Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Wachtel '06

Written by Lisa Williams, CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning’s Master of Urban and Regional Planning student.
Jonathan Wachtel headshot

Jonathan Wachtel graduated from the Master of Urban and Regional Planning program in 2006. Since then, he has been working for the City of Lakewood as a Sustainability Planner and has managed the Sustainability Division of the Planning Department for almost 9 years. During that time, he created the Sustainability Neighborhood Network (SNN) which has grown to include 32 neighborhoods, and 90,000 participants and produced 1,900 projects, events, and workshops. 

Recently the City of Lakewood adopted amendments to their Zoning Ordinance that updates and expands their Sustainable Development Standards to include updates to their Enhanced Development Menu, a Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Program, and Construction & Demolition Waste Recycling Supplemental Standards. These standards are meant to ensure that all new development will fulfill the goals Lakewood has set to reduce emissions to 61% of 2018 levels.

I asked Jonathan which project he thought should be profiled, but he made the point that they are connected. The SNN creates sustained community engagement and leverages the talents and expertise of residents into creative problem solving, and where the limitations of that engagement end the policies implemented through City Council pick up to guide development toward the City’s overall goals.


MURP alum Jonathan Wachtel joined Lisa for a Q&A about his work as the Sustainability Planner for the City of Lakewood and the Sustainability Neighborhood Network.


Lisa: So, tell me about the Sustainable Development Standards updates. Was it just the greenhouse gas emissions updates that were new or are all of them new as of three months ago?

Jonathan: All of it is relatively new. It was in 2019 that we adopted the enhanced development menu for the first time and the idea there was really, how can we better make sure that new development is an investment in the community that is really reflecting the vision of the community as it’s written in our comprehensive plan and our sustainability plan. I think a lot of communities struggle with turning their big vision documents into reality on the ground. The zoning code is one of the primary mechanisms that can help turn your comprehensive plan and sustainability plan vision into reality, but often times there are gaps in our codes, and we fail to recognize the potential for development to advance broader goals related to the quality of life and sustainability or fail to hold new development accountable for meeting our adopted goals and targets as they related to the built environment. The idea behind these standards was to find ways to address these gaps in a way that was fair and also context specific.

Our first shot at this was the 2019 Enhanced Development Menu. It only applied to larger developments, and when it was adopted, we committed to learning from what worked and didn’t work and coming back to our Planning Commission and City Council to make updates and improvements.

What ended up happening as we implemented that first version of these new codes was that rather than running into major roadblocks and challenges, we were seeing lots of positive outcomes with very little pushback from developers, while also identifying a whole new set of opportunities and ideas.

The 2022 update included a significant expansion to the 2019 Enhanced Development menu along with two other new code sections, one related to Greenhouse Gas Emissions and one supporting construction and demolition waste diversion.

Lisa: What does the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions section entail?

Jonathan: The Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standard was one of the big ideas that we wanted to address in the update. We had this gap we could see between the city’s science-based commitment to reducing our community’s greenhouse gas emissions by 61% below 2018 levels and the additional emissions that were being generated by new development. I think retrofitting the existing built environment to achieve these GHG commitments feels almost paralyzing in its scope so the idea that we would let new things get built that didn't get us there already, was kind of like, why would we do that? It just didn’t make sense to make a commitment and then see new developments compound the problem and add to the already overwhelming challenge of decarbonizing the existing built environment.  A lot of cities are developing strategies to move towards net zero buildings or things like that, but that is going to take a long time. We wanted to find a way to look holistically at each development, its site, and its occupants and find a way to help keep emissions aligned with our commitments. 

So, our idea was, to take what we already know from our GHG emissions inventory, for example, our current per capita emissions from energy, transportation, waste, etc., and the per capita emissions levels we need to achieve to meet our target and then figure out if there was a way to look at a new development and understand the anticipated new emissions we might see from these sectors. If we could figure out the methodology, we could then set a performance standard for each new project that would holistically sum up their emissions and make sure that new development was only producing its share of what is fair if we're going to hit that target. If developers aren’t able to meet the standard, they will have to pay a fee-in-lieu of performance into a newly created climate impact fund.

