Needham Sustainability Manager Gabrielle Queenan/ Credit: Needham Observer

When Gabrielle Queenan took on the newly created role of Needham’s sustainability manager two months ago, she was dropped into the wilderness that is any new position. Where to begin? Fortunately, Queenan had several things going for her: knowledge of her subject, some direct experience and a roadmap. The last of those, a 26-page detailed plan (officially still in draft form) prepared by the town-appointed Climate Action Planning Committee, presented Queenan with a glimpse of her future.

The destination on that map is to reach zero greenhouse gas emissions in the next 25 years, both a town and statewide goal. The route? A multilane road calling for change in the way buildings in town are constructed, heated and cooled; how electricity is generated; and how transportation is powered. In climate lingo these are all about mitigating climate change. Then, adaptation: how the town manages all of the weather-related changes that are already happening and the ones likely to come — floods, winds and extreme heat or cold. For example, the town is looking at ways to improve stormwater runoff and minimize flooding.

“I think about how as a community we can reduce, reuse, and make sure that we’re on that path towards becoming a community that’s zero waste,” said Queenan.

Fortunately, she said, she will not have to go it alone. “We’ve got wonderful staff here, incredibly dedicated, great expertise.” 

The Select Board declared its support in a letter introducing the road map, and more than 100 residents and town officials helped prepare the map, demonstrating widespread interest and dedication. “Groups like the CAPC and Green Needham are great assets,” she said. “I look forward to ongoing work with them.”

That multilane road on the map, however, is a toll road. “There are valid concerns regarding how we’re going to pay for some of the changes that need to happen for Needham to reach those goals of being net zero and resilient to climate change impacts,” said Queenan. “So one of my most important roles is to bring money into the town. There’s a tremendous amount of state and federal funding available now, and I’m going to be writing a lot of grant proposals.”

Stephen Frail, who co-chaired the CAPC, said Queenan’s presence is significant. “Governance was a key issue,” he said. “We needed to put sustainability in the room as every planning decision gets made so we’re always aligned.” But, he said, “there’s also the need to get commercial property owners and homeowners to make key decisions that can help us get to net zero.” The climate action plan shows that 37% of greenhouse gas emissions in Needham come from residential buildings, and 27% from commercial structures. Another third comes from private transportation. 

Change will take both private determination and the nudge of regulation. Frail believes Queenan can help with both. She can rally support and share important information to build bridges and, he hopes, momentum. “She has a good way of connecting with people, and that’s going to take her very far,” he said. “She’s knowledgeable and passionate. She has the technical background as well as the intangibles.”

Queenan’s technical chops come via a master’s degree in environmental policy from Tufts and prior work in both the nonprofit and consulting sectors. “I’ve worked with communities on evaluating their zoning and looking at ways to try and incorporate more green infrastructure practices and low impact design. I’ve also worked with communities on land and water use plans. So thinking about ways to minimize our impacts to natural resources so that we’re working with nature instead of against nature,” she said. “I really appreciated the diversity of work that I got to do, but I always found myself thinking I’d love to stay with one community and build a program. And so I’m really excited about that opportunity with Needham. I think we’re like other communities, just trying to grapple with this massive issue that we’re all part of. It can be hard to wrap your head around it, because it’s a big one.”

Her immediate next step? “It’s grant-writing season,” she said, wrapping up this interview at 9:30 a.m. “That’s pretty much the rest of my day.”

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