Braden Kay - Director of Sustainability - City of Tempe
Play • 44 min

Braden Kay is the director of sustainability for the City of Tempe. He was recently the sustainability project manager for the City of Orlando, where he led sustainability implementation in waste diversion, urban forestry, and urban agriculture programs. He received a PhD from Arizona State's School of Sustainability for his dissertation work on stakeholder engagement and strategy building within the City of Phoenix. Previously, Braden managed community engagement, sustainability assessment and strategy building for the City of Phoenix's Reinvent Phoenix grant, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities program. Braden's academic and professional experience in urban planning, sustainability assessment, and sustainability implementation make him an asset for innovative urban sustainability efforts. 

Braden Joins Sustainable Nation to Discuss:

  • Tip for starting sustainability programs in cities
  • Learning from indigenous people and incorporating their ideas into sustainability strategies
  • Developing a climate action plan
  • Trade-offs between focusing on climate adaptation vs. mitigation when faced with limited resources
  • Ensuring water security in dry regions like Tempe
  • Advice and recommendations for sustainability leaders

Braden's Final Five Question Responses

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals that might help them in their careers? 

The power of networking to me is so important. I derive so much value from the Sustainable Cities Network, the Western Adaptation Alliance and the Urban Sustainability Director's Network. I know that if I need something, I can call Chris Castro in Orlando or Dan and Melissa and Jill and the team in DC, or Kizzy in New York or Leah and Providence. It's so great to be able to rely on the fact that we are a network of professionals. I think the worst thing that our profession does sometimes is say, "Well, this has never been done before. We're just building the plane as we fly it." I think we hear that in cities all the time, and I think that's a terrible perspective to have. There is something along the lines of what you want to do somewhere out there. Really having conversations with the people that have gone through that and learning from them as to how they handled that change and what they did is so valuable. Recently, we've been struggling through how we incorporate the International Green Construction Code into our city. Scottsdale, on the private development side, and Boise, on the city building side, have been so great. They've been willing to come in and have meetings with our senior management. They've been willing to have more technical meetings with our technical staff and be willing to actually meet with our consultants. We just had a meeting of 40 people listen in to Boise, Idaho and learn what they've learned from building their first three buildings with the International Green Construction Code. That kind of network, the importance of having the network and then using the network - not just new using the network for yourself, but using the network for all the other people in your city, so that your city engineer has tapped into the network, so that your city manager and mayor are tapped into to the network. I think it's a huge part of us being successful. Our profession is still only about 20 years old, and most of us have been in our positions for five years or less. It makes that networking piece such an important part of what we do.

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability? 

I'm most excited sustainability professionals are finally understanding that the sustainability movement exists out in community. Community-based organizations, activists, young people, students, they're making sustainability happen on the ground. It's up to us as sustainably professionals to help local government, state government meet the movement. Ten years ago, a lot of people that were sustainability professionals thought they were the movement. Now I think there's a lot more of us that are understanding that government should not be at the center of climate action and climate change work. Government plays an incredibly important convening and supporting role, but it's really about government being more accessible to people, and sustainability professionals need to be those guides. We need to help people understand how to navigate government and how to make change happen efficiently and effectively instead of thinking that we alone can fix it. I'm really excited seeing those examples out there from Fort Collins, Colorado, and from the Bay area, and from Portland, Oregon, and from Orlando, Florida, where people are doing these authentic city community-based partnerships, making change happen where it's really community led and government supported. That's how we're building our cool kids work with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It's designed to be youth-centered with the university and city supporting in the background. This work with the NEA, our town grant is meant to have the artists and tribal members lead the work with the city in support. This is a really exciting model for how we do climate action in cities an I can't wait to see what our colleagues around the country and their community-based partners are able to do. It also seems like both the federal government and national philanthropy like the Bloombergs and Bezos's of the world are starting to understand, "Hey, we need to really support community-based organizations in this work. We still should support cities, but we need to also support community-based organizations in working together with cities so that the movement happens." Then the cities can come behind with the infrastructure, with the policy, with the programs that support what community members are asking for. Another great example of that is the work that's been happening with the climate action work in Denver. They have their new climate tax that was city led and government followed. The work in Portland where they now have a green new deal fund that was done in that same community-forward government second kind of way too. It's a really exciting trend.

What is one book you would recommend sustainability professionals read?

Right now I'm reading Braiding Sweetgrass. It's a book about indigenous knowledge specifically around plants. I'm finding that book to be very inspiring and helping me understand more around how indigenous perspectives and indigenous concepts of resilience and indigenous knowledge of plants and ecology can inform our collective work to save the planet.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in your work?

Well, like I said, the network work I find very, very useful. The other thing I want to pitch to all the sustainably directors out there, we're trying to do this with the Western Adaptation Alliance, we have federal agencies that we need to be working more closely with - your EPA region and with your FEMA region and with DOT and DOE. We went through a phase where the federal government was not as interested in climate action and now it is. Right now is a time to make sure that we're really strengthening our relationships with federal agencies and with our local regions for each of those agencies. They have a lot of great tools. We're constantly hearing about new tools and new opportunities from our federal agencies. We've gotten some small grants from FEMA and EPA in the past. DOE is funding some really exciting stuff. Tempe would not be where it is now without some of the partnerships we've had with the Department of Transportation. Those federal agency relationships, that's one tool I'm really focused in right now. Especially with the infrastructure bill coming and the potential for a reconciliation package, it's really important that all of us are tapped in to our relationship with federal agencies making sure that as those programs are coming out. We're really thinking about how to make sure that those programs are getting tied to community-based organizations as quickly as possible, and that we're getting more federal resources out into our community.

Where can our listeners go to learn more about you and your work at Tempe?

You can check us out at You can go to our annual report which reviews what we've been doing at the city as well as our first Climate Action Plan. That's up there now, and then this winter we'll have our Climate Action Plan update, and that's what we're working on right now. Please stay out and look for our new update. I think it's a new way of thinking about how to create climate action planning that is really people-centered and centering the agendas of specific stakeholders, as opposed to just being a government document that sits on the shelf and kind of waffles around the politics of who cares about what. We've really come up with a way of presenting to our mayor and council the broad diversity of work that's happening in the city and the broad diversity of perspectives and actions that our business community and our residents want to see. That should be coming out in February. 

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