Photo of Kendra Abkowitz
Problem Addressed Climate change
Solution Made progress on climate change in a culture that mostly has denied the merits of climate science
Location Nashville, TN
Impact Local, State

What she did

For more than a decade, Kendra Abkowitz has been making progress on climate change in a place that offers a very narrow path for success on sustainability matters. Her pragmatism and preparation have enabled Abkowitz to carve a path forward first for Tennessee and now Nashville, emphasizing non-regulatory solutions and navigating opportunities for collaboration with the business community.

Her story

Kendra Abkowitz has been an effective advocate for the people of Tennessee in supporting sustainability and resilience initiatives as a response to climate change. Working for state and local governments, she has pushed for progress despite the influence of a national culture war that is defined in part by partisan denial of climate science and rejection of good government (i.e. the idea that government should support and protect the democratic and human rights of its people, particularly when free markets fail to do so). She is a sophisticated problem solver who has been successful in navigating the political and business landscape to advance sustainability and resilience goals while working in state government; she now aims to do the same for the people of her hometown of Nashville.

Working for the People of Tennessee

Abkowitz launched her career in public service in 2012 as a policy analyst with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). Within four years, she had been promoted to Director of the Office of Policy and Planning, and two years later rose to assistant commissioner in the Office of Policy & Sustainable Practices. Even though TDEC is a regulatory agency, the lack of political will for regulatory solutions to climate change – and even a reluctance to use the term “climate change” in policy discussions – compelled her to focus on voluntary programs to make any progress.

“The concept of climate change is viewed as very complex at the state level,” Abkowitz explained. “but I think there has been more receptiveness in recent years to using those terms in large part because the private sector is becoming more comfortable with them.”

As assistant commissioner, Abkowitz oversaw several non-regulatory programs that engaged Tennessee businesses, state parks, and several local communities in climate-related activities. Those activities have included implementation of energy and water conservation technologies and solid waste reduction. At least two of these voluntary programs had measurable results under Abkowitz’s leadership.

The Tennessee Green Star Partnership is a public/private partnership that encourages 57 manufacturers to make operational changes that, in 2021, diverted 151,000 tons of solid waste from landfills, conserved 238 million gallons of water, and reduced carbon emissions by decreasing energy consumption by more than 107 megawatt hours.

Go Green With Us is a partnership between TDEC and the state parks that produce guidance for how park staff and visitors can incorporate sustainability actions into their park experience. In 2020, the results included collecting and recycling 580 tons of material from all 56 parks and composting 3.35 of food waste from three parks. In addition, by 2021, 51 parks had replaced old water fixtures with low flow alternatives to conserve water and all 56 parks had installed LED lights in high traffic areas to save energy and reduce carbon emissions.

Another program, Get Food Smart TN, formally launched in 2018 to help organizations and individuals initiate efforts to reduce food waste. After gathering suggestions from different organizations on what support would be most helpful, the program began offering technical assistance in 2020 to participating organizations.

Working for the People of Nashville

In October 2021, after nine years at TDEC, Abkowitz took on a new challenge as Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer in Nashville, the deep blue capital city of a deep red state. She inherited a local culture that is generally supportive of climate change actions, though the city has been hampered by the lack of regulatory support from the state and a sometimes reluctant business community.

Nashville Targeted in the Culture War

As a Democratic stronghold, Nashville is frequently a battleground in the culture war that has engulfed the nation. In 2015, just weeks after the people of Nashville approved a ballot initiative that would set aside jobs for residents of low-income communities, the state General Assembly passed a bill that nullified the initiative and overrode the will of the voters. In 2020, one year before Abkowitz took on her new role, the Daily Wire, a conservative news and opinion website that also produces podcasts and documentaries, relocated its headquarters from Los Angeles to Nashville – with hopes of turning the symbolic capital of country music into a hub for conservative news and entertainment. And just months after Abkowitz started her new job, Tennessee’s GOP Governor Bill Lee signed into law a new congressional map that did away with the reliably Democratic district that had encompassed Nashville since Reconstruction. Instead, the map divided the state’s biggest city into three sections that each combined with large rural areas to create three solidly Republican districts that all included large .

