Nature is our life support system because it provides clean air, water, and a place to thrive. It is not a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have.’ In this episode, Andrea Mackenzie, the General Manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, dives into the value of sustainable green spaces for nature and people. She emphasizes that The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority is a place where nature matters to many generations, nationalities, and diverse communities. In this industry, we need a strong team for the future and the next generation to be ready to step into these roles. Start to make a difference, and let’s work together to build a sustainable green space for everyone.
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Sustainable Green Spaces: Supporting Healthy Ecosystems, Communities, And Economies With Andrea Mackenzie
Andrea Mackenzie is a conservationist. For the last several years, she's been the General Manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority in California's San Francisco Bay Area. She and her team have been working to preserve open space, wildlife habitats and working lands. For many years, Andrea has worked to create innovative and visionary conservation plans, policies and public finance measures to support healthy ecosystems, communities and economies. Welcome, Andrea.
Thank you, Margaret. It's a pleasure to be here.
Tell us a little bit about what all that means. What do you do? If you were at a party, speaking to somebody who had no idea about conservation or open space, what would you say?
I'd say, "Hi. I'm Andrea Mackenzie. It's nice to meet you. I work for this cool government agency located here in Silicon Valley called the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. Due to your support, we protect the natural world and the agricultural lands around our cities for future generations."
Can you tell us a little bit about the properties that the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority manages and stewards for those people, whether they're visiting the Bay Area or they live in the Bay Area?
Our public agency has a territory of about 1,000 square miles in Santa Clara County. We're a public agency that buys land like wildlife habitat, open space and farmland that's at risk of being developed. We do that for the benefit of the public. We also operate a system called Open Space Preserves, parks for people and nature. This system is open to the public 365 days a year free of charge. We have a dedicated team of open space technicians that manages those lands to make sure it’s sustained and people have an excellent visitor experience when they go to interact with nature.
There are so many things I want to ask about why it's important to conserve open space but I'll wait on that. My next question is how did you get into this business? Why did you decide to get into this business?
Sometimes you don't decide to get into a business. Something calls you to the work. Since I was a child, I've had a deep love and affinity for nature. I've had very strong protective instincts about protecting the natural world, wildlife and wild spaces. I went to college in Environmental Studies and Urban Planning. Some people would see those as an odd combination but I grew increasingly interested over the years in how nature interacts with people and urban spaces and how important nature is to the sustainability of our urban areas and cities.
When I was a little kid, I grew up watching Wild Kingdom on TV. I wanted to be a National Park Service ranger when I grew up and that was the direction that I went. It turned out there are some pretty cool jobs out there that you don't know about when you're in school or growing up. One is working for government agencies that protect nature and provide places for people to interact with nature, whether they're national parks or state parks. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have a wonderful system of open space preserves and open space districts that operate those for the benefit of the public.
People spend time in open spaces and in nature. How does it benefit a human being, especially in experiencing this connection with their highest self or spiritual self? Mary Oliver and many other authors say, "Get out to nature." Why does it work? Why is nature a conduit for us to be operating at our highest and best selves? Why do you think it is?
In my generation, when we were growing up, we would go play in what we called the woods. Your parents said, "Be home by dinnertime," and you'd go have an experience in nature. Intuitively, it made you the person that you are now. It's a different world. It's a much more crowded world and the amount of green space that we have, especially close to where we live is shrinking. We're a fast-paced and technology-driven world. Even as we do so much around the world that is shrinking the amount of habitat, we need it more than ever.
We need interaction with green space. We need it for our mental health or physical well-being. We also need it as a life support system. People don't often think about that. Nature in the natural world is our life support system. We depend upon nature to give us clean air and water, balance growth, provide places for biodiversity to thrive and support our well-being for future generations. It's not nice to have but it's a must-have. We need that more than ever, especially close to where we live.
That's the role of agencies like mine, to provide sustainable green spaces and wild spaces for nature and people to thrive. There are plenty of studies out there that show that as children interact with nature, it sparks their intelligence. They're more empathetic creatures, more willing to work with people and understand their place in the world. Those are some of the reasons why nature near us is so important.
I was doing a photo shoot and I took the dog out. There was a photographer and a whole school that was teaching the kids in the park. I thought that was interesting. We used to do that when I was little. We used to go out and go for walks and hikes but they never did that with my kids. It was never going outside. I hope that things are going back to get the kids outside.
You knew this was your calling at some level as a little girl. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority does every day? You happen to be a customer of mine so one of your people goes out and makes sure that those trails are equipped for people to go on and then somebody to train. All in all, why did you pick it? Why have you stayed for several years? What do they do? It's probably one of the reasons you picked it.
