By hiring Sustainable Communities Development Director Cynthia Van Der Wiele, a North Carolina county is bringing various sustainability programs under one umbrella. Photo: Chet Buell
Chatham County's 46,768-acre Jordan Lake provides recreation, drinking water, flood control, and fish and wildlife conservation. Protecting this lake falls under the county's Sustainable Communities Development Department. Photo: N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

Cynthia Van Der Wiele is the first of her kind, not just for Chatham County, but for all of North Carolina.

To her already lengthy resume — which includes environmental engineer and environmental specialist, two master's degrees from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, and certification as a LEED professional by the U.S. Green Building Council — can now be added director of Sustainable Communities Development.

Van Der Wiele has never worked at the county level before, but accepted the position as a way of “putting into place the things academics talk about”: a holistic approach to solving problems that incorporates participatory environmental and economic safeguarding.

Her role bridges a broad range of programs and task forces initiated by the county commissioner's office almost four years ago. The programs — dealing with issues such as manageable growth, watershed policies, lighting ordinances, land use regulations and zoning guidelines, and protecting a local lake — are spread out over several county departments, which makes cohesively managing the disjointed programs difficult, says Debra Henzey, director of community relations for the county manager's office. Van Der Wiele's job is to pull all of the independent departments together under the umbrella of sustainable community development.

Van Der Wiele's goals are to develop a strategic sustainability and land use plan under which the rapidly urbanizing county can operate. She'd also like to work with academia and various partners throughout the county to conduct applied research and improve processes for conservation-related issues like stormwater management.

“It's about implementing modest change that speaks to a larger vision,” says the new director. “It's finding that holy grail.”

Her position exemplifies a larger movement being seen in sustainable communities. To the best of both her and Henzey's knowledge there are very few, if any, similar positions. The Local Initiatives Support Corp., for example, recently advertised a position for a manager for Milwaukee's sustainable communities program who will “assist and support lead agency in developing and implementing a plan to establish a sustainable governance structure in each neighborhood.”

Likewise, the nonprofit organization Sustainable Community Gardens of Sunnyvale, Calif., is seeking an executive director whose tasks would include having to “oversee the development, execution, and evaluation of programs, facilities, and resources consistent with [the organization's] mission, goals, and obligations.”

While both contain parallels to the Chatham County position, neither coordinates as broad a range of topics.

Still, any jobs, budding programs, or organizations within the sustainable community arena speak to central issues: environmental and economic preservation.

Says Van Der Wiele, “Historically, the United States hasn't had to face limitations. We've got to figure out better ways of doing things, because the way we've been doing things can't continue.” Sustainable communities, she believes, address the fact that the country is running out of both land and other resources.

Van Der Wiele began work June 15, officially adding Chatham County to the long list of locations across the nation and globally that are taking a more concentrated approach to sustaining our world.