When asked about the political culture that is generally aligned against her objectives, Abkowitz made clear that she sees the landscape differently – not as one full of malicious intent but as one filled with obstacles that dictate how she navigates it. It’s with this very pragmatic view that she approaches the people she needs to work with as potential allies rather than adversaries, so that together they can build mutually productive relationships.

“If I can sit down with somebody one on one, I find they’re largely supportive of sustainability, environmental stewardship, preservation of resources, even people who may not align politically. I think people’s hearts and minds are in the right place and we just have to find the right way to have the conversation or the right way to present the issues to make it meaningful to them personally or to the larger group that they represent.”

Now 18 months into her job as Nashville’s top sustainability advocate, Abkowitz credits the city’s rapid growth and extreme and destructive weather events with creating a new sense of urgency in the business community for improvements to the city’s preparedness and capacity to recover from the ensuing emergencies. Nashville, which recently ranked as the fifth fastest growing large metropolitan region in the country, suffered through a derecho, tornadoes, and floods since 2020, all while coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Abkowitz believes the city is at an inflection point that has led to “really serious conversations about” a range of topics, including homelessness, affordable housing, and transportation and transit infrastructure, that are typically addressed separately. She acknowledges that with so many issues on the table, it can make it hard for city leaders to focus and assess priorities for investment. But, she says, it also creates opportunities to identify solutions that address multiple problems.

“Finding the connections between what I’m trying to do and my peers who are working in those other areas is really important. Sometimes we can go faster by jointly tackling those things than if we were doing so separately in silos.”

One area of common ground for Abkowitz and her colleagues centers on development of the East Bank, an area of Nashville along the Cumberland River that historically has been abused and neglected due to racial discrimination. The city recently completed a two-year vision plan that emphasizes environmental resilience, green space for public use, and land use standards that support high density housing and a diverse mix of residential living, businesses, and community-focused educational or cultural uses. Abkowitz is particularly pleased that the plan includes more sustainable nature-based solutions, including laying back the banks of the Cumberland River using an appropriate river width-to-depth ratio to limit potential flood events during heavy rainfall.

The plan also calls for creation of a public greenway along the banks for better management of stormwater run-off. At the same time, it pushes the construction of residential and commercial buildings away from the flood zone, reducing the time and costs of recovery from more extreme weather.

Nashville has applied for funding for the East Bank project through the federal government’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program. In addition, Oracle, the database management systems developer that in 2021 purchased land in the adjacent River North area, has committed to paying $175 million for new greenways.

Abkowitz is also focused on expanding the city’s use of electric vehicles (EV). Currently, she is working with the public school system and the city’s transit system to convert their respective bus fleets to EVs. The city already has a robust EV infrastructure with 92 charging stations around the city, 62 of which are available for public use.

Passionately and Determinedly Driven

Mayor John Cooper cited Abkowitz for her passion for sustainability, resilience, and environmental justice when he announced her appointment as the city’s new Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer. For Abkowitz, being a good environmental steward comes naturally. She grew up in Nashville in a household where recycling and water and energy conservation were simply part of everyday life. But it wasn’t until she interned for two summers in Vanderbilt University’s Sustainability and Environmental Management Office, while pursuing a master’s degree in sociology, that she says she was first exposed to the idea that one could pursue a career in sustainability.

Once she had her master’s, she went to work full time, first in the same office at Vanderbilt where she had interned and then at TDEC. She also began a doctoral program in environmental management and policy, receiving her PhD in 2015. Recognizing as she began moving up the ranks at TDEC that she lacked the management skills to lead an organization, she enrolled in a part-time MBA program the next year and earned her second master’s degree in 2020.

Looking back, she says, she likes the multidisciplinary aspects of sustainability – combining science, technology, behavior change, and the law – to bring about changes that impact other areas of society as well. “A lot of the things that make sense from a mitigation or adaptation perspective are also really good for communities, for public health reasons, for affordability reasons. We’re still getting all of those benefits today from them as well.”

