Cities Alive, put on by the folks at Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, is always a great time. This was my fourth. The conference moves around, which gives you the opportunity to see what’s happening on the ground in various parts of the country and to interact with different people and institutions. The audience is passionate about their work and the program always has a number of thought-provoking speakers. This year, Cities Alive in Washington, D.C. at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) was no different.
Washington, D.C. was an easy backdrop for a conference on environmental and urban sustainability. It’s No. 1 in green roof construction and a national leader in LEED certifications, and No. 1 in Energy Star buildings in the U.S. The city is livable, walkable, bike friendly, international and hip.
D.C. also has a Wildlife Plan and is working to rebuild natural habitat and increase planting of indigenous plants that will support local wildlife.
Tommy Wells, Director, District Department of Energy & Environment, addressed the audience to speak about their stormwater management. “We think we have the most detailed, progressive MS4 permit in the United States.” It requires 1.2 in. of stormwater retention at the site level. Washington is piloting a program that allows meeting 50% of the retention requirement off-site through stormwater credit trading, the first in the country to do so. The idea behind D.C.’s stormwater retention credit trading system is to stimulate GSI retrofits in heavily built parts of the city that are rebuilding by monetizing stormwater. To help provide demand certainty, the city has a $12.75 million purchase agreement program. The fee in-lieu is $3.58/gal./year or credits may be purchased for $1.70/gal./year.
D.C. is part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. In recent years, Chesapeake Bay TMDLs have been put in place by EPA to help clean the bay and as a national model for other watersheds in the future. For D.C., TMDLs are the frame for stormwater BMPs and guidance, said Brian Seipp, Center for Watershed Protection. Keeping water out of the system is one way to reduce the runoff of pollutants. Green roofs are a great way to keep water out of stormwater systems and CSOs.
The Van Ness Campus of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) is the land grant university for the District of Columbia and was an appropriate backdrop. As the country’s only urban land grant university, their focus on urban sustainability dovetails with the focus of Cities Alive. Much of the meeting was conducted in the University’s new LEED Platinum Student Center that serves 8,000 commuting students.
Dr. Sabine O’Hara, the Dean and Director of Land Grant Programs, College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES), provided an overview of the college’s activities in a plenary session.
The 6-year-old college specializes in urban agriculture and sustainable, resilient cities. “Healthy cities, healthy people and agriculture is the connector,” Sabine said.
D.C.’s income inequality is stark, she added. While some areas have very high incomes, many D.C. neighborhoods have high unemployment and low incomes. She pointed out that the District has eight census tracts that are food deserts. Of D.C.’s more than 500 food retailers, 88% of them don’t offer fresh produce. Low-income neighborhoods, she said, are home to nearly 1/3 of the population, but just 9% of the grocery stores.
Producing, processing and distributing food in the city, as well as closing the waste loop through waste and water recovery, are the college’s focus. UDC’s largest field research is at their Beltsville Research Farm where there’s also a training center and business incubator.
The UDC CAUSES program’s applied work seeks to find viable business models for urban agriculture. High-value crops like ethnic vegetables, cut flowers or microgreens can be sold to restaurants or at upscale farmers markets. But not everyone can afford to pay $10 or $15/lb. for specialty vegetables. “What is a viable market model? We have not yet come up with ‘this is how it works.’ It’s ongoing,” Sabine explained.
One of UDC’s most well-known projects is the community farm/garden at East Capitol Heights in Ward 7, right in the middle of a food desert. Working with the District Housing Authority on land owned by the Authority, UDC took 3 acres across from a Metro stop to create the East Capitol Urban Farm. Space within the farm has been allotted into gardens within that are leased to neighborhood residents. There’s a Saturday farmers market, as well as a playground.
The college also conducts field research at the Bertie Backus Campus, where faculty and staff work with aquaponics, hydroponics and a native plant nursery.
CAUSES faculty member, Harris Trobman, green infrastructure specialist with the Center for Sustainable Development, led a tour of several features of functional landscape sustainability on the UCD Van Ness Campus.
By far, the centerpiece example of CAUSES’ work in urban agriculture is their greenhouse/lab/green roof complex atop Building 44. It’s the largest green roof in D.C. at 20,000 sq. ft. Also on that floor is an interior space with lab/cooking demonstration space and indoor microgreens production. There’s a teaching greenhouse, too. Demonstration microgreens production is in hydroponic troughs under artificial lights.
The green roof is run by Master Gardener volunteers that are coordinated by agent Sandy Farber Bandier of UDC’s Cooperative Extension Service. Large portions of the roof are unirrigated extensive 3 1/2-in. deep beds that were planted with sedum in November 2015. Significant vegetable production takes place in 117 planters that were added to the parapet to enhance growing space. Planting beds include space for pollinator habitat on the west side, as well as some leafy greens production. Master Gardener volunteers are instrumental to maintaining and harvesting produce, Sandy said. The project was funded by a District Department of the Environment grant. Cisterns on the roof capture water falling on the greenhouse and work spaces. Harvested rainwater is used to partially irrigate rooftop crops.
December 1, 2016 NewTerrain.