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Friday, December 01, 2023

UF alum selected as Gainesville’s first chief climate officer

Dan Zhu plans for greener Gainesville vision

UF alumna and former associate researcher Dan Zhu has combated rising sea levels in Indonesia and planned greener buildings in China. After traveling the world fighting climate change, she’s now back to serve the city she’s called home for over 12 years.

Zhu began her position as the city of Gainesville’s first chief climate officer Feb. 27. 

As the effects of global warming become more visible and Floridians become more climate conscious, the role was created to make Gainesville more sustainable and equitable by developing a climate action plan, Zhu said. 

“For environmental issues, it’s literally like planning for the future,” Zhu said. “We have only one planet, and we need to take care of it.”

Since 2020, the city and county have been collaborating on a climate action plan to assess the effects of climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, such as floods, heat waves and droughts, is on the top of the list, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, Stephen Hofstetter, wrote in an email. 

Hofstetter considers lack of coordination to be one of the biggest challenges for environmental protection in general, he said, so he’s ecstatic to have someone like Zhu on the team. 

“It will be great to have a point person at the city to bounce ideas off and collaborate with on our climate-related challenges,” Hofstetter said. 

Zhu graduated from UF with a doctorate in urban and regional planning in 2015, and she is a certified planner for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED, which guides the construction of affordable, low-cost buildings.

Her training prepared her to tackle climate issues around the world. In Shenyang, China, she worked on one of China’s first LEED-certified university campuses, assuring it wasn’t only energy efficient but also a healthy environment to live in. 

While working abroad, she said the most challenging part of her job was educating locals on the climate concerns that most affect their neighborhoods.

In Pangkalpinang, Indonesia, there was little public awareness about the flooding that ravaged the area, so Zhu and her team led neighborhood workshops to teach locals about sea level rise and mitigation, she said.

But one problem kept arising: the language barrier.

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Every night after dinner, Zhu and her team would gather to study Bahasa Indonesia — the country’s official language — learning enough of it to properly communicate in just a week.

“We were able to prepare a grand master plan in shortly two weeks, which is really amazing,” Zhu said.

As nations are continuously forced to work together on their own climate action plans, Zhu said, the major issue is communication across different languages and cultures.

But even among people she shares a language with, educating the public is still a rigorous task. Many still don’t understand the true dangers of climate change, Zhu said.

“Sometimes, people don’t realize how serious it could be,” she said. “Not everyone agrees that they need to plan for the future.”

Back in the U.S., Zhu continued her mission as a planner in Marion County, where she researched greenhouse gas emissions and pressed for a low-carbon footprint. Since January 2022, she’s worked for the Gainesville Department of Sustainable Development, with achievements like improving the city’s sidewalk lighting.

“I feel like Gainesville is actually heading in the right path for climate mitigation,” Zhu said. “[It’s] ahead of the curve.”

After her graduation in 2015, Zhu didn’t know she’d return to work for the city. She couldn't deny the allure of Gainesville’s natural wonders like Paynes Prairie or the abundance of trails and greenery that make her feel at home, she said. 

When she assumes her new position, the first agenda item is to reach out to the city’s stakeholders and learn of the most pressing issues in the community, she said. This will require working with local leaders at the city and county levels, along with Gainesville residents.

Aside from her work with the city, Zhu serves as secretary of the American Planning Association in Alachua County. She helps students gear themselves toward a career in sustainability and conservation, so they, too, can preserve and protect the planet.

Contact Jack at Follow him on Twitter @JackLemnus. 

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Jack Lemnus

Jack Lemnus is a fourth-year journalism major and rural Alachua reporter. He loves to practice his Spanish, fill his bookshelves and gatekeep what he considers underground music.

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