When talking with Abkowitz, it’s clear that she is undaunted by whatever obstacles get thrown her way. She seems always to have one unwavering eye on a target landing downstream while figuring out how to navigate those obstacles to get there. This applies not just to how she negotiates an adversarial political landscape to advance voluntary climate actions but also to how she juggles the responsibilities of parenthood with other professional responsibilities – like her promise to deliver a Zoom presentation to the Tennessee Women in Green from home on a morning when her three young children were also home and making noise (she relocated to her much quieter parents’ house), or her commitment to join a Zoom call for an interview with The American Leader even though she had to take a sick child to the doctor (she rescheduled for two hours later, not some other day in the future though that option was offered).

Abkowitz is ever ready and equipped to press forward for more productive results.

Author: George Linzer
Contributing Editor: David Hawkings
Published: April 11, 2023

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Sources

Interviews with Kendra Abkowitz, Feb 17, 2023 and May 16, 2022

Kelsey Byeler, “The Green Issue 2022: Meet Metro’s Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer”, Nashville Scene, Apr 21, 2022, https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/coverstory/the-green-issue-2022-meet-metro-s-chief-sustainability-and-resilience-officer/article_263b9dce-c029-11ec-99b9-e73e683e073b.html, accessed Mar 15, 2023

Cedric Dent, Jr., “Cooper adds eco-sustainability chief to administration”, Nashville Post, Oct 5, 2021, https://www.nashvillepost.com/politics/cooper-adds-eco-sustainability-chief-to-administration/article_a01dadda-2600-11ec-9084-ff962d7e1a2d.html, accessed Feb 13, 2023

Caleb Powell, Ashley Cabrera, “Sustainable Cities Part 2: Nashville”, The State of Sustainability, Dec 15, 2021, https://podcasters.spotify.com/pod/show/thestateof-sustainability/episodes/Sustainable-Cities-Part-2-Nashville-e1bvsdv, accessed Feb 13, 2023

List of attendees, “ULI Nashville: Metro Nashville’s Sustainability Plan – What Is Envisioned for Existing and New Construction?”, Urban Land Institute, https://netforum.uli.org/eweb/DynamicPage.aspx?WebCode=atndlistdc&key=E189D385-6DA6-43C4-9796-084BF5E2C9FE&_gl=1*1ppd2o5*_ga*MjAyMDQ5MzY2Ny4xNjc4OTEwMTQy, accessed Mar 15, 2023

Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, “Mayor John Cooper’s Office Collaborates with Universities and Community Partners to Map Heat Distribution Across Nashville Neighborhoods”, Jun 17, 2022, https://www.nashvillechamber.com/blog/2022/mayor-john-coopers-office-collaborates-with-universities-and-community-partners-to-map-heat-distribution-across-nashville-neighborhoods, accessed Mar 15, 2023

Caroline Eggars, “Nashville mayor calls on TVA to convert coal plant to solar energy — not gas”, WPLN, Jun 9, 2022, https://wpln.org/post/nashville-mayor-calls-on-tva-to-convert-coal-plant-to-solar-energy-not-gas/, accessed Mar 15, 2023

Morgan McCarthy, “Mayor discusses sustainability and resilience for the East Bank”,  LocalToday, Oct 12, 2022, https://localtoday.news/tn/mayor-discusses-sustainability-and-resilience-for-the-east-bank-48357.html, accessed Mar 15, 2023

PRIDE Newsdesk, “Mayor Cooper announces new accomplishments advancing sustainability agenda, including: Federal Solar Recognition; Energy Benchmarking; Climate Action Plan Survey; and updated Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory”, PRIDE Publishing Group, Sep 9, 2022, https://pridepublishinggroup.com/2022/09/09/mayor-cooper-announces-new-accomplishments-advancing-sustainability-agenda-including-federal-solar-recognition-energy-benchmarking-climate-action-plan-survey-and-updated-greenhouse-gas-emissions/, accessed Mar 15, 2023

Tennessee Women in Green, “February 2022 Monthly Program with Dr. Kendra Abkowitz”, YouTube, https://youtu.be/dDBCMBUjkmM

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