Sustainable D.C.

Built Environment

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Brownfields are abandoned, environmentally-contaminated industrial or commercial sites. People who come into frequent contact with the leftover solvents, cleaners, and oil found on these sites often develop major health issues. In addition, the chemicals found in brownfields contaminate soils and often leak directly into underground water resources. Degraded parts of some major U.S. cities contain up to 1,000 brownfields per square mile. 

Bioremediation involves using plants, fungi, or soil microbes to clean up toxic brownfields. Some types of deep-rooted plants can even be used to remove toxic metals from the soil. One example is Thlaspi Caerulescens, commonly known as Alpine Pennycress. According to Cornell University researchers, a normal plant can only store about 100 parts per million (ppm) zinc and 1 ppm cadmium. Thlaspi can store up to 30,000 ppm zinc and 1,500 ppm cadmium in its shoots without being negatively affected. In fact, these types of plants thrive while restoring the brownfield to its natural state. 

Cleaning up these sites is not only good for the environment, but also helps create economically-strong, healthy communities. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says brownfield clean-ups can increase nearby residential property values by 2 to 3 percent. Healthy buildings, schools, and parks have taken shape on redeveloped brownfields. Formerly poisonous sites can even turn into valuable community green space: the new Olympic Park in London, Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City, and Toronto’s new park network are coming in over hectares of previously bombed-out, toxic sites. 

Just as the city and developers did with the highly successful Yards Park, which transformed abandoned, polluted waterfront properties into a valuable community asset, Washington, D.C., should incentivize turning more brownfields into parks. Apply bio-remediation and other safe environmental remediation technologies during park development. 

Many cities have undertaken comprehensive surveys of their brownfields to determine opportunities for remediation and redevelopment. In one example, New York City launched SPEED, a searchable database of brownfield properties, a “real estate search engine,” that has gotten great traffic from the local developer community. At a brownfields conference, Dan Walsh, Mayor’s Office of Operations, New York City government, said SPEED includes historical maps so developers can “toggle through time” and explore some 3,150 vacant commercial and industrial brownfield sites spread throughout the city. 

To make it even easier for developers, New York City has also launched a $9 million brownfield reinvestment fund. Each developer of a brownfield site gets $60-140,000 “fast” if they commit to cleaning-up a brownfield or redeveloping for energy uses. The grants can be used to cover expenses involved in design, investigation, clean-up, or insurance. For brownfield sites that will be used by the public, the city has also launched a Green Property Certification program, which can be shown on site as proof that the area is fit for its intended use. “This is a voluntary, not regulatory program.”

Develop an Internet-accessible inventory of all brownfields in the city to enable easier remediation and redevelopment of derelict sites by local developers. Create a certification program for remediated brownfields to facilitate faster reuse.

Almost one in five Americans is housed in schools for the better part of each day, but many of these schools offer toxic environments with poor daylight and are sited in far-off places, which means they are both unhealthy learning environments and contribute to sprawl (or unhealthy communities). Creating green and healthy schools, which are in walkable, bikeable neighborhoods, is key to increasing test scores and graduating children who can be future stewards of the environment.

In a session at the National Building Museum, Glen Cummings, Assistant Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, said 14 million children go to school each day in “outright dangerous” schools. As you see in Washington, D.C., before the school term starts, schools scramble to “remedy buildings so they will be legal to occupy.” The U.S. has hundreds of thousands of school buildings, many of which were created up to 50 years ago. “The real challenge is retrofitting older buildings so they can be turned into green buildings.” 

If a school can’t afford to retrofit, Howard Frumkin, director, National Center for Environmental Health / Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said they can replace toxic cleaning supplies, ensure they are keeping HVAC maintenance up-to-date, and continually and safely discard art / science lab chemicals. 

While integrating learning about green buildings into school curricula would be innovative, one ASLA member also called for education about the greater ecological context in D.C.: “Design and develop and series of outdoor classrooms throughout the District to highlight the varied ecosystems within D.C., and provide students with a real education about their surroundings. Have a DC ‘Green Week’ in the schools and create an award for innovative environmental solutions.” 

Budgets permitting, Washington, D.C., should invest in retrofitting older school buildings to make them LEED Platinum and also integrate education about green schools and local nature into school curricula. 

Learning within green healthy, sustainable environments is critically important, but getting there in a healthy way is also crucial. Many schoolchildren face enormous obstacles that can be addressed through Safe Routes to Schools programs. 

In addition to greening buildings, Washington, D.C., should ensure all schools apply Safe Routes to Schools design guidelines.

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