I talked about sometimes you don't decide what you're going to be in life. There's a calling. My calling has been to inspire and motivate people to protect the natural world. The Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority is a place where that calling can come to fruition in one of the areas with a dense population, the center of innovation and very diverse cities. It's a place where nature matters to many generations, nationalities and diverse communities.
What we are doing on a day-to-day basis is acquiring land that's for sale on the market that could be turned into offices or warehouses. Sometimes big mansions out on green space. We're not typically doing that work right in the cities but outside of cities. We're buying land to protect it. We're evaluating the natural resources and the wildlife and the conditions of the creeks and streams that are on these lands. We're taking the pulse of what's happening on the land. We're educating the residents that this place belongs to them and why they should get out there, enjoy it and connect their families to nature.
We're often informing local land use policy or even state policy in California to better inform planning, investments and decision-making that includes nature at the center of those discussions. It's not just for nature's sake but also people’s. We're monitoring legislation and looking at investments in nature and working with lots of partners to make sure that there's funding available to protect wild spaces, provide environmental education to the public, restore these lands and manage them for the benefit of nature and people. We have people from real estate professionals, IT professionals, HR administration, biologists and trail builders. We're a full-service agency for nature to benefit people.
You started there several years ago. Given that a big piece of this show is about how to create a culture where people can thrive, how have you stayed true to the essence of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority and scaled it? There were 5 or 6 people when you started and there are 50-ish people in 2023.
For a lot of people out there, young professionals and so on, working at a place for several years seems like an eternity but when you think about the natural world, geologic time and so on, those years are a blink of an eye in terms of protecting nature and its unique resources, understanding how it benefits people in a place like the Silicon Valley. Working to restore landscapes can take decades if not more.
Being true to that mission is first, building a culture at a place like the Open Space Authority that draws other people that have a passion for nature, connecting people to nature and building a supportive cultural environment. It's where people see themselves and can contribute their unique talents and passions to the work of the Open Space Authority.
It's about putting together a compelling long-term vision to engage the public and show them how they fit with that, that these lands belong to the public and how they can help us advance that vision to protect and connect natural lands across the Silicon Valley region. As the world around us changes, it's not a linear step-by-step approach to building a strong high-performing government agency with a very supportive work culture. It takes a lot of time, effort and constant work. Every day, there's a new challenge and that's what keeps me inspired to work at the Open Space Authority.
How do you inspire those that work for you? We are living in a time where climate, nature and weather are unpredictable. "This is what these folks do. They're working to conserve this." How do you keep people as a leader inspired even when evidence is showing we might need to be a little nervous and scared rather than inspired? How do you shift that to people that work with you?
It's not about protecting people and your employees from what's happening all around us. It's about engaging them and giving them a seat at the table. Foundationally, you need to build a culture of hope and courage. One of my favorite quotes is from a professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College who said, "Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up." That's what it's all about.
You have hope for the planet but it's going to take work, collaboration, courage and risk-taking. It's no longer about business as usual, top-down management and short-term thinking. Those are becoming relics. It's about adaptation, judicious risk-taking, collaboration, taking action and working with your team to make sure that they're part of forming the solutions.
You have hope for the planet. But it will take work, collaboration, courage, and risk-taking.
One of the first things I do to inspire my people is to be visible. One of the things it's important for leaders to be visible of is their passion. I grew up with a scientific father who told me that I should let my idealism be shown off in my free time and that I needed to keep my head down and do the hard work. There's a place for both. You need to roll up your sleeves and get to work but you also need to let your passion be visible.
I talked about a developing supportive environment and culture for the staff and letting every employee know that they matter. Even though we are a mission-driven organization focused on nature, let everyone know, no matter if they're in IT, finance, administration or HR, that what they do matters to fulfill the mission of protecting the natural world.
Also, to give staff opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Sometimes that might mean failing but it also means learning. I'm learning this every day. We need to find ways to let our employees' passions, unique skills and talents find a place in the organization. Not just based on a static job description but on what they can bring to the organization. Those are some of the ways of inspiring my people.
What you're talking about is the four components of an emergent culture. People need self-actualization and that's what you're talking about when you're saying connect their passions to the purpose of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority. What they do matters. People need significance. They need to know that they're contributing. You also mentioned collaboration and bringing their ideas to the table, which is this whole affiliative piece where it's not coming down from the mount high, this is what we're doing but asking, "What do you guys think we should do?"
Your dad's perspective of keeping your head down and getting to work was a perspective of the command-and-control way to run a company. You and I have grown up and seen command and control move to affiliate and collaborate. How have you changed? I'm sure all the readers would be curious about that. How did you have to change the way you used to do it and the way you need to do it from command and control? Do people need to be told what to do to affiliate and collaborate?
I've never been a command-and-control person. A lot more women have a leadership style that's collaborative and power-sharing. I also have been a person who long thought, "If I don't do it, who will?" I've got to be the one to rescue a situation, come up with a great idea or find the money. I've learned over the years that while I can have that strong sense of responsibility, it's much more effective and powerful if I share it.
