As UCLA’s first Chief Sustainability Officer, Nurit Katz works to foster partnerships among academic, research and operational departments and to further UCLA’s sustainability goals and initiatives. Nurit is also an Instructor for UCLA Extension’s Global Sustainability Certificate Program, and her course, Principles of Sustainability I, was recently named one of LA Weekly’s 10 Best Classes in LA.
Nurit earned her MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management (and was named one of its 100 Inspirational Alumni at the school’s 75th anniversary), Masters in Public Policy from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and BA in Environmental Education from Humboldt State University. While still a graduate student, she founded the UCLA Sustainable Resource Center to provide community resources in sustainability. She then served as President of the Graduate Students Association and assisted Dr. Charles Corbett in developing a new interdisciplinary graduate certificate program, Leaders in Sustainability.
Ms. Katz has worked on a variety of sustainability projects, including one for the City of Los Angeles focused on transit-oriented development along the Expo Light Rail Line. She also serves on the Executive Committee of the Luskin Center for Innovation and on the Advisory Boards of Opportunity Green and Women in Green.
Planet Experts: What led you to become UCLA’s first Chief Sustainability Officer?
Nurit Katz: UCLA was working on sustainability a long time before we called it sustainability. We’ve been doing energy efficiency and recycling programs for decades, but we – along with many others in the UC system – first established a sustainability committee in 2005 and I was involved in that committee as a graduate student. The UCLA Sustainability committee is made up of administration staff, faculty and students that helps guide and manage sustainability for the campus. As activity in this area got busier and busier it became very clear that we needed a full time person to help coordinate everything. And so we created this position.
UCLA was not the first university to have a sustainability director type position but now probably 150-200 different universities have sustainability officers – and most major companies. It’s a much more common position now.
PE: What does “sustainable” mean to you?
NK: I think the common definitions that you hear for sustainability are focused on managing our resources now in a way that doesn’t hurt the ability of future generations to continue. It’s about taking a long term view, about taking responsibility for how we use our resources both in a personal sense and as a society.
PE: Given UCLA’s size and diversity, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in spearheading its now very successful sustainability program?
NK: UCLA really is like a small city. We have a daily population of about 70,000 people – a population that a number of California cities like Santa Cruz or Palo Alto squeezed into 419 acres. One of our biggest challenges I would say is communication – even just getting the word out to that many people is very challenging and we have a large amount of that population that turns over every few years – because they’re students – so it’s a constant reeducation process that has to happen.
PE: UCLA has won many awards for its various sustainability initiatives. Which ones have proven most successful? Where do you see the biggest room for improvement?
NK: That’s a hard question to answer. I would say that we’ve had a lot of strong success in many areas. One program that has been around for a long time actually – it just celebrated its 30-year anniversary – is our sustainable commuting program. We have an award-winning transportation program that started around when the Olympics came to Los Angeles. We had a need to figure out how to manage transportation demand and get people out of their cars. So we’ve been doing sustainable transportation for three decades now and that program has been incredibly successful.
We’re at a point now where I think the average in LA of people driving by themselves is about 74 percent or somewhere around there. We’ve been able to get that down to 51 percent for our employees and 25 percent for our students. So basically three-quarters of our students and half of our staff are taking public transit or biking or walking or carpooling – not driving by themselves to campus.
In terms of room for improvement, water is an area that is a big challenge for us right now. We’ve certainly improved a lot and saved a lot of water, but given the extremity of the drought and the complexity of our water systems I would say that water is still a big challenge for us.
PE: Has LA been influenced by your sustainable commuting program or looked to you to get the ride-alone number down?
NK: Oh absolutely. Our transportation department works with other transit agencies and transit departments here in Los Angeles, and definitely we work closely with the city on a number of issues and we learn from each other.
PE: In the six years you have run UCLA’s sustainability program, have students grown significantly more interested in and committed to “greening” campus? What about faculty and staff?
NK: Yes, absolutely. I think there continues to be a growing interest on campus. We have probably 20 different student groups on campus focused on sustainability from different angles, whether it’s food or sustainable business, or engineering, all kinds of different things. So we have a really strong level of student interest and that only continues to grow.
PE: Given the deeply rooted car culture of Los Angeles, how optimistic are you that Angelenos will leave their cars at home — or ditch them altogether — and use cleaner public transportation?
NK: I think that it is happening. Los Angeles was a city with strong public transportation once and I think it will get there again. I’m very excited about the westside subway extension, the so-called “subway to the sea,” and the expo line as it grows. And LA actually has much higher public transit ridership than most people think. We actually have the second highest bus ridership in the nation. People use public transit here and those numbers are only going to grow as we improve our infrastructure.
PE: When it comes to motivating corporations to engage in more sustainable practices — from manufacturing to product delivery — how potent is the power held by consumers?
NK: I think it’s far more potent than they realize. I think companies are structured to focus on making a profit and that profit is driven – in many cases for many companies – on consumer decisions. If consumers demand sustainable choices, it will drive the production and direction of these companies
PE: What shifts have you observed that offer the greatest hope for a healthier planet for future generations?
NK: What I think is important is people recognizing complexity. It’s very easy for people to jump on a bandwagon one way or the other – whether it’s to the right or to the left or any direction – and what gets me excited is hearing people have discussions on these issues that acknowledge all of the trade-offs, that understand how complex these issues are. I think the more that we as a society take a complex systems perspective the better we’ll be able to solve these problems.
PE: What current UCLA sustainable programs are you working on right now?
NK: UCLA has committed to the Grand Challenge in Environment and Sustainability where over 160 faculty from 70 different centers and departments are going to work together with the city of LA to try and get the whole LA region to 100 percent renewable energy and 100 percent local water by 2050. It’s huge. It’s really a very exciting initiative and I think that we can get there. We can get there as a region and it’s going to take everybody, UCLA and other universities working with government agencies and businesses. It’s definitely a multi-sector problem that we’re solving together.
PE: You sound very confident!
NK: The technology exists today. A lot of the problems that we’ll be solving are political and economic ones of how to make this happen, but it could be done today if we have the resources and the commitment.And I believe people are realizing we need a sense of urgency now. .
PE: Has the general tone of LA’s city hall and councils been encouraging?
NK: Absolutely. This mayor’s administration is incredibly knowledgeable and dedicated to sustainability. We have our first chief sustainability officer for the city of LA and now the first chief sustainability officer for LADWP as well. A number of the council districts have taken a strong lead. The city administration is absolutely dedicated to these issues in a way that perhaps even more than other administrations have been. I am very excited for the future of Los Angeles, from our rivers to our transit we are building a more sustainable livable city. And if we can do it here in this complex metropolis, we can do it anywhere!