New Sustainability Director has Plan for Providence

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

Leah Bamberger is Providence’s new sustainability director. (courtesy photo)

Leah Bamberger is Providence’s new sustainability director. (courtesy photo)

PROVIDENCE — Leah Bamberger, the city’s recently appointed sustainability director, wants to enlist you to help make Providence a more environmentally friendly and healthy place to live, work and play.

“If we’re going to achieve the goals set forth by (the city’s sustainability plan), we’re going to need everyone’s contribution, from the biggest companies down to the individual,” she recently told ecoRI News.

Bamberger brings enthusiasm, knowledge and experience to her new job. She grew up in Hopkinton, Mass., a suburb between Boston and Worcester. With a state park near her childhood neighborhood, she learned to enjoy the outdoors at an early age.

Cities, though, would come to fascinate her. “I remember the first time my parents took me and my sister to New York City I was blown away,” she said. Nearer to home, she spent time in Providence and Boston.

Bamberger earned her undergraduate degree in political science, with a minor in environmental studies, at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. The walkable design of Charleston encouraged active streets and the development of strong communities, a contrast to Bamberger’s experience in the suburbs, where car culture and driveways left neighbors relatively isolated, she said.

“I really started to think more concretely about the role cities play in our overarching environmental agenda and sustainability,” Bamberger said.

During her senior year, Bamberger helped Charleston craft its first sustainability plan. She said the experience introduced her to urban planning, a field that combined her interest in cities, politics and sustainability.

Bamberger continued her studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she earned a master’s degree in regional planning. For her thesis, she completed a climate vulnerability assessment for Stamford, Conn.

After graduation, she continued to work in Connecticut for the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Bamberger analyzed GIS data to create maps that highlighted issues such as vulnerable populations with respect to sea-level rise. The goal was to create resources to help decision makers understand the impacts of climate change, she said.

At a subsequent job, Bamberger worked on climate and environmental issues for VHB, a planning firm based in Watertown, Mass., near Boston. She gained experience developing sustainability and adaptation plans for local governments.

In September 2012, she began a job with the city of Boston as special assistant to the chief of environment, energy and open space, and then transitioned into the role of Greenovate Boston fellow, a Barr Foundation-funded position aimed at updating and implementing Boston’s Climate Adaptation Plan.  

Bamberger’s role in updating this plan included engaging the community and acting as a liaison between the community and different city departments. She managed pilot initiatives, including a small-scale compost program and an adopt-a-tree program. Successful pilots graduated into permanent programs housed within existing city departments.

“Leah Bamberger demonstrated outstanding dedication to the city’s climate and sustainability movement during her Greenovate Boston fellowship,” said Austin Blackmon, Boston’s chief of environment, energy and open space. “Her hard work and tireless efforts reflect on the visibility of the program’s branding and the growing success of engaging Boston neighborhoods and residents in the citywide efforts to date.”

While working as special assistant to the chief of environment, energy and open space, Bamberger helped shepherd the Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure ordinance through the political process. The ordinance requires building owners to get energy assessments every five years and report the results.

According to Bamberger, there are two main benefits of the ordinance. First, it makes the energy-usage records of buildings public, which is important information for prospective buyers. Second, the ordinance creates a data set that the city uses to connect building owners to energy-efficiency resources.

Bamberger said the ordinance was contentious, as government mandates often are, but that it actually helps businesses save money. She said large property management companies were already monitoring their energy usages, but most mid-sized businesses began tracking this information for the first time after the ordinance went into effect. Many of these businesses, she said, contacted her office for advice about reducing energy expenses.

“Greenovate Boston created an epicenter for sustainability,” Bamberger said.

There were already many sustainability efforts, led by community groups or organizations, happening in Boston, but they were working alone. Greenovate Boston, she said, aligned goals and got different groups working together.

“Setting goals as a community, it’s powerful,” Bamberger said.

Sustainable Providence
Bamberger said her first month as Providence’s sustainability director has been encouraging. “People get sustainability here. I’m not selling this to anyone,” she said, citing the mayor’s enthusiasm for the issue and her fellow department heads’ understanding of how it fits into their work.

Bamberger, who recently moved to the city’s West Side, said the city’s sustainability plan, Sustainable Providence, is impressive. The document focuses on six areas — waste, food, transportation, water, energy and land use — and identifies specific action items. Bamberger said her job will be to implement the plan, track and report progress to the public, and ensure the plan remains current. She plans to update it annually.

She said she will engage the community regularly. “The community needs to feel ownership of the plan and empowered by it,” she said.

One community engagement tool will be the Sustainable Providence Ambassador program. During its pilot phase, five to seven volunteer ambassadors will be selected in each of three different neighborhoods. The ambassadors will explain the city’s sustainability initiatives to their communities and attempt to gain participation.

Bamberger said she hopes information will travel both to and from City Hall via the ambassador program. “We want to learn from our communities,” she said. “What’s working? What are the priorities of your neighborhood?”

Different communities may pursue different initiatives, such as composting, urban agriculture or energy efficiency, she said. Ambassadors will help identify “the hook” that brings a particular community to the table.

She said ambassadors need not be “sustainability wonks.” Instead, Bamberger will search for people who care about their community and are effective messengers. It’s yet to be determined which neighborhoods will pilot the ambassador program, but Bamberger said she hopes to begin identifying ambassadors in mid-July.

Items Bamberger listed as sustainability priorities include improving recycling and energy efficiency, and moving forward with the next phase of the city’s stormwater management study.

Providence has a notoriously low recycling rate despite the previous sustainability director’s attempts to combat the problem. Bamberger is confident a renewed effort will improve results. She said the ambassador program will focus on the issue and structural challenges will be addressed. Bamberger hopes to gather data about individual truck routes to figure out which households should be targeted for educational outreach.

When recycling trucks are contaminated by trash, the recyclables end up in the landfill, a result that reduces revenue for Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation — the state’s waste-management agency — and costs the city money.  

Providence will compete for the Georgetown University Energy Prize, a two-year competition between 50 cities that focuses on reducing municipal and residential energy usage. Bamberger said she will focus on communication and partnerships to make energy-efficiency opportunities more accessible. The grand prize is $5 million.

The city will continue to research the best approach to managing its stormwater, in partnership with five other municipalities. Phase I of the stormwater management study determined that the six municipalities should work together to address stormwater, and that a stormwater user fee should be considered as a management mechanism.

Bamberger said a user fee is “definitely the right solution,” but is a nuanced issue that will require effective public engagement.