Lindsey Nieratka is a resident of Boca Raton, but she’s a citizen of Earth.
Her C.V. is flush with lengthy tenures in exotic countries and dangerous communities. In 2001, as an undergraduate biology student at Illinois’ Knox College, she spent six months in Tanzania, in a study-abroad program, where she slept in a tent in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area for six to seven weeks, surrounding by wildlife. “Hyenas were commonly in the camp at night,” she says. “One time we had lions in the camp.”
Then, in 2004, she began a 27-month Peace Corps service in Honduras—several years before the organization removed its volunteers from the Central American country because it was too perilous to maintain a presence. Both experiences, though far afield from the environmental needs of a developed American city like Boca Raton, planted the seeds for a vocation in sustainability.
“They really led me to think beyond a career in just straight biological science, to wanting to incorporate more of a human and community perspective,” she says. In Tanzania, “talking to some of the wardens and rangers in Serengeti about the challenges they were having with poachers … helped me to understand that the health of the environment is always going to relate to the economic health of the people who are living within it.”
Nieratka moved to Palm Beach County in 2003, to begin a yearlong biology internship at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. After her volunteer work in Honduras, Florida remained her home base—where she taught environmental studies at FIU and Broward College, worked at environmental nonprofits and joined the Boca Raton Green Living Advisory Board.
In 2015, she became environmental sustainability coordinator for the City of Hollywood. She wrote the city’s sustainability assessment and Resiliency Action Plan, and wrote grants for new sustainability projects. She found her niche as a difference maker on the municipal level—an organizational midpoint between grassroots programs and top-down initiatives.
When she learned that Boca Raton was seeking its first sustainability manager, in 2018, Nieratka was easily persuaded. “I’m interested in doing this sort of work in the place I live, and the place where I’m raising my family,” she says.
The direction to hire a sustainability manager came from the city council.
“Although the city has really been part of the environmental/sustainability discussion for some time—reclaimed water, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, recycling, tree and landscaping ordinance, etc.—the city council believed that we should increase the level of community participation in environmental/sustainability programs,” says Mike Woika, assistant city manager. “Lindsey was a great fit for the position. She had the educational background, and had great experience with other municipalities, and had a good understanding of the city. She is knowledgeable and passionate about sustainability, has great ideas for promoting sustainability topics, and can present information well.”
The signal achievement of Neiratka’s first year with the city was the creation of Coastal Connection, a citywide environmental initiative that “identifies and promotes actions and practices which limit environmental impact and increase environmental benefit.” “The name came from the idea that we are connected to the beach; the beach is connected to us,” Nieratka says. “Whether or not we live on the water, or our businesses are on the water, as a community the beach is part of who were are, and our actions are impacting the health and quality of our water and our coastal resources.”
Coastal Connection’s Restaurant Program awards “stars”—insignias in the shape of sea stars—to businesses that eliminate single-use plastics from their kitchens and dining rooms and offer sustainable menu options, among other environmental actions. The program is still new, and as of this writing, four restaurants have been certified with Coastal Connection—Gary Rack’s Farmhouse Kitchen, Ventura’s Pizza Kitchen, MANE Coffee and Mary’s Kitchen at the Christine E. Lynn Student Center at Lynn University.
“With everything we throw away, there are upstream and downstream impacts of that,” Nieratka adds. “The single-use plastic focus is a way of looking at our daily habits. That can extend well beyond plastics to other ways to reduce waste, and to look for healthier and more environmentally friendly ways of living our everyday lives.”
More improvements continued; last summer, for the city’s Parks & Rec month, Nieratka hosted a canoe and kayak cleanup event. But some of the most urgent environmental concerns will remain daunting.
“Like all coastal communities, we’re going to have challenges from sea level rise and other impacts of climate change,” she says. “We have a Sustainability Action Plan that will be coming out soon that will address transportation, waste management, water and energy conservation as well as resiliency to climate impacts.
“Adaptation to sea level rise is going to have to happen at this level,” she says. “We have control over a lot of our infrastructure and our local rules, which can help us be more resilient to the impacts. The way I think about it is we can’t necessarily move the needle on sea level rise and climate change by ourselves—but it also won’t move if we’re not a part of it.”