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Posts about Environment


Anacostia Park can help weaken climate change's damage

Anacostia Park could better serve the needs of the surrounding community if it were easier to access and there were more to do there. Fixing it up could also help protect generations of District residents from the worst impacts of climate change.

Anacostia Park. Photo by Krista Schlyer.

Real environmental problems are on the horizon

The primary challenge that climate change will put in front of the District in coming decades will be the risk of flooding caused by both tides and storm water. DC will lead the East Coast in tidal floods by 2045, due to rising sea levels, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released last year.

Large-scale projects such as seawalls are going up to protect DC's critical infrastructure, but smart growth and green infrastructure can often accomplish the same mission at a fraction of the cost.

In an attempt to clean up the Anacostia, DC has invested billions in a new storm water storage and treatment facility to capture overflow from the city's ageing sewage system. This system will be largely effective for everything but the most extreme weather events, but unfortunately, we're headed for more of those: Storms are predicted to increase in severity, if not frequency, because of climate change.

Parks and rain gardens can help with this problem because they absorb a lot of stormwater. More parks would make it less likely that DC's water treatment system gets overloaded.

Photo by Krista Schlyer.

What's more, expanding the stormwater storage and treatment system will likely be cost prohibitive for the foreseeable future. That means protecting existing green space like Anacostia Park, and finding new ways to replace impermeable surfaces with ecologically friendly alternatives like rain gardens can go a very long way in helping DC manage its stormwater.

Parks can help us address those problems

The parks and wetlands that line the Anacostia-- referred to by many as "green infrastructure"-- is the first line of defense against flooding and stormwater pollution. Collectively, these areas will save the city billions of dollars in damage from tidal floods alone by the middle of this century.

"As they wind their way toward the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers define the borders of Washington, D.C. and the many historic landmarks nearby, from Arlington National Cemetery to Old Town Alexandria, Va," reads the UCS survey. "Tides affect these rivers, and tidal flooding can produce effects ranging from patches of standing waters in parks to flooded roadways."

Parks can also provide other environmental lines of defense. For example, they bring down the "urban heat island" effect. Trees and plants in these areas can also act as a sink for carbon and other pollutants. These climatological advantages do not even begin to explore the social benefits to emotional and physical well being that comes from access to green space.

Green space along the Anacostia in DC. Image from the Anacostia Waterfront Trust.

DC is working to prepare for coming risks

Investing in green infrastructure along the Anacostia Waterfront is the first and easiest step in confronting the environmental challenges that are predicted for the next century. Doing so doesn't require vast amounts of time or money or scarce resources in city government, but it does require commitment and creativity to execute effectively.

Hundreds of acres of impermeable parking lots surround RFK stadium, sending thousands of gallons of stormwater into the Anacostia with each rainfall and increasing the potential for flooding. Directing energy and funds towards underutilized, but strategically located areas along the Anacostia could be an ideal place to start.

In October, DC played host to mayors and city sustainability directors from around the world as part of the Our Cities, Our Climate international mayoral exchange, convened by US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, Michael Bloomberg.

"As the nation's capital, we will continue to lead the nation in green energy and sustainable practices." Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged, welcoming the attendees. "By taking bold and concrete steps to reduce greenhouse emissions, we will improve the long-term health of our community, while creating good paying jobs that build pathways to the middle class for our residents."

Mayor Bowser rightly credits DC for being one of the most progressive cities in the country when it comes to confronting the myriad challenges posed by a changing climate, but the magnitude of these problems will only continue to grow, along with the cost of inaction.

The District is presented with a unique opportunity to become more resilient by simply protecting existing park and marshland along the Anacostia, while looking for opportunities to expand such infrastructure wherever possible. If Mayor Bowser and the rest of city government champion this policy, it will greatly increase the region's resilience to climate change, whatever the future may hold.


People are healthier, wealthier, and happier when cars don't come first

It'd be pretty tough to read through everything on our list of the best planning books. But if you have 16 minutes, author Jeff Speck shares the basic arguments of his book Walkable City in this TED talk.

Speck's argument for walkable cities appeals to what just about everyone wants: more money, better health, and a cleaner environment.

