Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the 2014 recipients of the Greening America's Capitals grant program. Richmond, Virginia is one of the four recipients and will receive assistance to improve a one-third mile segment of Jefferson Avenue which links the Church Hill and Union Hill neighborhoods east of downtown. The other grant recipients for 2014 are Austin, Texas; Carson City, Nevada; Columbus, Ohio; and Pierre, South Dakota.
The EPA will provide design assistance from private-sector experts (consultants) to develop a sustainable design to jump start the process of creating vibrant and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods within these cities. The design team works with the community and city officials and develops a set of options for the small grant neighborhood that include plans and illustrations. By using illustrations of a new vision for the site, the design teams hope to enable the community and the city to envision what is possible; to develop new perceptions of the place, see the potential, react to it, and energize implementation efforts within the community. In public workshops, the design team gathers input from the residents of the communities to include their ideas and values into the designs.
Greening America’s Capitals helps state capitals develop an achievable vision of distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green infrastructure strategies. Hopefully these programs will not end up displacing the community residents, but improving the existing community-though that has never been accomplished. The Greening America’s Capitals program is part of a collaboration among EPA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) through the HUD‐DOT‐EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities where EPA provides design assistance to help support sustainable communities that protect the environment, economy, and public health with hopes to inspire state leaders to expand this work elsewhere within the states.
Design options presented for all the Greening America’s Capital cities typically provide environmental benefits by adding things commonly thought of as “green” such as trees and rain gardens, community benefits by creating new transportation options (bike paths, mass transit access) and gathering places for residents and visitors, and economic benefits by encouraging private investment in the local economy.
Green infrastructure, a strategy of stormwater management emphasizing natural features to mimic as closely as possible the natural hydraulic properties of a site, is an integral element of the Sustainable Communities programs. Stormwater management seems to be the one environmental concern shared by all the capital cities in the program, past and present. The design options prepared for past recipients have included curbside rain gardens and permeable paving to collect and filter runoff from streets and roofs. The rain gardens have the added benefit of making the street more attractive and safer for pedestrians by buffering them from traffic. The designers of other city plans hope that this will bring new life to the street and attract private investment.
Reducing paved surfaces and adding trees could also reduce the heat island effect—the increase in ambient air temperature caused by radiant heat from dark, paved surfaces and allow for better water infiltration. Green infrastructure mimics natural systems by utilizing permeable surfaces to absorb storm water back into the ground (infiltration), using trees and other natural vegetation to convert it to water vapor (evapotranspiration) and using rain barrels or cisterns to capture and reuse storm water. These natural processes manage storm water runoff in a way that maintains or restores the site’s natural hydrology, allowing groundwater to recharge. Site-level green infrastructure, rain gardens, porous pavements, green roofs, infiltration planters, trees and tree boxes and rainwater harvesting for landscape irrigation, not only reduces the velocity and quantity of runoff protecting our streams, rivers, lakes and estuaries, it allows the recharge of groundwater and improves the site’s ambience.
Under the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Permit Program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into rivers in the United States. Stormwater systems are subject to the permit program. The EPA’s Greening America’s Capitals program which encourages green infrastructure to manage storm water is inconsistent with permit requirements under NPDES that call for more conventional methods of stormwater management, but one of the goals of this program is to begin changing that. Investments in stormwater management and wastewater treatment plants are driven by compliance with regulations and permits and have not really allowed local policy makers to implement watershed-based or decentralized green infrastructure solutions that may not yet have the data necessary to demonstrate performance and receive regulatory “credit” under a NPDES permit.
Within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, of which Richmond is part, the Chesapeake Bay Model provides credit under the Watershed Implementation Plans for green infrastructure retrofits, but not all practices are believed to be credited appropriately (both because of the amount of time needed for these practices to show long-term performance, as well as limitations in historic data collection). Nonetheless, the model does give credit for Urban Best Management practices which include all the elements of green infrastructure, including; urban tree planting, porous pavements, urban wet ponds, vegetated open channels, urban stream restoration, and various water infiltration “practices” that require ongoing maintenance and replacing as needed of the plants after severe winters or prolonged droughts, weeding, and clearing of porous pavements. We do not yet have a method of ensuring that these features are maintained appropriately to continue functioning over time and that any repairs or replacements are done with green infrastructure in mind to insure that these practices work over time to reduce stormwater runoff.
A third of a mile is a tiny little piece of Richmond. Nonetheless, green infrastructure and sustainable communities are the way of the future for Virginia and much of the nation. The Greening America’s Capitals grant is a wonderful way for Virginia to take the first step forward -benefiting from the experience of other cities. Take a look at the work that was done for the Washington DC 2010 grant.