The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Landscape architects envision a greener Chinatown

How could Chinatown be a greener and more livable neighborhood? Designers from the American Society of Landscape Architects and Fuss & O'Neill created a vision for an inter-connected series of green "complete streets," with new, safer bicycle lanes, a pedestrian-friendly "festival street," and a central hub for new street-level sustainability education programs right in front of ASLA's door (and below its green roof) on I Street.

All images from ASLA.

There's no time to waste. The city's complete street and green infrastructure guidelines, which are in place, will soon mix with more stringent stormwater policies that impose higher fees on private property owners that create runoff.

To green this neighborhood, any plan has to start with the streets—all of them. Beginning a new green neighborhood means tackling all the alleyways running off I Street that contribute to stormwater runoff. Just as Chicago has done with its innovative green alleys program, the neighborhood could put in permeable pavements along with underground cisterns in key areas that would preserve car access while absorbing water into the ground.

Along I Street, the intersections at 9th, 8th, and 7th streets could become green, permeable ones. What is now a source of huge amounts of runoff in the center of the streets could become a central place for absorbing rainwater into the underlying soils. Additional layers of stone or sand underground could also help boost absorption rates.

Crisscrossing an east-west system of green streets along Eye street would be a new north-south green "festival street" running down 8th Street, transforming an underused, garage-heavy street into an active, pedestrian-friendly zone.

Designed to be like a Dutch woonerf or pedestrian mall, this "B or C street," which means it doesn't get that much car traffic, could be designed to slow down car traffic so that pedestrians could move more freely between the National Portrait Gallery and the commercial complex at K Street.


Throughout this new green boulevard, which could be a pedestrian "arboretum," different materials would designate different realms—those for people or for cars. There would be no curbs, creating a flat plane for pedestrians. For 8th and other streets, redesigning the street so it can evolve may be the way to go. Kent Schwendy, senior vice president at Fuss & O'Neill, said many engineers want to simply lock streets into one use, but he argued that "streets change and their uses evolve. We have to let that change happen."

Where 8th Street meets I, new open grates would feature prominently so that "people could actually see that water moves through this area, even when it doesn't rain. This will help educate people about stormwater," said ASLA President Tom Tavella. But the street-level stormwater management systems proposed for I Street wouldn't be "lipstick on a pig," said Chris Ferrero, who runs urban planning and landscape architecture at Fuss & O'Neill but represent an "integrated series of events, a system."

Some 6 additional feet would be added onto the sidewalks, giving 2-3 feet for "green gutters along the curbs" and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters. Intermixed among the new green gutters would be rain gardens, which all inter-connect with the existing tree pits and proposed permeable pavement systems.

On 9th Street, creating a new "two-way cycle track," a dual-direction bicycle lane, actually creates an opportunity to create yet more green infrastructure. The bicycle lanes would be protected by a 4-foot "physical separation filled with plants, not just paint and bollards," said Tavella. That physical separator would not only protect bicyclists from car traffic but also help create a sense of place and add greenery.

The street may certainly need it: Wade Walker, Jr, head of transportation planning at Fuss & O'Neill, said the bicyclists he saw on that street were "up on the sidewalks, showing that they didn't feel safe being there."


Lastly, right in front of ASLA, there could be a new parklet, taking up 2 parking spaces, which would be designed to give people a place to sit and view the green roof education video and read signs about the new green features of the neighborhood. Throughout the district, "signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella.


According to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, CEO/Executive Vice President, ASLA, the next steps will include pitching Fuss & O'Neill's concepts to stakeholders in the neighborhood, starting the fundraising process, and further refining the plans to meet the approval of the many DC government departments involved. Hiring landscape architects to turn the concepts into real designs also sounds like a next step, given the positive early feedback from the DC planning office.

At the end of the intensive, two-day design charrette, Chris Shaheen, who manages the public space programs with the DC planning office, said "we've tested many of these ideas here and there, but this brings it all together. This is what the city wants to do." The city knows, just like ASLA does, that really ambitious proposals like this are needed if the city will reach its goals of making 1.5 million square feet of public right of way permeable by 2016.

A version of this article was originally posted on The Dirt.

Sarah Lewis is an architect by training urban designer by choice. She works for Fuss & O'Neill and contributes to the American Society of Landscape Architects blog, The Dirt


Add a comment »

Cycle-track would be very Chinese.

by Turtleshell on Dec 12, 2012 12:30 pm • linkreport

Who dosen't want to "green" the city! My worry is that designs like the one shown in the photo with a mini bike lane separated from street traffic by a planted median with trees is not only impractical to the everyday functioning of a street but looks ugly.

"and another 2-3 feet for a step area to get to bridges that would take people across the new gutters"

"signage would show what a green street is about, what porous pavements do," said Tavella."

This isn't an amusement park about water runoff, it's a city. Of all the environmental issues pressing on us, this one seems to be a bit over designed for the problem at hand.

by Thayer-D on Dec 12, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

8th street looks nice but functionally it isn't much more than a wide alley in that section. Lots of blank walls and garage entrances. There is no real reason to simply wander by there especially with all the activity on 7th street.

And it's not a great option for any transportation because its so short.

by drumz on Dec 12, 2012 1:11 pm • linkreport

it's a fine line between greening the city and suburbanizing it through green treatments. That's my concern about how K Street adjacent to CityVista has been treated. But these concepts sketches seem ok.

