Nashville’s journey toward becoming more resilient and sustainable: An interview with Kendra Abkowitz

Cities around the world are figuring out their role in combating climate change and promoting sustainability. In rapidly growing cities, it can be particularly challenging to direct resources toward serving a burgeoning population while promoting sustainability.

This balancing act is top of mind for Kendra Abkowitz, director of sustainability and resilience for Nashville, Tennessee. From her position in the mayor’s office, Kendra works across the city and with innumerable stakeholders to launch and oversee initiatives meant to provide the growing population access to affordable and sustainable transport systems, reduce the environmental impact of the city, and provide universal access to green spaces.

I spoke with Kendra about her vision for the city, Nashville’s specific goals related to sustainability and resilience, and how she and others in the community are overcoming challenges to make Nashville a better place to live, now and in the future. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

Kendra Abkowitz has served the city of Nashville in sustainability and resilience for three years. Before that, she worked for nearly a decade in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, conducting and directing policy research and planning. Kendra holds both an MBA from Middle Tennessee State University and a PhD in environmental management and policy from Vanderbilt University.

Annie: What does a sustainable and resilient city look like? And how does that compare with where Nashville and other US cities are today?

Kendra: When I think about a sustainable and resilient city, I think about one that prioritizes its people by providing community spaces where people can gather. It’s going to be designed with robust infrastructure comprising materials that have high recycled content and built in a way that can withstand future extreme weather events. It’s going to be clean, use renewable energy, and have lots of public transportation and multimodal options, such as sidewalks and bikeways.

Today, both in Nashville and in many other US cities, we’re not really supporting the community the way it needs to be supported, from both a social services perspective and a hard infrastructure perspective. Though many cities are designed specifically for cars, their infrastructure hasn’t kept up, resulting in lots of traffic. Many cities are not safe. They lack trees, particularly in the urban cores. And the neighborhoods that are more sustainable and resilient relative to others tend to have the highest real estate values. It’s not equitable.

Annie: How is Nashville trying to address this reality? What are some of the city’s goals as it relates to becoming more sustainable and resilient?

Kendra: We’re fortunate in that we’ve recently gone through two different planning exercises. Our climate action plan was completed in 2021, which focuses specifically on greenhouse gas mitigation. The second plan, which we’re in the process of finalizing now, is our climate adaptation and resilience plan, focused more on how we can adjust the way we live to be better equipped to address climate change.

These are living documents, but some of our more significant goals include transitioning from fossil fuel–based resources to renewable resources, in terms of both how we supply our city with electricity and our transportation resources. Doing so will help us achieve an overall goal of reducing our city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. We update our greenhouse gas emissions inventory and track progress against this target every three years. We also have goals to reduce drive-alone rates from 79 percent to 40 percent by 2050 and to increase electric-vehicle adoption by 40 percent by 2050.

And we have a goal of achieving zero waste by 2050. In the Southeast, it’s been cheap to use landfills relative to other areas of the country. So for quite some time, we really haven’t paid as much attention to waste reduction because there hasn’t been financial pressure to do so. However, all of our nearby and surrounding landfills will reach capacity within the next three to five years. So we’re focused on decreasing the amount of waste we generate through source reduction but also through diversion such as recycling and composting.

And in all of this, we recognize that environmental challenges and opportunities are not spread evenly across our community. So we have commitments and goals to increase and enhance our community engagement approaches so that they are more equitable.

“We recognize that environmental challenges and opportunities are not spread evenly across our community. So we have commitments and goals to increase and enhance our community engagement approaches so that they are more equitable.”

Annie: What are some specific priority initiatives you’re overseeing currently?

Kendra: We’re getting ready to pilot composting within about six of our different school system cafeterias. I’ve been spending a lot of time working on the program plan for that composting pilot, including the budget, the educational materials, and what processes and standard operating procedures look like. And now we’re moving forward into implementation, which will involve going out into those schools to train volunteers as well as the students on what can go in the composting bin and explain why it’s important to compost. That community engagement piece is really important, as is documenting the benefits of the program.

We are also in the pilot stage of a curbside food scrap collection program. The city is providing 750 households with one year of curbside food scrap collection at no cost to the residents. The goal is to see how much food waste is diverted and what it would take to scale the program up if we were to offer it as a citywide service. It’s been in progress for about eight months, and it’s been wildly popular. We’re collecting on average close to six pounds per participating household per week in food waste that’s now being made into compost. And we’re working on an end market for that compost as well.

Annie: Where do the ideas for initiatives originate, and how connected are you to people doing similar work in other cities?

Kendra: There’s a very strong network of sustainability officers in cities across the country. So our ideas are sometimes based on a best practice or an innovation that’s been successful or popular in another city. Other times we bring multiple community leaders or subject matter experts together and lay out all the challenges and ask if there is a common solution that can address them. This has worked really well with issues at the intersection of public health and sustainability goals, particularly as it relates to air pollution and extreme heat. We’re working through some processes right now for which we’re bringing in leaders from the public health sector and the sustainability space—particularly natural-resource management—to help define solutions to benefit the public in terms of not only adding access to green space but also providing a great location to recreate, which is going to have a positive impact on public health. Often our community leaders have the best ideas, and the solutions may be simpler than we would expect.

We also partner quite a bit with the higher education community here. Nashville is lucky in that we have four historically Black colleges locally. We also have Vanderbilt University and Belmont University. The academic community is often at the forefront of research and innovative technology, so we partner with them to do some of the research and then seek grants or define solutions based on what their research tells us.

“The academic community is often at the forefront of research and innovative technology, so we partner with them to do some of the research and then seek grants or define solutions based on what their research tells us.”