In cities that require more driving, residents spend far more of their income on transportation. Physical inactivity, which suburban design encourages, has grave health consequences. And the farther away households are from cities, where it's easier to share resources, the more carbon dioxide they produce.

Speck acknowledges that it's hard to challenge people's established ways of life. But at the same time, there's good reason to think we'd all be happier if we didn't view car travel as the norm or spaced out living as what's best.

"I'd argue that the same thing that makes you sustainable gives you a higher quality of life," he says. "And that's living in a walkable neighborhood."


Events roundup: Changes are coming

I-66, Capital Bikeshare, and Prince George's zoning will all be changing in the near future. Have you weighed in? Plus, learn about dams, bikeway design, and more in this week's events.

Photo by thisisbossi on Flickr.

Tolls and lanes for I-66: Virginia is considering tolls for people driving alone on I-66, along with new lanes outside the Beltway. State transportation officials are holding a series of meetings this Monday to Thursday around Oakton, Centreville, Haymarket, and Fair Oaks, all from 6 to 8:30 pm.

Rewrite Prince George's zoning: Prince George's County is rewriting its zoning code for the first time in 50 years, which will have a major effect on future development. Three listening sessions, Tuesday in Riverdale, Wednesday in Fort Washington, and Thursday in Landover. All meetings are 6-8 pm.

Those damn dams: Senator Al Franken will host a screening of the movie DamNation on Tuesday, January 27, 5:30-8:30 pm at the US Capitol Visitor Center. This documentary explores how the US has changed its attitude towards dams from a source of national pride to environmental awareness. A panel discussion will follow the film. RSVP is requested.

Talk bikeshare's future: Help shape the future of Capital Bikeshare at an open house this Wednesday, January 28, 6-8 pm at the Marin Luther King Jr. Library at 901 G Street NW. Officials will discuss a possible price increase and future expansion. There will also be a trivia table and fun facts about bikeshare on display. You don't want to miss it.

The right way to make bikeways: Bill Schultheiss of Toole Design Group will speak about his experience building bike lanes in several US cities and his observations from abroad. The talk is Thursday, January 29, 6 pm at the Downtown BID, 1250 H Street NW Suite 1000. RSVP by January 28 to attend.

Do you know of an upcoming event that may be interesting, relevant, or important to Greater Greater Washington readers? Send it to us at


What to watch for in the 2015 Virginia General Assembly

The Virginia General Assembly's 2015 session kicks off today in Richmond. Smart growth and environmental advocates are gearing up for a busy, if short, session. While things evolve quickly at the beginning of any legislative session, there are already several issues and bills to look for that may impact smart growth in Northern Virginia.

Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

Transit funding

Because legislation over the past four years didn't make transit a priority, it faces big funding shortfalls. 65% of Virginia's population and gross state product lie within the urban crescent (from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads), and with an aging population in rural areas, transit needs are growing.

Yesterday, Governor McAuliffe announced a package of transportation initiatives including a proposal to shift $50 million per year from ports, aviation, highways, and freight rail to transit. This helps, but isn't a long-term solution.

Transportation policy reform

Advocates expect that bills to reform the Public Private Transportation Act (PPTA) will try to prevent future disastrous project decisions, like Route 460 out of Hampton Roads, which wasted $300 million in taxpayer funds without having permits in hand. This year, proposed reforms to the PPTA include requiring better risk analysis and greater legislative oversight.

Highway advocates hostile to transit have tried for many years to make "congestion reduction" the main criterion for selecting transportation projects. Last year, the smart growth community won important amendments to a bill, HB2, which set more balanced criteria to give transit projects a fair chance at funding.

Unfortunately, transit opponents are back this session with bills to force VDOT to evaluate Northern Virginia projects solely under the congestion reduction standard. This would force officials to ignore the benefits of transit for moving more people, providing an effective commute option, reducing air pollution, promoting smart growth development, and maximizing walk, bike and transit trips.

Bicycle and pedestrian priorities

Legislators are proposing bills to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, including anti-dooring bills, bills to make it easier to safely and legally pass cyclists with a 3-foot buffer, and bills to require stopping for pedestrians in crosswalks.

