Minneapolis’ first sustainability coordinator retires

Gayle Prest

Gayle Prest began her tenure as Minneapolis’ first sustainability coordinator about 12 years ago, as climate change and sustainability issues were just making their way into the broader public lexicon.

She left the position this spring with sustainability principals firmly entrenched into the city and greater community.

Prest retired from the position in April after a tenure during which she helped implement the city’s sustainability-indicator program, Climate Action Plan and Clean Energy Partnership with local utilities.

She said she’s most proud of the work done to implement the sustainability indicators, a set of several dozen measurements on everything from carbon dioxide emissions to air pollution. Those indicators eventually led to the creation of the Climate Action Plan, which looks to curb citywide greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2025, using 2006 numbers as a baseline.

“The policy makers, they were always willing to help us figure out how we’re going to solve problems,” Prest said. “… They’re difficult issues, but by showing data and science, it’s a lot easier to have those conversations.”

Prest began her career in government as an intern with the Minneapolis energy office. She worked as a recycling coordinator in Columbia Heights and as a manager of environmental programs for Dakota County before coming to Minneapolis in 2000 to run environmental-regulatory programs.

Her transition to sustainability coordinator began in 2005, when former Mayor R.T. Rybak pushed for a larger conversation on sustainability issues. Rybak said the city saw good intentions and small victories on sustainability during his first term but that it needed to take the next step.

Prest was the right person to lead that effort, he said, because of passion for environmental issues and experience within the city bureaucracy.

Early in her tenure, Prest worked on the city’s first-ever sustainability-initiative report, which introduced the indicators and set goals for future years. The report went beyond environmental targets, however, and set goals in areas such as teen pregnancy, high school graduation and homelessness.

Prest and her office worked over the years on initiatives ranging from a climate change grant program to helping launch the Homegrown Minneapolis healthy food initiative. They helped launch the Climate Action Plan engagement process and supported efforts such as integrating the sustainability program into each city department’s business plan.

The Climate Action Plan led to work on a “green zones” initiative to improve environmental conditions in Minneapolis’ poorer neighborhoods. The City Council last month approved a resolution that established two “green zones” in the city, one in North Minneapolis and another just south of Downtown.

‘Basic core value’

Prest worked out of the City Coordinator’s office, a positioning that was strategic on the part of Rybak. He said her being in that office allowed the indicators to become ingrained in city government.

“That turned this from a well-intentioned fringe effort into just a basic core value of the way the city worked,” he said.

Ward 8 City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden said the city has benefitted from Prest’s networks of organizations and people working in the energy and environmental fields. She said Prest has made some exceptionally great hiring decisions over the years, adding that Prest is someone who is open to learning, friendly and curious.

“She was very adept in navigating the city enterprise (and) working in vastly different groups of city staff, some of whom have experience in energy and environment issues and some who don’t,” Glidden said.

Ward 2 City Council Member Cam Gordon echoed those comments, saying in an email that Prest is “a pioneer in the field of environmental sustainability.” Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement that Prest “has been a champion in helping make the City of Minneapolis a national leader in sustainability.”

Prest said it’s rewarding to see how the city views itself when it comes to sustainability, noting that it’s become part of Minneapolis’ brand. She highlighted the efforts of the “hidden champions” in the city, from employees who where enthusiastic about purchasing green vehicles to community groups who brought forward innovative ideas.

“A lot of things now just happen, and I don’t hear about it until the City Council passes it,” she said. “… It’s a lot more than just one person or one office.”