Laura Spanjian has never lived outside of California — not even for college. And she recently left her post at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (and pulled out of an election for District 8 Supervisor) to take up the rather ambitious goal of making Houston greener as director of sustainability.
Spanjian allows that some of her colleagues were shocked at her career move (and perhaps more were shocked at her geographical one), but she says feedback was overwhelmingly positive. "They were all thrilled I'd be working for (Mayor Annise) Parker," she tells CultureMap of her weightily considered, "definitely right" decision.
So what do the Stanford and UCLA-educated sustainability maven and her team of two (that's generous) have in store? We put it to her like this: What's your most ambitious goal, and what's your most pressing?
Most ambitious, but most important, to Spanjian is getting every Houstonian access to single-stream, curbside-pickup recycling. You may have heard happy tales of those big green bins-on-wheels that you can throw anything that you even suspect is recyclable into, and have picked up at your door. Well, they're real. And Spanjian wants them on your street.
"In cities that have it, recycling rates skyrocket," Spanjian says. "We're cutting-edge when it comes to compost, but not recycling. We're kind of funny about that."
As for her most pressing goal, Spanjian is bent on preparing Houston for the electric cars that will be hitting the market at the end of the year. That effort includes adding fast-charging public charging stations, which Spanjian hopes will encourage car companies to supply Houston with more electric cars and make residents feel more comfortable buying them.
Although she'd ideally like to reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles and improve public transportation, "we do have a car culture, and we have to work with people where they're at."
Spanjian's focus is on a comprehensive program to reduce energy, water and waste, and she's rolling out one program next month: The Green Office Challenge, a yearlong program with different monthly themes that allows building tenants and managers to compete with one another in green initiatives. The competition is divided into management districts, and will also make use of new energy-efficiency loan programs.
Also on Spanjian's radar? Establishing a weekday farmers market downtown, getting Houston into the top five cities for LEED-certified buildings (we're No. 8) and promoting the environmental work Houston's already doing.
Spanjian surmises that last goal might well be one of her loftiest. "Houston is on the cutting edge of going really big in environmental work," Spanjian says. "There is so much great stuff going on, and no one knows about it. People in Houston like to get stuff done, but they don't really like to talk about how they get stuff done."
She points to an energy panel she spoke on, which was noticeably absent Reliant Energy. When Spanjian asked the company, who she says is making major strides in energy efficiency, why they didn't attend they replied simply: "We're doers."
But despite (most of our) resistance to self-promotion, Spanjian says it's the people who daily affirm her decision to relocate. "I love the people," she says. "They're warm, welcoming, passionate and smart. It's the best thing about it."
And she's learning the language. "People do care about the dollar, and green initiatives save money," Spanjian says. "Sometimes, depending on my audience, I talk about the savings."
Spanjian and her partner are appreciating Houston's exceptionally stretchy dollar as they house-hunt in the Heights and Montrose areas — a good omen that she's here to stay. She'd spent some time in Houston visiting, but Spanjian has uncovered many of our more hidden gems since moving in April.
"It's like a treasure hunt," she says of her exploring, as she rattles off names like Anvil, Abejas, Tiny Boxwood's, t'afia, Dharma Café, Beaver's, Stella Sola and Greenway Coffee as local favorites.
"Houston has a great coffee scene! Who would ever know that?" she says over perfectly prepared lattes at Catalina Coffee.
She braved the summer (despite the bugs) but is headed back west soon for Burning Man. We're not worried, though. Spanjian says we had her at frozen margaritas.