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

Posts about Big Ideas


Ten ideas and many more in the Policy Greenhouse

This morning, the DC Policy Greenhouse discussed innovative ideas for making DC more environmentally sustainable.

Photo by bods.

GWU President Steve Knapp, Councilmember Mary Cheh, and District Department of the Environment Director George Hawkins introduced the event. Hawkins told us that he grew up in Cleveland, and went downtown on a school field trip in the fourth grade. That's when the lake river was burning, and triggered his lifelong commitment to the environment.

Steve Offutt was first up. We discussed his idea yesterday for a market-based Portfolio Standard program for tree canopy. All of you brought up many good, specific comments and suggestions, and many worried that unless properly implemented, this plan would discourage denser development. I think we could tweak the system by making the rules account just for the non-built land, for example, or create a combination of FAR and tree canopy formula.

Richard Layman ran through a long list of suggestions:

  • Implement a "transportation withholding tax" to take money from paychecks given in the District, and dedicate that money to transit. DC can't charge a commuter tax, but might be able to do this. Oregon does, for example.
  • Develop a comprehensive transportation plan.
  • Build a unified regional passenger railroad system.
  • Take another crack at streetcar and light rail planning. Previous plans were too "parochial" and focused on DC.
  • Charge more for the privilege of storing vehicles on public streets. Residential permit fees are only $15 a year, and he suggests we also raise vehicle registration fees.
  • Put HOV-2 requirements on major streets into DC during rush hour, like Alexandria does.
  • Provide better bus service within neighborhoods.
  • Tunnel New York Avenue from New Jersey Avenue to the DC line.
  • Chop up and reuse trees when they come down.
Kristina Van Dexter, a GW student, suggested a policy to create a garden at every school. This would educate children about food issues, reduce child obesity, improve students' relationships with the land and community, stimulate students' minds to think outside the classroom, and could be an integral part of the curriculum.

John Christmas of the Energy Efficiency Partnership of Greater Washington presented a policy to stimulate more energy-efficiency retrofits. Most retrofits come from the Federal Government or "MUSH": municipalities, universities, K-12 schools, and hospitals. The other 85% of buildings have no real financing mechanism to raise capital for green retrofits. His solution? "Tax lien financing," aka "property assessed clean energy financing." A building owner could go to a bank to get a retrofit loan. The District would create a property tax assessment to pay back the loan, which ensures that banks get paid back. The loan would also be recorded as a tax lien, meaning that the lender comes at the head of the line if the property is sold. Bekeley, CA, Boulder, CO, Babylon, NY, Palm Desert, CA and other municipalities are using this system to catalyze energy efficiency.

John Lasky suggested giving every secondary student (grades 9-12) a free bicycle. The student would have to take a course on bike safety, maintenance, and locations of bike trails. Students would have to maintain good academic standing and complete an annual safety course. He suggests that the funding could come from a public-private partnership, though he didn't have anything more specific. This would reduce traffic congestion, child obesity, and emissions from automobiles.

Mark Buscaino of Casey Trees presented "Tree Suitability" technology, a Web site that shows a home, the lot, the open space and the trees and shrubs. The homeowner can virtually drag various trees onto spots in the lot, and see the effect on stormwater retention, energy savings from shading, and so on. The homeowner can move the tree to another location or try a different tree, and see the effect.

Three presenters from the "Emerging Green Builders," professionals and students in the USGBC passionate about sustainable building, discussed their idea for a "self-sustaining hotel for the homeless," a hotel that employs homeless people and whose profits sustain training programs for the homeless.

Chuck Cushman and other presenters from the GW College of Professional Studies talked about creating a Sustainable Community Development masters' program at GW, a certificate in Sustainable Urban Planning, and a follow-on certification in Sustainable Climate Change Technology and Policy. They also talked about adding green projects to the existing DC Neighborhood College community organizer program.

Anacostia Riverkeeper Dottie Yunger suggested "linking what you drink to your impact on the river." Each jurisdiction should footprint their water use and output of stormwater, sewage outflows and runoff into the river. Each should make this information public, and use the numbers as a benchmark to improve upon. Potomac Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield introduced the issue by talking about how much of our bodies include material from the water in our rivers, and the importance of clean water.

Lily Russell talked about ways to improve individual properties' carbon footprints.

