The mission is to “make the District of Columbia the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States, if not the world,” exclaimed Washington, DC Mayor Vincent Gray at the launch of the Sustainable DC plan a week ago. The city has already made amazing strides in the last five years, adding green buildings, a streetcar (with the launch coming this year), expanded bicycle lanes, the nation’s premier bikeshare network, community gardens, green roofs, and even a green alley. “We are,” said Gray, “what many other cities, some larger and with more resources, hope to become.”
Sustainability is an amorphous term with many tentacles, rather like a giant, shape-shifting squid. Sustainable DC therefore encompasses seven major areas: the built environment, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, and water. It includes 32 goals and 143 specific actions, among them building 1,000 new renewable energy systems, modernizing all public schools to LEED gold standards, planting 8,600 trees a year, banning styrofoam, increasing local food and gardens, building a regional wind farm, and creating jobs for residents. Although Gray’s term as mayor was early marred by scandal, Sustainable DC might allow him to recover, to claim a long-term legacy as having moved the city on a visionary path. This is building on other programs stemming from previous mayors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams. In DC, the path to sustainability seems marked not by one personality, as with Michael Bloomberg in New York City and Richard Daley in Chicago, but with a chain of politicians, public servants, and community involvement, often against a contentious political backdrop. To this end, the process toward Sustainable DC was marked by over 180 community meetings attended by nearly 5,000 people.
In a city marked by deep class and racial divides, broad community input is vital. While social equity is a central plank of the global sustainability movement, often it is just talked about but not implemented. In a city like DC, development has often meant gentrification, in which wealthier people move in as a neighborhood is cleaned up, and long-term residents are driven out by rising rents. However, Brendan Shane, Director of DC’s Office of Policy and Sustainability, told me in an interview that the city has been “very proactive,” that when it comes to “integrating affordable housing and economic development, we really do have to plan.” At the center is affordable housing that’s “healthy, green, and walkable.” Certainly, affordable housing has inherent advantages, as relatively small units in shared dwellings are the most sustainable. Locating housing near jobs is crucial to shortening commutes and reducing the need for a car, which strains budgets while harming the environment. It really comes down to implementation, as local economic interests with short-term goals often undermine good intentions. We will have to see what happens as the plan moves forward. It is a powerful symbol that the plan was announced on the banks of the Anacostia River, where trash and sewage make visible environmental injustice in southeast DC. Backing up this symbol is Gray’s pledge to make the river fishable and swimmable, a long-term goal that links the environment and social equity.
One of gentrification’s strange paradoxes is that streetcars and bicycles, once relegated to the poor, have become associated with the affluent, with a gentrifying city in which African Americans are becoming a minority. Transit and smart growth should unite sustainability’s environmental and equity dimensions, but politically this is not always the case. Walkable neighborhoods with easily accessible shopping should most help those with low incomes, yet are arriving along with a wave of affluence. The trick is to find ways to allow long-term residents to stay, to mix with the new arrivals. By contrast, one of the most controversial aspects of Sustainable DC, a plan to increase the cost of parking and to lower automobile use to 25% of trips, might be more opposed by the affluent, and by those arriving in the city from the nearby suburbs. To the often-repeated charge, from a reporter, that the plan constituted a “war on cars,” Gray denied the accusation, but replied that “we have got to get people out of automobiles. We can’t add 250,000 people and add a proportionately similar number of cars.”
DC’s burgeoning population and growing economy might hold a lesson for the developing world, where urbanization is proceeding at an even faster pace. The process simply must be done sustainability. In DC, the old conflict between the economy and the environment seems to have been addressed. “In the past five years, the city has decreased emissions by 12% while adding 40,000 jobs and residents,” said Shane. And cities, with their ability to contain sprawl and limit transportation needs while creating innovation and a high quality of life, are central to sustainability. But the urbanization currently occurring worldwide must be done right. While DC gets people out of cars and onto bicycles and transit, the rest of the world cannot be doing the reverse. As the leader of the only remaining (somewhat) superpower, DC could play a profound role. “Certainly, there are some areas where the District is a model and will be a model,” internationally, explained Shane. Yet, he added, “it’s a two way street. DC is learning from cities around the globe.” He pointed to DC’s recent decision to join C40, a global group of 63 cities sharing best practices, working to fight climate change.
Of course, any plan is just that, a plan, until it is implemented, and doing so has its political costs. Washington Post blogger Mike DeBonis thus argues that certain aspects of Sustainable DC, such as a bottle-deposit bill, appear as a “long-term goal,” when they should be easy to implement. The problem is political. Sustainable DC, then, is only a plan, and a broad and amorphous one at that. Now that the easy work of devising a grand sustainability blueprint is over, the hard work begins of actually putting it into place over a period of decades. Fortunately, recent successes point to a deeper political and social culture in DC likely to encourage progress, albeit with some bruising battles along the way. Should the plan succeed, said Gray, “when our children look back they will thank us.”
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature(State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.