recycling 21 percent, so the city has marked this indicator as one that needs improvement. The other 40-plus indicators can be found under the various categories.

Created in 2010, Austin’s Office of Sustainability is tasked with monitoring and reporting on sustainability-related projects throughout city government. The dashboard helps do that. “Tracking the different indicators has led to broader conversations and has helped city managers make better data-informed decisions about the programs we have,” says Leff. “There’s more focus now on meeting the targets.” 

The dashboard shows four years’ worth of data. In 2015, Austin met six out of its 10 goals. The four that were listed as needing improvement were zero waste, energy, the built environment, and economy and creativity.

While the dashboard has certainly helped begin to define “sustainability” in Austin, it’s still a work in progress. “We’re going to be gathering feedback over time,” says Leff, “making sure we’re on the right page, if we’re tracking the right things for the community and if there’s interest in tracking new measures.” 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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