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Land Matters: Now, To Take the Street

Right over my head is one of the nicest things about working here at ASLA’s national headquarters: the green roof that serves as our fourth floor in the open air. Now, in midsummer, there are black-eyed Susans and tickseed, nodding onion and Virginia wild rye, thriving amid the thick beds of Sedum in the summer heat. There is more Sedum covering the deck, under grated treads you can walk all over. Prickly pear cacti cover a ridge on one side. Overhead is a deep well of soil planted with sumacs and trumpet vine. The roof draws birds, butterflies, and bees while the nearby roofs, higher up than our small building in Chinatown, are hot and barren. Hearsay has it that people in the windows around us consider our roof their roof—they see it more than we do. The green roof, which Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates designed with Conservation Design Forum and finished eight years ago, keeps the roof more than 50 degrees cooler in summer than nearby black roofs, and it soaks up 77 percent of rain that falls in a typical year. This has been a wettish year; it is earning its keep.

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As an amenity, the roof is fantastic—just don’t lock yourself out on it (there is a panic button if you do). It keeps paying huge dividends as a demonstration of how roofs, a vast and largely overlooked province of the built environment, can be reclaimed with plants to cool buildings and ease the burden on the city’s exhausted stormwater infrastructure. The show-and-tell value is especially great now because the District of Columbia has a new rule that requires all new development and much redevelopment to capture or sink the first 1.2 inches of stormwater on a site, rather than send it to the sewer and the rivers. Large groups of visitors come through our building to see the roof, though sometimes it’s just a passerby or two who, having caught the storefront display about it, want to see what it’s all about. I predict there will be more traffic, given the District’s new rule, because developers need to know how a green roof works in action.

Now that the roof is a solid success, ASLA is taking the next step in showing the art of the possible downstairs, on our very busy street. In June, we announced the beginning of the Chinatown Green Street Demonstration Project. The plan is to turn three blocks of our street, Eye Street NW, and its crossing blocks into a beautiful city space that soaks up stormwater, which in our part of town may otherwise wind up in the Anacostia River. The project started in late 2012, when ASLA held a two-day charrette, led by Thomas Tavella, FASLA, then the Society’s president, to consider its scope. Tom’s team was joined by representatives of the District’s departments of environment, transportation, and planning, and also by an official from DC Water, our water utility. Under court order and a deadline, DC Water is currently boring one of those hugely expensive systems of tunnels that will run several miles through the city to take stormwater out of the city’s combined sewer network, which, when it rains hard, overflows with sewage to the Anacostia or the Potomac River and on to the Chesapeake Bay. But the water people here are smart; at the same time they are looking aggressively to create green infrastructure throughout the city to supplement the engineering they have to build under the gun.

Last fall, ASLA sent out a request for proposals to design the green street project. Twenty-nine firms applied (thank you), and in June it was announced that Design Workshop, with Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architecture, had won the project. The planning phase is under way. We’ll bring you details on the master plan when it is complete and provide periodic coverage of the development. With the green roof as a terrific precedent, this is a great chance to show a hugely receptive city—and everyone else—how a green street works, and why.

Bradford McKee
Landscape Architecture Magazine

Comments July 29, 2014 9:37 AM
As we are a primary supplier for the movable bistro chairs and tables used in many public spaces, reading this article so well explains why working with landscape architects and what they are able to accomplish with their skills makes my job rewarding. Thank you Landscape Architects for your vision and perseverance. July 30, 2014 6:40 PM
Thanks to Bradford and all of ASLA administration for some well-coordinated and effective results for our profession. Good luck with another great Convention. Kent G. Worley, ASLA
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