I will say that you have to be careful about applying the Chicago program to DC or at least anywhere in DC. The Chicago program is in neighborhoods. You're talking about alleyways serving commercial districts and commercial uses and that is much different.

Although there are a number of ways to make commercial alley pavements porous, which I think is the real issue.

This is an example, albeit a municipal parking lot, from Adrian Michigan.

by Richard Layman on Dec 12, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

I love trees but I don't want trees between cars and bike lanes. Drivers wouldn't have a clear view of bikers coming into intersections, making turns very dangerous. Drivers already dislike bikes that dart out unexpectedly, and this would greatly aggravate the issue.

by CapHill on Dec 12, 2012 1:41 pm • linkreport

@CaoHill - trees...Drivers wouldn't have a clear view of bikers coming into intersections, making turns very dangerous.
To solve this just don't put any trees ~10 yards from the intersection.

by Tina on Dec 12, 2012 1:57 pm • linkreport

[This comment has been deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Courtland Milloy on Dec 12, 2012 2:52 pm • linkreport

I'd love it if my (neighborhood) alleyway looked like those renderings.

Currently, it looks a bit more like a bombed-out city from World War II, complete with several partially-collapsed buildings.

by andrew on Dec 12, 2012 3:48 pm • linkreport

for Courtland...

Re what do I do?, move out of the city...

by Richard Layman on Dec 12, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

@ Thayer-D

I would be one who does not want to go green not for not giving a damn about the environment but for having major allergies to some plants that are planted in DC. One of the reasons I choose to live in DC vs the suburbs was less trees and other plants which would equal better health for me.

Trees don't do anything for making a city better all it does is make it more appealing for those who like trees and plants. Many cities around the world have limited trees and function fine. Go anywhere from Southern Europe and Northern Africa to India trees don't do anything for the cities people could care less about tree. The tree does not affect their livelihood, income, jobs etc unless it is one which has fruit that is consumed by humans.

by kk on Dec 12, 2012 4:09 pm • linkreport


I don't have studies or links handy to back these up, but tree cover in cities has been linked to a) increases in property value nearby, and b) reductions in urban heat-island effects. Your assertion that "trees don't do anything for making a city better" is not true.

by Adam S on Dec 12, 2012 4:56 pm • linkreport

@ Adam S

What about cities in places that don't naturally have many trees which covers almost everywhere in Northern Africa, Arabia, many islands in the Indian Ocean or places in the Arctic.

a In the case of property values it depends on where you are.
b There are others of doing that without the need or use of trees.
c all cities aren't urbanized like DC or NYC for that matter and city is a specific type of jurisdiction and it does not have to look like LA, DC, NYC, London etc.

by kk on Dec 13, 2012 3:11 am • linkreport

I think we'll all stipulate that planting trees in the desert or an arctic wasteland makes no sense. Now, back here to the mid-Atlantic...

by Mike on Dec 13, 2012 8:14 am • linkreport

"Of all the environmental issues pressing on us, this one seems to be a bit over designed for the problem at hand."

Aren't they building a tunnel under the river to dispose of our stormwater? Seems like pretty big problem, if you could save that money and make the city more livable/beautiful through these green projects. I'd call that well designed not over designed.

Overall I think this is a great idea! It would go a long way to make Chinatown a better neighborhood.

by Chris on Dec 13, 2012 1:44 pm • linkreport

8th Street has eluded many improvement attempts over the years. It's a crucial street within the L'Enfant Plan, linking Mount Vernon Square with what was Center Market, and as such probably attracted too many Important Institutions for its own good -- the Archives, Patent Office, Post Office, and the various churches. It's a great street space, though, and could even make a nice Restaurant Row with some thoughtful design.

by Payton on Dec 13, 2012 3:13 pm • linkreport

Honestly, I don't feel like downtown has to be that green. I love the canopy in places like Mt. Pleasant and Dupont but I don't need it everywhere. Chinatown is blocks away from the mall and several smaller parks in the area. Some street trees and stormwater management makes sense but "greening" the streets does not need to be our primary focus.

by Alan B. on Dec 14, 2012 10:42 am • linkreport

A lot of things wrong with the engineering of this section shown.

1) Pervious pavement installation next to existing pavement as a retrofit is extremely expensive. Why? Because pervious pavement isnt about the top surface, its about the 30-42" of aggregate that goes below the pavement connected to an underdrain that must be sent to a main storm system.

2) Same thing about the sidewalk, although this has separation from the existing road. How will this sidewalk be installed in close proximity to buildings when you have to excavate 3-4', below the elevation of many building's foundation footing? (In the case with gardens only this might work better). I would however argue making pervious sidewalks doesn't do much for treatment ability. Roadways and lawns are far greater point sources of waterway pollution than walkways which dont carry vehicles.

3)There is a barrier shown on each side of the rain garden. I assume this means there will be curb breaks which allow runoff to enter the facility. I would show the raingarden elevation therefore sunken 6-12", otherwise you would pond water onto your sidewalk. Secondly, on the road side, there is a grate inlet shown in between the roadway and the facility defeating the point of the raingarden. Place a slot drain inside of the bioretention itself, but place it about 6" proud of the bottom of the facility so it acts only as a major rainstorm overflow.

I commend DC for trying new ideas, but they need to have an engineer in the room also to talk about the logistics. Because a good idea can become infeasible very quickly if you let the A's get too big.

- Spokesman for engineers in the area :P

by Tysons Engineer on Dec 16, 2012 9:02 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us