The old African proverb, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I have learned over the years in working with my team and staff through a lot of ways that the more we build teams, give away the work and get curious about what a different idea or approach might be, the stronger we are and the more resilient we are in the long run.
I'm not always going to be in this position. As much as I love this agency and the work we do, we need a strong team for the future. We need the next generation to be ready to step into these roles. It's in my self-interest and the interest of the agency to create pathways and openings to build that intergenerational leadership and power.
Otherwise, you won't have agency when you do decide it's time to move on, retire or rewire. One of the elements of a constructive, healthy and intentional culture is producing results together. Sometimes it's years and years until we see the results. How do you keep your folks connected to the result of your work and how it makes a difference now and tomorrow?
There are a lot of folks that work in the conservation and land use planning field that says, "It's hard to see the results of your work. It takes years and years." One of the ways that you approach that is with early wins. It's showing your staff and involving them in incremental wins along the way. Also, working in partnership with other agencies and organizations within your community. Sometimes it's amazing what you may see as a relatively small contribution or investment that you're making in a community or community organization whose your partner can make all the difference in the world to that other organization.
For instance, we operate an urban open space grant program where we use public funds and make contributions to all kinds of community-based organizations to get people closer to nature, stand up environmental education programs or do community gardens and urban farms, trails and all kinds of things that can connect people to nature. We might give out a $25,000 contribution to a small community-based organization, which changes things night and day for them and see the impact that our work can have, not just on the big wide-open spaces but inside communities, especially low-income communities that don't have access often to green space.
Those partnerships that you have and relationships that you build with the community can start to show you and give you momentum to what you're doing over time. It's also important as you make that incremental progress and wins to celebrate them. As many people say, "It's not a sprint. It's a marathon." You have to pace yourself but that doesn't mean there can't be satisfying wins along the way.
Having a healthy intentional culture is to have humanistic leadership where you understand the human part of work or people's humanity. Even without ever knowing that ever since I've known you, I would call you a humanistic leader. Can you share with the readers some of the things that you have either learned to do or do to connect to people? For you, it's natural but other people are those heads-down leaders that it's not natural for them. What are some of the ways that you connect with employees, partners, staff or leaders so that they know you care?
It's ironic in a way when your career choice or calling is about the natural world but you realize along the way that it's all about human relationships. That's what gets it done. One of my heroes is Jane Goodall. She pioneered the understanding of chimpanzees and how closely related they are to humans but her big breakthrough was understanding the importance of villages and townships around these areas of habitat. If people were doing well, then wildlife would be doing well. There's been a lot of learning in my career about the people aspect. Leaders talk about this a lot.
It's the practice of managing by walking around that is more difficult in the post-pandemic world but interacting with people as people and getting curious about their lives, their highs and their lows is important. I mentioned being vulnerable as a leader, showing my passions, what gets me excited, not being afraid to laugh at myself, giving away important assignments or power to others which is not the same as dereliction of duty, understanding the difference between those, celebrating the wins, getting out in nature or the open spaces we've protected and bringing everybody together. There's nothing more joyful than when our entire group of 50 gets out on land. You've got the biologists with the trail builders, HR and IT. Everybody sees their unique role in the organization working together.
How do we open the door with these massive organizations in Silicon Valley that are so tech-focused and have them understand that if they want more from people, they might want to consider using the resources all around them or nature to connect their people to their purpose and land? Most people live here because it's one of the most biodiverse areas in the country. The weather's great and it's beautiful but if we're working all day and we're in front of the computer, we don't get to see that. What have you experienced? Am I thinking they don't understand it or do they all understand it, donate money and go on hikes? Instead of taking people to Dave & Buster's, they're taking people to the Coyote Valley. What's the awareness of the need in organizations?
If you've been paying attention at all, you've heard scientists say, "We've got ten years to make a sizable difference in responding to climate change." You heard me say that in a blink of an eye when you think about the planet's history, we have put one million species at risk of extinction. We've all been experiencing the whims of nature. Mother Nature is sending some pretty strong signals about the impact we're having in terms of the storms. One year, we have drought and the next year we have floods. We then have wildfires. In places all around the country, the world and even in our communities, sometimes the hardest hit is the communities that can at least afford and are resilient to that.
Even in a place like Silicon Valley, nature matters. Nature is our life support system upon which we all depend. To those who work and depend on Silicon Valley for their employment, nature is one of the best, if not the highest return on investments that we can make. When we invest in nature and steward nature and take care of her, she looks out for us in terms of clean air and water, controlling floods, providing food and generating areas for everyone no matter their race, age or ZIP code to go to and experience mental and physical health. We need nature more than we know.