  • The first step needs to be computing your carbon footprint, then understanding specific methods to improve it.
  • A special excise tax on the sale of electricity and natural gas would cost about $1/month for residential customers. In Boulder, that raised about $1 million a year for energy programs.
  • A loan for homeowners to implement energy efficiency.
  • An ESCO Guaranteed Program would have the city guaranteeing loans for smaller commercial buildings to improve their energy efficiency.
  • The city could also recruit smaller buildings to bundle together to get better costs on retrofits.
  • A residential energy conservation ordinance would set energy performance standards for sales or rentals.
After the formal presentations, members of the audience got to give shorter pitches for their ideas.
  • Law professor Deborah Jacobson gave a list of solar power ideas.
  • Developer Michael Keefe made an interesting suggestion of helping condo boards band together to get good information and vet potential contractors for green improvements.
  • Cindy Olson, from Eco-Coach, suggested the "extreme neighborhood makeover," to completely green a single block or neighborhood.
  • Recent Statehood Green Council candidate David Schwartzman suggested congestion charging in downtown DC. He also recommended making sure revenue sources are progressive and not regressive; some in the earlier presentations would have disproportionately impacted lower-income residents.
  • Karen Greenwood went back to the basics and suggested recycling bins across the city.
  • Pat Schriers talked about water resources research.
  • Reese, whose last name I missed, suggested the DC government organize workshops to reach out to people and educate them on ways to be green and save money at the same time.
  • Tdani Mbukce (whose name I've almost certainly misspelled) talked about community-based partnerships with government. Much of the funding for green programs goes to people no familiar with the local communities. He's from Ward 8, which has the most environmental needs, and the government needs to do more to work with and involve people in the community.
  • Mike Alonzo, also from Casey Trees, talked about their program to use bikes more and trucks less as they go around to water and maintain trees.
  • Tim Mason runs 350 Green. (350 is the level of carbon in the atmosphere we need to reach to stop global warming). They're installing electric car charging stations in California right now.
  • John Johanson is with the Energy Efficiency Partnership. He praised John Christmas's tax lien program to generate capital investment. He also suggested policies to allow tenants to pay the costs as long as they get the benefits of retrofits; right now, property owners pay, and have fewer incentives to green their buildings since tenants pay utility costs.
  • Andrea Dean, a Ph.D. student at UCLA, is working on a "Green Business Certification Program" for businesses. Certified businesses can better reach customers, and create a network to learn from each other.
George Hawkins praised the "embarrassment of riches" of all the ideas presented today, and showed off the new reusable grocery bags DDOE will be distributing to needy residents, calling DC's the "greenest council in the entire world."

The biggest challenge, Hawkins said, was how to "operationalize" these ideas, to make sure they actually can work. He told a story of going to a building with new, green technology, only to see maintenance workers taking a new part out and reinstalling the old system. They were doing that because they knew how to maintain the old technology but not (yet) the new.

Which of these ideas do you think have the most merit?

Public Spaces

Policy Greenhouse proposal: Urban canopy and market mechanisms

Tomorrow, ten people and groups will present ideas for "high-impact environmental solutions" for DC at the 2009 Policy Greenhouse sponsored by DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. I have been asked to present my proposal for a portfolio standard (a kind of cap-and-trade system) with market-price trading to increase DC's urban canopy.

A cap and trade system limits something, such as a pollutant, by designating an overall cap and allowing all the parties under the cap to buy and sell. It's analogous to secondary market ticket sales for concerts or sporting events. The "cap" is the total number of seats available for the event. Generally once all those tickets are sold, then a secondary market is born on sites like StubHub to allow people with tickets to sell to those without. The total number of tickets does not change, but ownership of those tickets can.

A portfolio standard is the other side of the same coin as cap and trade, except instead of trying to reduce or limit something, we are trying to increase it. A minimum requirement is set and each entity has to meet or exceed that requirement, either directly or by purchasing enough "credits." A common use of this concept is a Renewable Portfolio Standard, in which a state or other entity requires that a certain percentage of electricity generated will come from renewable sources.

What makes this concept attractive is that it creates an economic incentive to go above and beyond, because when one does, the extra environmental benefits can be sold to someone else in the market.

So let's apply this idea to urban canopy, the layer of trees, branches, and leaves that cover the ground when viewed from above. According to American Forests, tree canopy in DC declined from 37% to 21% of the District's area between 1973 and 1997. Acres with 50% or more tree coverage declined from 37% to just 13% of the acres in the District. Most of those are probably in parks. (In contradiction to the American Forests report, Casey Trees estimates tree coverage as 36%, so a consistent methodology will need to be established.)

Photos from the American Forests report.