I think this standard may be the first of its kind in the country, but then again, nothing is really brand new in the planning field. We based a lot of the philosophy and structure on existing successful programs like the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program in Pitkin County.  I think sometimes that planning is like playing folk music, there are these main themes and then there are a lot of variations that happen over time to fit specific environments and community contexts.  

Lisa: Where do the funds for the cash in lieu program go to? Is it retrofitting older buildings?

Jonathan: The basic idea is that we'll be able to use those funds to advance those goal areas that triggered the fees in lieu. If the funds were generated from the developer not meeting the greenhouse gas emissions performance standards, those funds should be used for projects that will reduce our community-wide greenhouse gas emissions. If they were generated from the construction, demolition, and waste diversion deposits, then they should go to fund waste diversion programs and if they came from fees related to the Enhanced Development Menu, then they should be used to advance community benefits related to neighborhood infrastructure.

Lisa: Tell me more about the third component—the construction and demolition waste diversion.

Jonathan: I think waste is one of those topics that planners historically really just don't pay attention to.  Over the past decade many communities, like ours, have set goals related to increasing waste diversion. This tends to focus on single-family recycling rates and services and the waste from construction and demolition is one of those waste streams that are off most people’s radar. The City and County of Denver did a study a few years ago that identified C&D waste as the source of 50% of all waste going to landfills in the metro area. That was mindboggling to me.

We have a 60% diversion rate target goal for our community. With construction and demolition being such a huge piece of this we took a hard look and realized that a bunch of the C&D materials that you shouldn’t landfill anyway, like asphalt and concrete, untreated wood and metal, make up a huge portion of this waste; we could reduce C&D waste by close to 60% if we just didn’t let those materials end up in the landfill during demolition and construction projects.  And theoretically, it should be cheaper to recycle most of those things than take them to the landfill especially concrete and stuff like that. So, in 2019 we added some requirements to our building code requiring these materials to be recycled or repurposed.

What we didn’t realize was that the biggest problem was going to be the logistics of managing the collection and recycling of these items. Our compliance rate with the C&D building codes has been miserable. We’ve learned that the biggest barrier to compliance was a thoughtful plan and system for sorting and hauling all of those materials through the duration of a project. A big part of this challenge is also making sure all the contractors and subcontractors are aware and on board.  So, what we decided to do after seeing a very low compliance rate was to create supplemental standards where we would give a little more attention to the applicants up front to help them think through the process and also set up a deposit and refund system so they had a little something at stake. It’s a carrot and a stick system that we hope will help increase our C&D diversion rate. Once again, any forfeited funds from the C&D deposits will go into the new climate fund.

Lisa: Well, then, I guess speaking of the community, you've got your standards that that builders will need to be held to, but you also have the community working on behalf of themselves.  That's that Sustainability Neighborhood Network, which I believe was your creation, but now has spread to quite a few neighborhoods and cities. Is that correct?

Jonathan: We started the Sustainable Neighborhoods Program here, even before we had a sustainability division or any formally recognized sustainability-focused employee.  I had this realization early on in my career that there was an immense amount of interest and passion in the community for sustainability that wasn’t being successfully harnessed. I was experiencing this cycle that a lot of planner experience, where I would go into a neighborhood or corridor to work on a plan.  I’d bring my best intentions to thoughtfully engage with the community and hear their concerns and their needs.  Then after going through a year-long planning process, that often started with lots of friction, I would have this positive and more trusting relationship with the community along with a shiny new vision and plan.  But then it seemed like there was just nothing left to give the neighborhood to do. There were always these amazing people that invested their time and had the expertise and were’ kind of eager to help, but there wasn’t necessarily operating space for them.

So that’s where the idea for this program really originated. At the time, Lakewood had a kind of ad hoc internal Sustainability Committee of volunteer employees. As someone who had been active in helping get that set up, I was fielding most of the inquiries that were coming into the city around sustainability. Many of these emails and phone calls, started with, something to the effect of “Hey, I'm a master gardener and I don't know why the city's not building more community gardens”  or “I'm a retired renewable energy expert and I think the city should be doing more to educate residents on how to put solar on their rooftop." I was constantly thinking, you know, that would be great, but we don't have resources for that. Then it kind of dawned on me, but you're an expert, and you live here, why don’t you help your neighbors with that?  