Nature is one of the best and highest returns on investments. Nature looks out for us when we invest, steward, and cares for it. We need nature more than we know.
One of the things in our 30th year here at the Open Space Authority in 2023 is that we're calling upon Silicon Valley to invest in the protection and restoration of the natural world right here in Silicon Valley. The implications for that and the benefits of that are incalculable. Our tech hub here in Silicon Valley is pretty impressive. We have the spaceship building for Apple and the Google investment in downtown San Jose and a lot of amazing things happening but sometimes, they're happening within the internal bubble of that company.
We've heard the term corporate responsibility but it's so much bigger than that. It's a moral and spiritual responsibility to the planet to do something and invest in the habitability and sustainability of our planet right in your backyard. There's no better role model for that than Yvon Chouinard in what he has done with Patagonia and his creation of the 1% for the Planet Program, which allows companies to give back to the natural world to better the environment for nature and people. We're all in this together. Even for people like me that have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, no one person or company can do it all. No one community or government. We've all got to work together and do it now.
You have two big things coming up, an anniversary event in 2023. Can you tell us about that?
We have had a couple of big events coming up in the last few years. Working with our partners at the Peninsula Open Space Trust and the City of San Jose, we've acquired over 1,500 acres of the valley floor in the Coyote Valley, one of the most important remaining undeveloped landscapes in the San Francisco Bay area. We're going to be celebrating that with a lot of friends of the Open Space Authority and elected officials that we would like to understand more about the importance of nature. We're going to be doing that celebration in May 2023 at the Tilton Ranch, which is a 2, 000-acre protected ranch that will be opening to the public in the coming years as an amazing open space.
On October 2023, we're opening our newest open space preserve and it's the first one that has a Native American name. It's called Máyyan 'Ooyákma - Coyote Ridge Open Space Preserve. It's the Coyote Ridge overlooking Highway 101, right where 85 and 101 come together. It's one of the most sensitive habitats remaining in Santa Clara County. It's home to the Bay checkerspot butterfly, serpentine grasslands and some of the most outstanding views available in Santa Clara County.
We'll be opening that to the public in the early part of October 2023. We're excited about that. We're going to use this platform for our 30th anniversary to get more people involved to raise the profile of the importance of nature and how much it means to the people of San Jose and Santa Clara County. Hopefully, do a lot of great work that keeps us at the forefront of protecting nature here in our region.
For those people that are reading that believe they have a calling to conserve nature and care for the planet, what would you suggest? Is there a job board that is for this industry? Is there an association that they can sign up for? Where do they begin their quest? People are wanting to leave Corporate America in droves because they want more purpose and meaningful work. They want to do something that matters. You've got the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority but also Andrea serves on boards for the entire region and multiple different organizations. How do they go about getting into this industry?
Thanks, Margaret. It depends on where you are on your path. If you're still in college, talk to your professors in the Environmental Studies, Environmental Planning or Urban Planning Departments. They are connected to these webs of nonprofit organizations and government agencies. You can send me an email at AMackenzie@OpenSpaceAuthority.org. I'm happy to direct you to nonprofit organizations or other government agencies that are looking for people. There is some tremendously passionate and dedicated conservation, environmental and social justice organizations working together in the Bay Area.
I happened to sit on the board of an outstanding organization called TOGETHER Bay Area, which is a coalition of all the open space conservation and restoration organizations and agencies across the nine counties of the Bay Area. You can find TOGETHER Bay Area on the internet and they have a job board for the entire Bay Area. You can come to our conference if you're interested in May 2023 that TOGETHER Bay Area is putting on and learn more about the work and how you can get involved.
Where is that in May 2023?
TOGETHER Bay Area will be holding its Spring Summit on May 9th, 2023 at Rosie the Riveter National Park in Richmond. We're going to be having some great speakers there. It's a gathering of a very diverse clan of people dedicated to nature here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Thank you so much, Andrea. Keep up the good work. Thank you for sharing your passion and the need for everybody to have an interest in what's happening in the world of nature. Thanks for being here. Bye.
About Andrea Mackenzie
Andrea Mackenzie is the General Manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, a public land conservation agency and special district located in San Jose, CA and operating across a 1,000 square mile region of Santa Clara County, that protects and stewards the region's open spaces, natural areas, and working lands to support healthy ecosystems, communities, and economies.
Over her career, Andrea has worked for multiple public land conservation agencies to preserve open space, farmland, and biodiversity around the San Francisco Bay Region. She has focused her work on regional conservation policy, urban and regional planning, and conservation finance. She has led efforts to secure voter approval of several open space finance measures in Sonoma and Santa Clara counties, generating over $600 million for land conservation. In 2016, Andrea was named a Local Conservation Hero by Bay Nature Magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area and in 2020 was named one of the 100 Women of Influence in Silicon Valley by the Silicon Valley Business Journal.
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