Urban tree canopy provides numerous benefits, including:

  • Reduction in the urban heat island effect. That's what makes cities hotter than the surrounding areas. Buildings in urban heat islands require more energy to cool. Hotter temperatures also lend to greater production of ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Trees reduce temperatures two ways: through shading and through respiration (the emission of water vapor from the leaves).
  • Reduced stormwater runoff. Trees capture rainwater as it falls and absorb it through their roots. Reduced stormwater runoff reduces pressure on wastewater treatment facilities, reduces the risk of localized flooding, reduces toxins and particulates from flowing into streams and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Improved air quality. In addition to the air quality benefits of reduced urban temperatures, trees themselves can filter toxins from the air. They also sequester carbon, helping to reduce the risks of climate change.
  • Wildlife habitat. Trees and other urban plants provide shelter and food for wildlife, including migratory birds and butterflies.
  • Increased property values.
  • Improved aesthetics. Trees look nice.
The simplest way to apply the portfolio standard to the DC urban tree canopy is to require each property to meet the same minimum requirement and ratchet it up slowly over time. Let's assume that the current canopy is still 21% as it was in 1997. The portfolio requirement could be set at 20% to start. (It's a good idea to make the initial standard relatively easy to accomplish in order to get the system operating and keep prices low so there is less likelihood of backlash). If my property is 6000 square feet, then I would be required to have 1200 square feet of tree canopy—either actual canopy or "credits" from someone else. Suppose my lot is 50% covered with trees—3000 square feet. This is good, because I have an extra 1800 square feet of canopy that I can sell.

Now suppose the apartment complex down the street is on a 30,000 square foot lot, so their 20% requirement dictates 6000 square feet of tree canopy. However, they only have 4200 feet of tree cover. That means they need to purchase 1800 square feet of additional tree canopy from someone to meet their requirement. Voila! I can sell my 1800 square feet of extra credits to them, and we both now meet the standard.

Because I have gone above and beyond the minimum, I have been able to make money from the sale of my canopy credits. The apartment complex has had to pay for their lack of tree canopy. This is how it should be: our incentives are perfectly aligned with our environmental goals. If the price is high enough, the apartment owner will look for ways to plant more trees instead of buying credits.

After the initial couple of years, the requirement should start increasing. If the District's goal is to return to 37% tree canopy as it was in 1973 (or 40%, which is what American Forests recommends for urban areas, or 50%, which is what Casey Trees suggests is feasible), then it can slowly increase the requirement over a couple of decades. Each year the value of tree canopy will rise so that the incentive to plant trees (or not cut them down) gets greater and greater.

Since a lot of the urban tree canopy is on public land, parks specifically, the city itself can earn money from selling its credits. This is politically tricky ground, though. In theory, it's a good idea for the city to be driven by the same financial incentives as the rest of the market. However, it may want to create a mechanism in which the revenues received through the sale of canopy credits go to enhancing parks or improving environmental performance or other programs that residents will support. In addition, it's important that the system be designed so that it does not create the appearance that the city can manipulate the market to its advantage.

One other appealing feature of this concept is that it is completely scalable. A pilot program could be designed for a single neighborhood, district or ward. Everything works exactly the same, just on a smaller scale.

Public Spaces

What are your big ideas for the environment?

The DC Council wants your bold ideas for greening the District of Columbia. On Friday, July 10th, Councilmember Mary Cheh's Committee on Government Operations and the Environment and GW's Office of Sustainability are hosing a "Policy Greenhouse" where ten people get to present their 5-minute big ideas.

Photo by James Jordan.

The ideas need not be quick fixes, they emphasize, but rather ideas that would have a significant impact on the environment or introduce significant innovation. The site lists congestion pricing, vertical farming, "expanded retro-commissioning" (I'm not sure what that is), requiring carbon neutrality for public buildings, or "cool cars" that reflect solar energy as examples of the kinds of ideas.

What are your ideas? Let's brainstorm some to submit. What bold change would really improve our environmental sustainability in a way that's positive for all?


The Triboro RX

In the heyday of the railroads, rail lines crisscrossed the country and ran right through major cities. Some lines are commuter railroads today, others were turned into transit lines or highways, but many were abandoned. A few still exist, relatively unknown to most people, because they were either abandoned but never completely turned over to other uses, or because they carry some of the rail freight that still accounts for a small but meaningful share of cargo traffic.

In New York City, the Long Island Rail Road's Bay Ridge Branch runs from the more heavily used lines in East New York, across Canarsie, Borough Park, and other parts of Brooklyn to Bay Ridge. It's still kept active by the rail freight that floats across the harbor from New Jersey; the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel proposal championed by Congressman Nadler would connect to this branch.

Transit fans love to think about what they'd do to run passenger transit service over less used lines like this - at the popular SubChat discussion forum, posters often suggest running service over this line (example) or the abandoned LIRR Rockaway Beach branch (example).

The Regional Plan Association has suggested it wouldn't be that crazy to run a transit service from the Bronx through Queens and down to Brooklyn, using primarily existing rail lines - the Amtrak connection over the Hell Gate Bridge from the Bronx to Queens, and the Bay Ridge Branch through Brooklyn. And via Streetsblog, Michael Frumin created a model of this potential service, the "Triboro RX", connecting three boroughs and providing service to several neighborhoods that have none today.

His amazing interactive map includes the location of the proposed line and connections to subways, information by census tract about how many people might use the line, and pictures taken of the existing infrastructure at many spots along the route.