Those two pieces, that frustration with the planning process ending and having all these residents that were asking “ok, now what do we do?” and these passionate and skilled residents emailing and calling asking why isn't the city doing more for sustainability, sparked this idea that we need to find a way to harness all of this collective intelligence and passion. So I decided to test something out. I thought, maybe we could just try to help organize a neighborhood and said hey, what do you guys want to do, and just give them a little bit of attention and guidance and see what they could come up with. That was a very simple idea for the program.

The first attempt, actually, it didn't go very well, so after a pilot that fizzled out, we reimagined what kind of structure was needed and tried again. This time we added a competitive application process and more tools and staff time up front to help the neighborhoods organize their communication infrastructure and then form teams around their interests and skills and it worked really well. Like really, really well. It caught fire and, you know, neighborhoods started getting awesome stuff done. The elected officials in those wards were like, wow, look at all this stuff happening, and the city just got excited, it was all positive and just kept growing and growing.  We got a Colorado APA award, I think that was like 2013, or 14, and then a national award as well from the APA.

People with large bags of leaves for composting.
When it comes to the Sustainable Neighborhoods, there’s great knowledge and skills out there, and the ability to leverage collective intelligence that’s the key.  There’s a lot of power to be gained from collective intelligence if we can create a safe space for it.

Lisa: How has the expansion of the program gone? 

Jonathan: The first city outside of Lakewood to ask us to replicate the program was Denver, they reached out interested in the neighborhood program so we helped them launch the program. A few years later, we helped the city of Fort Collins launch the program, and by then the phone calls and inquiries from other cities started coming fast and furious. Unfortunately, we just didn't have the capacity to help all those cities launch. So, it's taken a while but around 2020, when we were helping Wheatridge launch the program, we decided we should probably form a nonprofit entity to hold the intellectual property and support expansion to other interested communities. Now we’re trying to figure out how to run a nonprofit and help other cities launch. I don't know if I can say publicly the other cities that we're working with right now because we haven't signed anything yet, but we're working with two cities that may be joining the program shortly that are both out of state, so that will be exciting.

So far, over the 10 years the program has been operating, the four cities have 32 active neighborhoods, where we have seen more than 90,000 participants participate in over 1900 different projects, events, and workshops. These are almost all neighborhood-led. That includes everything from a walking club that meets once a month and maybe picks up trash on the way, to leaf composting collection events in the fall, to bigger undertakings like funding, building, and managing community gardens.

We've also seen a ton of leadership development result from participation in the program.  We've had multiple city councilors here that first got involved through this program and now have run for office or, other residents that are on boards and commissions. 

Lisa: I was going to ask if you found that the people engaged in the program got engaged in other parts of the city, and it sounds like they very much have.

Jonathan: They do because they start to ask questions and they start to identify the barriers to what they want to get done. they realize, oh, there are certain antiquated codes or, whatever else might be barriers, or that the city doesn't have funds for certain projects, whatever it might be, they start to get curious. Then some of them inevitably want to change the system, and they start getting involved. So that's pretty cool. 

Lisa: Do you have one favorite project that has gotten completed? Out of 1,900, you have a lot of options.

Jonathan: I mean, I love all the community gardens and all of the projects that have helped with underserved portions of the community, like the coat drives, or we had a group of residents that got trained to be literacy volunteers in their local elementary school to help tutor kids that didn’t have English as a first language, things like that. But I think that there are two projects that always come to mind when I think about impact and innovation. like big problem-solving ones.

One is the Bee Safe Neighborhood project. That's an example of how this program helps us as a city address some of our deficiencies and innovate around areas where we have trouble taking risks.  There were a lot of residents that wanted the city to stop using all chemicals on public landscapes and parks to protect pollinators and public health. That's kind of a big stress point because there are so many requirements to manage noxious weeds and also a lot of people start to complain when there's Canada Thistle on the soccer field, so that’s kind of high risk for parks, and folks in the city to completely go that way. 

