November 24, 2015 -- As the city's first director of the Office of Sustainability, Laura Spanjian spearheaded initiatives ranging from creating a farmers market to launching the Houston Green Office Challenge and its LED streetlight conversion program. She also led efforts to start the Houston Bike Share program and the Property Assessed Clean Energy initiative, or PACE, which makes it easier for commercial property owners to get capital to install energy-efficient updates.
Spanjian arrived from California in 2010. Although she stepped down from her post earlier this month to take a job with vacation rental company Airbnb, she will remain based in Houston as the southwest region public policy lead.
She spoke recently with the Chronicle about Houston's quality of life, changes in its culture and her predictions for the future. Following are edited excerpts.
Q: When you began your post as the city's director of the Office of Sustainability, what kind of mindset shift needed to happen to make Houston a greener city?
A: I came at a great time. There was a ton of work to be done, but there were so many people who wanted it to happen. Even though I was an outsider, I worked hard to listen to people and figure out what people here wanted. I wanted to work within Houston's culture to help change it and make it greener. I wanted to do it from a good foundation. So, I think what was lucky was I had support and help to implement the initiatives.
Q: How did you view Houston's receptiveness to "green" initiatives?
A: What I've heard from the town was that this city was a business city. It's a place of business. People did work here and that was mostly it. They didn't do other things. Now people are coming here not just to work but raise a family. They are coming to live, eat, go to the theater and enjoy Houston. They want a lot more quality-of-life amenities. They want a healthy, green city. That's what younger people want. That's what families want.
Q: So the environment and sustainability does not exist in its own vacuum?
A: All these things that are coming together to make Houston a better city. To make it healthier, obviously, but to make it a place people want to be, a place they are attracted to. There are so many things to do, and there are interesting people doing them. It's not just a new restaurant, it's the chef. It's not just green initiatives, but people behind them. Who are you interacting with? Who are you learning from? That's part of a great city, too.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges in Houston you hoped to tackle?
A: I did work in so many sectors, energy efficiency, renewable energy, biking initiatives, advocating for more walkability, the complete streets endeavor and working with the private sector and green buildings. ...There was a lot to do.
Q: What were the challenges in drawing in the private sector to adopt green or sustainable practices?
A: First of all, businesses first and foremost want to have a healthy building. It reduces what they're paying, so at a minimum, they save money. No. 2, it helps attract and retain employees. If you are working in a green, healthy building, tenants and employees care about that. You can see it. Brokers and real estate agents tell us they never talked about sustainability features. Now it's a given. Those energy-efficiency tools have to be in there to get top dollar in rents. ... It's become part of the best practices and operating practices. The government has also helped. Our initiatives have encouraged, tried to support and promote all these things mentioned. All of that has become the perfect storm to push green buildings to the forefront to make it something status quo.
Q: What do you see for the future of Houston, particularly as you step down from your post?
A: Just because I'm not in the role anymore, someone else will come and be fantastic. There are so many people out there doing it. I feel confident that this work will continue and Houston will be even better and healthier. There will be more green spaces and more bikes, and the thing is, even though this mayor's time is ending, she has put in place things that will continue. There are so many things we've done that have life beyond this administration.
Q: Do you see Airbnb's mission fitting into the themes we talked about today? Quality of life and resource management?
A: At its core Airbnb is about sustainability. It's about utilizing an underutilized resource, your home, if you have that extra bedroom or are traveling for month. ... It gives people options for housing on vacation, leisure, business trips, and allows hosts to make extra money. From its core, it's a sustainable company.
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