This proposal would have various costs and obstacles, including how to share tracks with the Amtrak or freight rail that currently uses many pieces of this infrastructure, but it's worth a look. And practical or not, it's a very impressive use of open technology like GeoServer which make it easier (not easy enough yet, but at least possible) for citizens and organizations to make their own maps of how they would improve the city.


Gowanus tunnel?

In The Power Broker, Robert Caro describes the Gowanus Expressway as one of Robert Moses' first of many terrible highway projects. He ran the highway right down the center of Sunset Park, completely covering the then-vibrant Third Avenue despite the neighborhood's pleas to run it closer to the waterfront. The Gowanus needs to be replaced, and since the mid-90s activists have been pushing an alternative to simply rebuilding the highway: a tunnel.

A tunnel would be more expensive, of course, and the DOT was unwilling to consider the plan until Transportation Alternatives and neighborhood groups filed a lawsuit in 1998. They won the suit, and state and federal money to perform a thorough study of tunnel alternatives.

Lobbying for the tunnel has continued, but the public heard nothing more of it until the Post reported on Friday that DOT officials have approved the tunnel plan. It's not entirely clear from the article how strongly (or whether) they are recommending it over other alternatives, but this is a major step in any case.

Comments on Gothamist's writeup are mixed. Is it worth the money? Will improving the highway just encourage more driving? We know that widening highways adds to sprawl and traffic, but what about tunneling them? Is Boston's Big Dig a good idea or not?

When I first attended a TA meeting where they were discussing the tunnel plan and lobbying, my first question was whether we could just tear down and not rebuild the highway. But the fact is, that particular road is one of the most vital truck routes to most of the city including Manhattan, and even more rail freight capacity won't be able to completely remove the need for trucks to get in and out. So the Gowanus, at least, is here to stay one way or another. Hopefully at least it can stop polluting and depressing Sunset Park.

Public Spaces

A backbone for people and bicycles

I first read about this idea in the RPA's analysis of congestion pricing, but now that traffic reduction ideas are a talked-about topic, another more radical idea has hit the blogs: closing Broadway to traffic. Paul White of TA brings up the idea in a Gothamist interview, and MemeFirst follows up with some more detailed detailed thoughts.

I've actually been thinking about this for a while, and my idea is to make it the backbone of a city-wide greenway network and bike highway. Create paths all through the city where people can walk, and which can carry bicycle traffic so bikers don't have to tangle with cars everywhere. A four-lane street could be reconfigured into an extra lane of expanded sidewalk and pedestrian uses on each side and a bike lane in each direction. Broadway is even wider (4 lanes of traffic plus two for parking, I believe).

I'd have the main backbone run from the Bronx to Morningside Park, down St. Nicholas Ave (a road the city has already identified as a good candidate for a bike lane due to lower traffic), to Central Park along the loop drive with a branch over the 59th Street Bridge, then down Seventh Avenue to Times Square, where the Times Square Alliance already wants to Update: DCP created a greenway plan in 1993 including a proposed greenway network (best image is in this PDF). Some of the outer greenways have been built, others are being planned, but a Manhattan backbone would tie it all together.

Public Spaces

Two plans for Times Square

Times Square was once a seedy place that many New Yorkers avoided, except for brief forays to a Broadway show. Today, many New Yorkers still avoid it, but for the opposite reason - it is really, really crowded. According to the Times Square Alliance, streets in Times Square burst with up to 16,817 people per hour on the busiest sidewalks, plus 1,279 people who can't fit on the sidewalks and walk in the street.

Meanwhile, most of the public space in the area is devoted to cars, even though those hardly move. Two groups have developed detailed proposals to reclaim some of the street space for pedestrians.

The Times Square Alliance recommends cutting the connection between Seventh Avenue and Broadway and creating new sidewalk space in that area. There is a very narrow median right now, which many people walk on, even though transportation officials have placed obstacles to discourage it. Their plan would create a pedestrian area between Seventh and Broadway as well as expanding many of the surrounding sidewalks. You can read a summary (PDF) or the detailed plan (PDF).

Another group, Vision 42, goes one step further, advocating for turning all of 42nd Street into a pedestrian boulevard with a light rail line running the length. 42nd Street has very wide sidewalks which are nevertheless always extremely packed. But traffic on 42nd crawls at best, and the M42 crosstown bus, connecting such important sites as the United Nations, Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Javits Center, and until recently The Tank, moves no slower than a walk. I once walked all the way from Grand Central to 9th Avenue with a bus about half a block behind me, waiting for it to catch me so I could board, but it never did. Light rail could allow people to finally get from one side of Manhattan to the other just a little bit faster.

Support Us
DC Maryland Virginia Arlington Alexandria Montgomery Prince George's Fairfax Charles Prince William Loudoun Howard Anne Arundel Frederick Tysons Corner Baltimore Falls Church Fairfax City