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.