These residents decided, okay, well, we'll start on our own lawns. And so, they started this idea of a Bee Safe Neighborhood program, where people would pledge not to use chemicals with neonics and other persistent neurotoxins that harm pollinators. We helped them print neighborhood signs that said, Bee Safe Neighborhood, and people would pledge and get these yard signs. Then they started doing workshops on how to maintain your yard with alternative treatments and landscaping, and then they started inventorying which nurseries grew plants without neonics and had strong selections of pollinator-friendly species, and where you could get the right materials and soil and whatever else you needed to maintain your yard. And it just spread and spread. I think, eight of our ten, neighborhoods have this program going on in Lakewood and even some of the neighborhoods in Wheatridge. Just super cool, right? 

Then back to the city part, this neighborhood effort created these places where we could experiment with changing our management techniques. So, the city started pilot sites within these neighborhoods, because there was neighborhood support behind changing the treatments and landscaping in those parks, there could be some understanding that maybe the sod won't be perfect, or certain things might change, because there was the support from the neighborhood the risk for the city was reduced.

Another great project was the effort by two amazing residents in our Green Mountain neighborhood to get recycling in school lunchrooms, the neighborhood volunteers had to go through so much to get into schools. But their effort resulted in a program that helped the kids to be leaders amongst themselves and got school staff on board to make changes to the operations and infrastructure for waste diversion in the local elementary and middle school lunchrooms. Then they also identified food rescue opportunities in the lunchrooms, like all kinds of unopened milk that were getting tossed that they were able to then connect to the Action Center where it could go to a food bank immediately.

So, it kind of spiraled, and by the time they were done, they basically had a recipe for how to get recycling in Jeffco schools. Then Jeffco schools started to have more momentum in other areas across the district.  I love thinking about the impact that two women, who were strangers and met at the kickoff event in Green Mountain neighborhood, found out they were both passionate about waste diversion and recycling and now the ripple effects of their efforts can be counted as a significant influence in getting recycling in lunchrooms serving more than 50,000 students.

People talking during a reception in the Eiber Garden.

Lisa: You have been a MURP student and you have hired MURP students and alum as well, what do you think the MURP program does well?

Jonathan: I think its core strength is how hands-on it is. It’s right in Denver with access to so many professionals and direct opportunities to get involved or at least intimately observe projects and innovative things happening around the metro area and the state. The program really provides, in addition to the academic side of things, the opportunity to get hands-on with what’s happening on the ground, and that practicality is critical to a successful career.  It’s important to know how ideally, things might work but it’s also good to see how they’re actually working. That provides students and young professionals the tools they need to realistically address the challenges of the existing system in an effort to move us toward a more equitable and sustainable future.

Lisa: Are there any emerging trends that you think students should be learning now to be on the forefront of to be successful coming out of school? 

Jonathan: One that is on my mind right now is the concept of circularity. The idea that we can mine our own urban environment to repurpose and reuse materials is kind of fascinating. Imagine if we had always designed for deconstruction and reuse. If we start doing a better job of building circularity into our designs and codes, including considering how and where materials are made and how they are used, and then can be used, I’m certain that, we can reform our one-way system.  The legacy of our current one-way system is embarrassing, almost all of these valuable materials that we have turned into buildings and infrastructure just end up in landfills. It’s devastating to think of all the problems we’ve created, all of the impacts of that one-way ticket.  I think planners have a huge role to play in changing that.

Lisa: Is there anything else you’d like an emerging student or professional to think about?

Jonathan: While there is urgency in addressing our sustainability, climate, and equity challenges, I think it’s important to understand and respect the way we’ve done things in the past.  What I’ve learned over time is that while our existing systems are causing plenty of problems, there’s a reason that they exist and were designed the way they are, and not all of that’s bad. I think the automobile is an easy example of this. Despite all of the ills that our car-dominated culture and infrastructure have created, most of us still like having the option of driving a car. That doesn’t mean we can’t also want the option to bike, walk, or take public transit. The idea that we need to throw out the old way to embrace the new isn’t realistic and creates friction and makes parts of the community uncomfortable. I think successful change happens when we preserve the best parts of the old system while at the same time finding ways to mitigate the negative impacts and integrate new options and designs that focus on equity and sustainability. It is an approach that requires both innovation and a little bit of patience, and the humble acknowledgment that while we may think we have the best solutions now, it won’t be long before ours becomes the old system that is causing problems.

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