Sustainable DC 2.0 Seeks to Heal a City and Set an Example for the World

Washington, DC is a place of paradoxes, both the acknowledged capital of the free world and a city divided by race and class. Bringing sustainability to such a city is a crucial yet difficult task. Still, the Sustainable DC program, launched in 2012, has spurred notable accomplishments, from bicycling innovations to green buildings; indeed, DC was the first city on the planet to receive LEED Platinum accreditation.

Sustainable DCNow, the city is ready to take the next step with Sustainable DC 2.0, meant to engage every citizen in saving resources and reducing pollution, including such ambitious goals as moving to zero waste. Sustainability, including how we use and generate energy, “must become part of the fabric of everything we do in this city” said Mark James, President and Founder of Urban Green, at the kickoff event on October 18. The online forum showed, not the stereotypical faceless bureaucrats of stereotype, but concerned individuals who seem to care about the people of their city.

At its heart, sustainability connects seemingly disparate enterprises, from garbage collection to transportation to energy generation and use. “A big part of sustainability is all those different crossover areas. Getting multiple benefits from one action,” explains Dan Guilbeault, Chief, Sustainability and Equity Branch of the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” and sustainability exemplifies this principle.

Guilbeault provides some concrete examples of strategic coordination. Choosing what roof space works best for solar, green roofs, or urban gardens, depends on the specific roof depending on weight bearing, solar exposure, and other factors. Where to put, for instance, bicycle lanes, trees, and public transit takes knowledge and cooperation, as does the use of small spaces between buildings. Every choice has its impacts. Rain gardens, for instance, can capture water, while trees cool the environment.

Sustainable DCImplementing the best decisions takes cooperation between the Department of Energy and Environment, the Department of Transportation, and public utilities, among others. The best use of each resource and technology requires knowledge of sophisticated trade-offs. Other details, from increasing the number of community gardens to reducing salt used on snow, are already part of DC’s sustainability efforts.

Yet Sustainability 2.0 aims to push even further, for instance in a citywide composting program, in dramatically reducing food waste, and in avoiding the water waste currently endemic to our society, particularly as population increases. It is “ridiculous that we use perfectly good drinking water to flush our toilets,” said James. We need, for instance, to reuse local water and to harvest rain water for gardens.

All of this can seem amorphous in practice. One major goal of Sustainable DC 2.0, then, is to become part of everyday life in Washington, DC, understood by everyone, a common ethic worked on in a million different ways.
Fortunately, a phone survey conducted as part of Sustainability 2.0 shows that the vast majority of DC residents support the program’s major goals. 92.3% said sustainability is very or somewhat important, 61% support renewable energy as a high priority, 75% find clean waterways very important, and 58% give high priority to climate action. It is a question of taking these latent beliefs and working together to translate them into concrete actions, to make them a way of life.

Yet getting people to act together takes work. Lack of information was seen as the biggest challenge to sustainable by 39% of those polled, while nearly half had not heard of the Sustainable DC initiative. In response, Sustainability 2.0 is striving to allow the widest input possible. Following a number of meetings and focus groups, the community launch event took place in five different parts of the city, plus a virtual event.

Sustainable DCOf course, this is only part of a deeper effort. The city sends “urban sustainability experts everywhere,” says Mike Matthews, Public Affairs Specialist at DOEE. Throughout the city’s eight wards they can be seen sporting “Sustainable DC” shirts at everything from farmers markets to Capital Hill events. Matthews describes them as “sustainability ambassadors” providing “on the ground grassroots outreach.”

Nevertheless, in a city such as DC, the perception that sustainability is for affluent white people hinders widespread adaptation. Spreading the word requires a number of tactics, from pointing out personal benefits to sustainability efforts, such as lower energy bills and cleaner parks and air, to partnering with community groups and churches.

Sustainability 1.0 applied some of this, but did not go far enough. Guilbeault speaks of “some sentiment that Sustainability 1.0 was not for whole city,” adding that outreach efforts need to be extended, with “everything as accessible as possible and as relatable as possible.”

To connect personal and environmental benefits, James explained the importance of “net zero energy apartment buildings that are for low income households,” since it’s “hard enough just paying rent.” Saving money while doing good might then be a window into a broader sustainability outlook.

Sustainability 2.0 will work to further major equity goals in a city that too often feels itself divided, even though everyone is concerned about clean air and water. For a “very long time there was misunderstanding around who cares about the environment,” said Rhonda Chapman, Executive Director of Groundwork DC, at the kickoff. “What we learned from this is that everybody cares. . . . Let’s do our planning accordingly.”

Sustainable DCBringing equity to biking is one important goal. After all, transportation accounts for 23% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the need for credit has kept low-income people from using DC’s bikeshare network, while access to, for instance, repair facilities has also been difficult. Guilbeault points proudly to “a special program, where community groups” helped distribute “heavily discounted membership passes [for bikeshare], and they did all kinds of education.” DC is working to bring bicycling to everyone.

Part of involving everyone means continuing a long-term clean-up of the Anacostia River, long a bastion of pollution in a neglected part of the city. Indeed, clean-up efforts pre-date Sustainability 1.0, and cross DC’s boundaries into the river’s many tributaries in Prince Georges’ County and elsewhere in Maryland that feed trash and pollution down the watershed.

“If water is falling on rooftops, falling on streets, and making its way to rivers,” says Guilbeault, “that’s obviously capturing a lot of pollution, dirt, oil, trash,” and bringing it to the river. “So the more we can capture a lot of that beforehand, cleaning the water, making use of it and then have the cleaner water make its way to the river,” the better.

Sustainable DCA huge part of this effort has been reconstituting the sewer system, which has long dumped sewage from storm-water overflows into the river. Efforts to clean legacy pollutants from decades past are also ongoing. The city is making “really amazing progress” as a result of these coordinated efforts, says Guilbeault, with eagles soaring above the Anacostia and pelicans upon its banks, among a plethora of species. Perhaps they are the harbingers of a better city.

The hope, then, is that Sustainable DC 2.0 can help wash away past inequities and unite DC, while setting an example for the planet. With national leadership absent or actively hostile, Guilbeault points to a growing role for cities. He also points to “a special responsibility” for DC, which has “a lot more eyes on us as nation’s capital.” Under Trump, the federal government might be failing its responsibilities, but perhaps DC’s local government can make up some of the gap.