Annie: What are some of the main challenges you face in getting efforts off the ground?

Kendra: One is just sheer availability of resources. This is acute in Nashville, given our exponential growth. We’re growing faster than we can keep up, particularly from an infrastructure perspective but also across the board from a city services perspective. We’re playing catch-up financially because we still fund ourselves like a midsize city, but we’re a big city now, and we need to start acting like it. This is a challenging topic with the public because that usually means some sort of increased taxation, whether that be for the private sector or residents. Politics are also a challenge.

A lot of cities—and probably the public sector as a whole—are underresourced in terms of what they’re being expected to deliver on. The public sector is held to a higher standard than the private sector—and for good reason. We’re using publicly sourced dollars. So we owe it to the public to be transparent and accountable for how we’re doing what we do, but that also means we’re spending a lot of our time being transparent and accountable.

“The public sector is held to a higher standard than the private sector—and for good reason. We’re using publicly sourced dollars. So we owe it to the public to be transparent and accountable for how we’re doing what we do.”

Annie: How do you get people to agree on priorities and buy into sustainable initiatives, especially when the politics don’t align?

Kendra: There are always carrots and sticks. You can take a regulatory control approach to trying to compel action, or you can take an incentive-based approach. If you’re contemplating doing anything that’s going to draw attention from more conservative parties, an incentive approach might be the better way—making it voluntary for somebody to choose the desired behavior, as opposed to forcing that behavior.

Another strategy is finding the common ground. The state has aligned on essentially becoming the electric vehicle epicenter of the country. We have Ford’s BlueOval City in Memphis, Volkswagen in Chattanooga, GM in Spring Hill, and Nissan headquartered slightly south of this city. And a variety of different battery manufacturers and component manufacturers have now selected sites in Tennessee for their manufacturing operations. A major clean-economy workforce is coming to Tennessee, and that’s something we’re actively embracing here in Nashville. For example, local fleet electrification has been broadly supported locally but also at the state level because there’s this recognized connection between what is benefiting the state from an economic and workforce development perspective and what is benefiting our environment.

Our ability to get support for projects also sometimes comes down to how well we can tell a story. One of the projects I’m working on is trying to secure a dedicated source of funding for transportation infrastructure. We’re one of two of the top 50 or 60 largest cities in the country that doesn’t have a dedicated source of funding for our transportation system. So public transit funding is dependent on the city council’s approval of a budget year to year. With a dedicated funding source for transit, we’d aim to build a better Nashville for residents, where they don’t have to be dependent on a car to get across the city. This would involve building bus rapid transit and dedicated bus lanes on certain corridors, more sidewalks, and increased modern and adaptive signal control so that people aren’t stuck in gridlock as much. In selling that project, we’re quantifying numbers associated with an improved and enhanced transportation system—things such as a decrease in commute time, and monthly income that can now be spent on something other than transportation. We’re also telling stories—for instance, about how a mother now has 30 more minutes with her kid both in the morning and in the afternoon because she’s able to get to where she needs to go faster.

“With a dedicated funding source for transit, we’d aim to build a better Nashville for residents, where they don’t have to be dependent on a car to get across the city.”

We at LEFF are, at heart, storytellers. We are dedicated to amplifying voices and causes from all over the world, regardless of gender orientation, race, or economic background. And the stories we tell as part of the Into the Weeds interview series are particularly important to us. We will be interviewing inspiring individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level; we’ll bring you insights from the leaders of global organizations, renowned experts and academics, and innovative local businesses.

Our goal for this series is the same one that underpins all of LEFF Sustainability Group’s client work: to use our storytelling skills to build awareness of the issues that threaten our planet and to draw attention to all the people, initiatives, and innovations that are fighting back.

Annie: As you look ahead, what excites you?

Kendra: We recently learned that we were selected as one of 25 cities across the country to be part of Bloomberg American Sustainable Cities. Through this, a three-person innovation team will be embedded in the mayor’s office to work at the intersection of climate change and wealth equity. Part of what we’re doing to get ready for that initiative is applying for a major federal grant called the EPA Community Change Grant, which will help us do capacity-building for our Black-led and Black-serving community-based organizations here in Nashville. We’ve got a lot of great community-based organizations doing wealth equity and climate work, but they’re not necessary aligned and leveraging each other’s strengths collectively. So we see building that local capacity and strategy center as a major opportunity. Once we do that, we’ll start working with those community-based organizations to implement programs to address the energy burden—looking at extreme heat centers and how we can design those spaces to be urban oases—and then also looking at air quality and air pollution in those communities.

But I’m also excited about some more general trends in the sustainability and resilience space that could have an impact on our city. The addition of storage to solar solutions is going to open up all kinds of opportunities for renewable energy in locations where we need more resilience on the electrical grid and allow us to more significantly and strategically deploy solar. There’s also a lot of opportunity to use smart technology in different ways to provide city services. For example, we’re using smart technology to remotely and adaptively control our streetlights. Developments such as these provide benefits from a public safety perspective, environmental perspective, and financial perspective while also allowing us to do our work more efficiently.

It’s an exciting time to do this work in any city, but especially in Nashville, given the amount of growth that we’re seeing. It makes it all the more challenging, but it also means there are that many more opportunities.


Behind the scenes

This interview is part of LEFF’s Into the Weeds interview series—a series that amplifies individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level. We’ll be bringing you insights from renowned experts and the leaders of global organizations and innovative local businesses. Annie Mullowney (she/her) is a senior editor for LEFF, and Clair Myatt (she/her) is the manager of LEFF Sustainability Group, for which Katie Parry (she/her) is the director.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of LEFF or have its endorsement.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.