At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place – not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute