Interconnecting Cities with Maggie Ullman


Interconnecting Cities with Maggie Ullman

  • Ty Hallock

    Ty Hallock is the CTO of, a startup from Asheville. His work has appeared in and he has been featured in...

Special thanks to Alan Bush for aiding in the collaborative blog process.
During the interview to create this article I had a realization and a moment of clarity. The work that Maggie Ullman is doing to create platforms for cities to collaborate around initiatives and specifically the work with sustainability initiatives is about to cause serious disruption. Cities will never work the same if Maggie realizes her vision over the next few years. We are on Cities 2.0, Maggie and other Network Weavers are shepherding us into Cities 3.0 where interconnected cities innovate and hold political power in union with other cities for unprecedented results. Cities leading the US to fight and think our way out of Climate Change and to create a better United States of America. Who better to do this than her?
Maggie is just the type of catalyst to lead this grand scale disruption. In 2012-2013 I was lucky enough to work with Maggie Ullman who was then the Chief Sustainability Officer at the City of Asheville. I was one leader in a community group that was organizing to get recycling bins on Asheville streets. I wanted Asheville to be a beacon for sustainability and this was just as much a symbol as it was a better way to live. We quickly learned after meetings with Maggie that this program was already in her immediate goals and that the underlying infrastructure had many dependent projects that she had been working on for years before to make street recycling possible. Single-stream recycling was a big program that was wrapping up final implementation phases; all the while Maggie was leading the first ever full city-wide LED light program.   
Ty Hallock: What were you most proud of from your time working in Asheville City Hall?
Maggie Ullman: Our city (Asheville) was the first in the country to retrofit all our streetlights to energy efficient LED fixtures. This effort saves the city $450,000 a year, and all those savings get reinvested in more energy efficiency projects. This single project reduced the city’s carbon footprint by 9%.
The second project I am grateful to have led was to upgrade the residential recycling program to the Big Blue cans. This program makes it easier for people to recycle and reduced the amount of waste going to the landfill by 6%. 
Ty: So you decided to leave city hall. Where did you go? What is the name of your consulting business?
Maggie: I started Ullman Consulting INC in September 2014. Most of my work is with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. USDN is a collaboration network of 150 city sustainability directors in North America who are committed to creating sustainable communities. My focus is to build capacity for urban sustainability leaders to combat climate change. 
As Asheville Chief Sustainability Officer I designed and implemented programs to make Asheville a more environmentally sustainable community. Implementing environmental programs in a city like Asheville was a dream. Yet multiple times we tried to charge ahead and slammed into state level policy or regulation roadblocks that served outdated and polluting electricity systems. It became clear that someone needed to help cities build coalitions to build bike lanes around these roadblocks.
Ty: Collaboration is a general word, can you explain how it works for USDN?
Maggie: Problem solving at a city level is complex and layered. You need to value multiple perspectives at the same time such as technical solutions, community will, and the political context. When cities share their successes and failures for others to learn from, everyone wins. But it can’t stop at just sharing, that doesn’t move the needle fast enough. Cities need to collaboratively problem solve in order for these solutions to be widely replicated.
An example of collaboration from the USDN network is when a delegation from the City of Burlington, VT traveled to Asheville to learn about Asheville’s green capital improvement program. To make this program a success Asheville had to bend conventional norms in government finance, prove that energy efficiency projects would really save money, and build trust from elected officials. This face to face meeting wasn’t just a show and tell. Asheville staff dissected the strategy and process with the Burlington folks. Then everyone from both cities trouble shooted next steps for Asheville to keep moving forward and first steps for how Burlington could get started. The collaborative meeting was also thoroughly documented so the Burlington folks had a playbook when they went home. The peer to peer exchange was deeply valuable for both communities and we created the playbook so the over 150 communities in the USDN network can learn from our experience as well. 

Ty: In our conversation earlier you said you are a Network Weaver?  What does that mean? Why is this role important for the future of cities collaborating?
Maggie: To borrow words from my mentor Pete Plastrik’s book, Connecting to Change the World, “Weaving is about helping members ‘bump into each other’ and decide to build relationships’.” 
For example Asheville’s #1 threat from climate change (in my humble opinion, and a boat load of data) is intense precipitation events that cause floods, landslides, and dangerous winter storms. City staff needed more information about sustainable stormwater solutions, called green infrastructure. They heard Chattanooga, TN was implementing cool strategies, but it was hard to apply them in Asheville. Through my relationships in USDN I knew folks from Boulder, CO and Flagstaff, AZ wrestle with similar stormwater issues in the mountains and reached out to them for resources. With the click of a send button our team in Asheville got access to tons of resources.  It’s all about learning what people can give when others need to take and creating a safety net for that exchange. 
Ty: Tell us the story of the Mayor’s WorkPlace Challenge Program in Nashville?
Maggie: A group of cities were discussing how to engage and empower the private sector to be more sustainable when Nashville shared their Mayors WorkPlace Challenge Program. This highly effective program provides a roadmap for businesses to be sustainable and awards recognition and support to businesses who participate. Nashville won a federal grant to get this program off the ground and built a really solid program foundation. The other cities put their heads together and decided to pool their talent to grow Nashville’s program so it can be implemented in any community across the country. We organized the cities and got a second grant so they can collaboratively upgrade the program for wide scale replication. Look for this program to roll out en masse in Asheville, Boston, Miami, Knoxville, Durham, Fairfax, Orange County FL, and Sarasota County FL by 2016.
Ty: What does it mean to innovate on such a large scale?
Maggie: It’s the difference between training for a marathon alone and having a running group. In a running group you find you are faster than some and slower than others. But more importantly, you find your pace setters who challenge you to keep running when you want to slow down or stop because its hard. As a field of practitioners, this network of innovators is training for the climate change marathon together. Because ultimately aren’t we all in this together? 
Think global transform local.