Sunday, July 14, 2024

Workers clear snow off a Central Square, Cambridge, sidewalk in 2022. (Photo: Tyler Motes)

Cambridge is getting a Sustainability Office that will will fold in environmental planning staff from the Community Development Department and be led by a chief climate officer – a new role – who will report directly to City Manager Yi-An Huang, city councillors learned Tuesday in an email from Huang.

“Exciting changes are on the horizon for the Community Development Department,” Huang said, calling the moves a “response to the growing importance and cross-functional nature of the city’s work on housing, climate and transportation.”

Councillors have been seeking the role – described as a chief resiliency officer – since at least 2017. During a discussion in October 2022, shortly after Huang took office, there was debate as to whether the role should fall under crisis management, considering the likelihood of extreme weather events growing with the onset of climate change.

Community Development assistant city manager Iram Farooq explained the changes Tuesday to the Planning Board, saying of the new climate office, “we will continue to work incredibly collaboratively, because climate work – similar to our equity and inclusion work – is very much a cross-cutting theme through all the programmatic work that we do, and not just at CDD, but at many different city departments.” She called it “sort of the impetus for elevating it into this new department that will be formed.”

The new sustainability officer and office, which incorporates CDD’s Environmental and Transportation Planning Division, aren’t the only changes announced by Huang.

Transportation planning will become an independent division with its own director within CDD under Farooq – which is where transportation planning has been, while the Traffic, Parking & Transportation Department has been reporting to deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan. “We are spinning off our climate and housing teams into new departments, and our transportation planning group will become a full -fledged division where it was previously part of our environment and transportation work. The housing department and transportation division will still remain under the CDD umbrella,” Farooq told the Planning Board.

“This new organizational structure reflects the success of each division’s work, and I am confident it will empower our staff to build on the policy successes we’ve achieved,” Huang said, citing Affordable Housing Overlay zoning, the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance, a 2022 parking study and a Net Zero Transportation Plan.

Huang also ordered the Department of Veterans’ Services and Historical Commission to report directly to O’Riordan, instead of being listed in a city flowchart in a “general government” category reporting directly to the city manager. “I believe this more formal structure will enhance support and visibility for these departments,“ Huang said. “I will remain connected to department heads and their work.”

A timeline for the changes announced Tuesday wasn’t included in Huang’s memo. All changes are underway, city spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said, and the memo is “a preview of what’s to come.”

The changes work toward “a more effective and innovative city government,” Huang said.

Huang – the first outsider to run City Hall in decades when he arrived in September 2022 – proposed appointing a director of emergency management, chief people officer and director of community engagement. He added chief of staff and chief strategy officer positions to his own office. Most hires have taken place, though emergency management remains for now within the fire department – and separate from the coming Sustainability Office – and the director of community engagement role is unfilled.