Another bill would ensure localities don't lose state funding if they make bike improvements on local streets. Today, changing road from two lanes each way to one lane each way, plus a center turn lane, plus bike lanes (as Fairfax County did with Lawyers Road) could reduce a jurisdiction's funding under the state formula.

Standards for Uber, Lyft, and other services

Ride-hailing services have hit the scene across the country, offering new options for getting around without owning a car. States are addressing how to properly regulate these services, and Virginia is no exception. Issues include insurance, background checks for drivers, access for the disabled and those without credit cards, and use of hybrid or other high-efficiency vehicles.

Threats to land conservation

Virginia's very successful Land Preservation Tax Credit program is facing significant cuts, even though it has effectively helped Virginians to voluntarily conserve tens of thousands of acres in farms and forests, and helped communities reduce sprawl and the costs of public infrastructure.

Opponents of land conservation are also pushing legislation designed to undermine the conservation easement program, impacting the right and ability of private landowners to conserve their land. Expect to see smart growth and conservation groups across the state partner to defend this program.

Potomac bridges

It seems that each year brings new bills pushing for new highways across the Potomac far upstream from the American Legion Bridge. New bridges have the potential to impact Great Falls, Reston, and eastern Loudoun, fueling more sprawl and diverting funds need for investing in transit and fixing the American Legion Bridge. Each year, we've won bipartisan support to stop these bills. We'll see if they pop up again.

Specific details on particular bills will become available on the legislative system as they are filed and published. We'll follow up with bill numbers, details, and links in upcoming posts as the legislative session continues.


Tommy Wells will head DC's environmental agency

Councilmember Tommy Wells will run the District Department of the Environment in Muriel Bowser's administration. The mayor-elect is expected to announce the pick at an event this morning.

Photo by Tommy Wells on Flickr.

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) is responsible for monitoring air, water, and soil quality in DC, running programs to encourage energy conservation, and much more. Wells had a strong track record on the environment while in office, most notably winning support for DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee.

Wells has recently spoken about his interest in programs to "green" DC's fleets, both the government-owned ones like trash trucks and, through incentives, private ones like FedEx and UPS's delivery trucks.

He also has talked about cleaning up the Anacostia River and encouraging people to enjoy DC's natural resources like the parkland on its banks. He has been a champion of programs at Kingman Island, in the river near the National Arboretum and RFK stadium. Its annual Bluegrass Festival brings many residents to a part of DC's natural environment they rarely experience on a daily basis; Wells hopes that unfamiliarity will change.

Wells ran against Bowser in the mayoral primary, but then endorsed her and energetically campaigned for her in the general election. He will be leaving the council at the end of this year, and there was widespread speculation that he was seeking a role in the administration.

Will Wells and DDOE be able to lead, or be stuck on the back bench?

One open question is how influential DDOE will be in under Bowser. While Mayor Gray had a very far-reaching sustainability plan, his administration largely relegated DDOE to a narrow role. The DC Office of Planning and director Harriet Tregoning led the sustainability plan process much more than DDOE.

In 2012, City Administrator Allen Lew fired Director Christophe Tolou and, soon after, gave DDOE staff a harsh talk including references to "Attila the Hun." Lew's beef with the agency, apparently, was what he felt to be a too-close relationship with the EPA.

Only time will tell if Wells and DDOE are able to play a broader role in helping DC become a leader against climate change. The agency could work across the government to help implement the sustainability plan. It could participate in shaping economic development, transportation, and other city initiatives in a more sustainable direction.

By appointing a high-profile, well-known figure to this post and doing so before choosing most other agency heads, Bowser could be signaling that she will take the environment very seriously and make river cleanup and carbon emissions a priority.

Alternately, by giving Wells the post of DDOE rather than a more policymaking agency like transportation or planning, she could be paying back a strong supporter without actually giving him much real influence over the city's future direction—or committing to the "livable, walkable" policies he has championed.

Bowser is not expected to make any announcements about other agencies today, and has thus far revealed no plans about transportation, planning, economic development, or most other cabinet positions.

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