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District of Columbia Plans Ambitious ‘Green’ Path

Aerial view of Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., is already ranked 8th of out of 27 major U.S. and Canadian cities, but it aims to move higher through its Sustainable D.C. plan, which calls for drastic reductions in energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions, increases in tree plantings and the design of walkable communities, and the construction of public structures that align with the principles of sustainable design. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Carol M. Highsmith

The District of Columbia plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, implement sustainable storm-water capture and treatment systems, and ensure that its buildings meet stringent environmental standards in the years to come.

March 12, 2013–A report recently published by the City of Washington, D.C., describes the city’s plan to reach a number of high-profile environmental goals by 2032, among them healthier rivers, storm-water improvements, and a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases.

The report was prepared by a number of city agencies and released on February 20. It outlines what is called the Sustainable DC Plan and caps a yearlong push by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to spur “green” measures in the city, especially those related to energy efficiency. The plan comes on the heels of the Sustainable DC Act of 2012, which was signed into law in January of this year, and $4.5 million worth of grants in late 2012 that were designed to encourage city agencies to study and implement environmentally friendly changes.

The Sustainable DC Plan is the result of city agencies, residents, community leaders, and focus groups coming together under the auspices of the mayor’s office to produce a list of short-, medium-, and long-term goals that the city hopes to achieve by 2032. But perhaps the key element of the plan is the report itself.

Its pages detail how the nation’s 92 sq mi capital could make itself one of the greenest and most efficient cities in the country by 2032. In addition to outlining a desire to update all of the District of Columbia’s public school buildings so that they qualify for gold certification in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the plan proposes a number of initiatives to mitigate the effects of storm-water runoff on the environment and to make the local Potomac and Anacostia rivers suitable for both swimming and fishing. However, above all else the report serves as a forthright statement of the city’s goals for the next generation, and it will be welcomed by such city employees as Rebecca Stack, M.ASCE, a civil engineer and low-impact development specialist in the District Department of the Environment. “It’s exciting to me that I have this user-friendly document as a starting point for folks who are not necessarily coming at it from a technical perspective,” says Stack, a key member of the city’s storm-water management team. “It helps unify a lot of ideas and presents [them] in a really digestible way. It’s also a really good tool to talk to other jurisdictions about all of our efforts since there are so many things going on in the city.”

When the city opens up new sectors for development or embarks upon redevelopment, the Sustainable DC Plan can help the city communicate with land owners or tenants who may have their own ideas about property development. Among the areas included in the plan are the neighborhood surrounding Nationals Park, the home of the Washington Nationals, which opened in 2008 but has yet to see a strong development push, and the east and west campuses of St. Elizabeths Hospital, which are seeing significant development. (See “Redesigned D.C. Pavilion Breaks Ground in March,” on Civil Engineering online.)

Steve Saari, an ecologist in the District Department of the Environment, is especially pleased with the plan because it corroborates his department’s long-held position that the city needs more green roofs, rain gardens, and other low-impact landscaping elements, such as sunken tree boxes, to filter pollutants in storm water throughout the city. The plan includes the goal that “75 percent of the landscape . . . be used to capture rainwater for filtration or for reuse” by 2032.

“There are a lot of stretch goals that will guide us in the short term and in the long term,” says Saari. “I’ve been constantly impressed that the mayor pushed for it himself instead of someone at my level pushing for it. It’s something that really gives me hope that we’ll be able to institute this because it came from the top down.”

Along with governmental and economic initiatives, the ambitious plan includes the following goals:

• Planting 8,600 new trees per year to help the city reach a healthy tree canopy of 40 percent;
• Promoting a livable, walkable city that would help to increase the city’s population by 250,000 (a roughly 40 percent gain);
• Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by 50 percent;
• Reducing energy use citywide by 50 percent;
• Ensuring that public buildings and housing attain LEED gold certification or the equivalent.

The plan also calls for ensuring that every resident is within a 20-minute walk of such “amenities and services” as park space, community gardens, and fresh food and reducing the number of idling vehicles on city streets.

While some of plan’s goals, for example, population growth, may be achieved without the city making a definitive statement of support, the mayor realized that a push from his office might be able to add significant momentum to the sustainability conversation in Washington. The motivation dates to a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2011 at which the technology company Siemens, in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit, part of the Economist Group, released a green city ranking that put Washington 8th of out of 27 major U.S. and Canadian cities. Dan Guilbeault, a policy analyst for the District Department of the Environment, recalls that the mayor’s reaction to that ranking was that, without a lot of coordinated effort, “we were already number eight.” The mayor realized that, Guilbeault says, “if we made it a priority, we could be much higher on [the] list.”

That realization was the beginning of the 18-month effort that culminated in the publication of the Sustainable DC Plan. Now comes the hard part: meeting the ambitious goals. “We’re environmentalists, but we’re practical,” says Guilbeault. “We want to push as hard as we can. But I think the end result was a good balance between ambitious and achievable.”


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