EPA trying to green America’s capital cities, five at a time

It’s one of the most significant pieces of living history from the American civil rights movement.


Stretching from Selma, Ala. to Montgomery, the National Historic Trail was the site of the 1965 Voting Rights March, when thousands of people walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and demanded freedom and equality for all.
Robert Smith, the Director of Planning for the City of Montgomery, and his colleagues at City Hall know how special the Trail is, and had been wanting for years to try to clean up a 1-mile area of the site that runs underneath the I-65/I-85 highway interchange, called the Renaissance Neighborhood.

So when Smith and Montgomery heard about the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greening America’s Capitals project, they decided to put together an application.

“Literally from an aesthetic standpoint, a beautification standpoint, it needs a lot of help and attention paid to it,” Smith said. “Right now the area is an eyesore; it’s in a depressed neighborhood, and it’s a fairly unsightly area now.
“But we’ve got big plans for it, and this (EPA project) will really help a lot.”

The project, called Greening America’s Capitals, is a  project of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities between EPA, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to help state capitals develop an implementable vision of distinctive, environmentally friendly neighborhoods that incorporate innovative green building and green infrastructure strategies. This program, which started in 2010, will help between three and five cities per year.

How it works is this: The EPA will fund a team of designers to visit each city to produce schematic designs, as well as illustrations, with the goal of complementing a larger planning process for the city’s neighborhood.

Additionally, these pilots could be the testing ground for citywide actions, such as changes to local codes and ordinances to better support sustainable growth and green building. The design team and EPA, HUD, and DOT staff will also assist the city staff in developing specific implementation strategies.
Now a crucial point here is that while the EPA is paying for the design and planning of each city’s project, the actual money to implement the plans is not coming from the EPA; those funds will come from the cities or states themselves.

The four other cities chosen this year are Phoenix, Ariz., Washington, D.C., Lincoln, Neb., and Jackson, Miss.

Clark Watson, an Urban Designer of the EPA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. , said that last year the cost of the project for EPA for the five cities that were chosen was about $500,000. (Last year’s GAC winners were Boston, Charleston, W.Va., Hartford, Conn., Jefferson City, Mo., and Little Rock, Ark.)
Watson also said that the GAC projects are fairly quick turnarounds, taking about nine months from when the five winners were announced (23 state capitals across the U.S. submitted applications this year) until the designs were finished.

“The intention of this program is to kickstart these activities, and make things greener in the areas that really need them,” Watson said. “We want to show that are multiple benefits to these projects; not just environmental benefits.
“We hope to eventually hit all 50 states with (GAC),” Watson added.

In Montgomery, Ala., Smith said he hopes plans for the one-mile area that runs near the state capital will include visual improvements like streetscaping and landscaping, pedestrian improvements, as well as help reconnect the neighborhood.

“When people live in an area that doesn’t look attractive, it definitely has an effect on morale,” Smith said. “If we could develop some greenspace and make it look a lot nicer, I think that will improve the quality of life for people who live there.”

Other cities who received the GAC awards are equally excited about the project. Carol Johnson is the planning manager for the city of Phoenix.

Her team’s application to the EPA requested assistance in the Lower Grand Avenue area of the city, a spot that is adjacent to the state capitol and has become home in recent years to a thriving arts and music culture.
Johnson said Lower Grand Ave. hosts a monthly “First Friday” series of concerts and other events.

“It’s been a big push of ours to increase our tree canopy, and to really improve and add greenspace to that area,” Johnson said. “It’s an area where artists and a lot of young people live in lofts and other apartments, and we’re really trying to make the neighborhood more environmentally friendly, and also more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.”

Phoenix’s plans also include ways to possibly improve stormwater runoff and green techniques to help in arid climates, since, as Johnson pointed out “our climate gives us some problems that other places don’t have to deal with.”

In Washington, D.C., the application for the GAC grant covered the area surrounding the Anacostia Metrorail station, on the east side of the Anacostia River.

The city is asking the EPA for design assistance with improving connections between the Metrorail station and nearby neighborhoods and schools, the Anacostia business district, and the Anacostia River. The design team’s areas of focus will be safety concerns at the intersections, improved signage, increasing the overall permeability of the area to manage stormwater, and creating a strong community identity.

In Lincoln, Neb., the focus of the GAC team will be in the South Capitol area, also near the state capitol building.

Milo Mumgaard, Senior Policy Aide in the mayor’s office, talked excitedly about the project’s potential. He said the neighborhood is right in the heart of the city, populated by students from nearby University of Nebraska.

“It’s a really good area for urban sustainability planning,” Mumgaard said. “It’s very much an old neighborhood, that’s trying to re-invigorate itself. We’re trying to create a more urban living environment; filled with Old Victorians, and newer apartment buildings.”

Mumgaard said that the city has been looking at how the South Capitol area can be made to incorporate sustainable livability, and green concepts. He added that money to implement the EPA’s suggestions has been partially secured, through the use of Community Development Block Grants, and tax-incentive financing.

“The area itself is poised to do a number of new things, to make it a more green area, and this will definitely be something that will help,” Mumgaard said. “Really, we view it as a chance to show sustainable principles, and smart land use, to people around our state.”

Finally, in the city of Jackson, Miss., the GAC project will assist the Green Government Center.

That’s a local project that is exploring retrofitting public spaces within about a half-mile radius of the state capitol building with green technologies.

Examples of this include solar-powered water fountains (which you just know little kids would love), indigenous and drought-tolerant landscaping, rain gardens for stormwater treatment, and permeable paving systems. The area includes the Farish Street Historic District, the city’s oldest African-American community.

In addition, several major streets run through the area, including Congress Street, along which sits the state capitol, the city hall, the governor’s mansion, and other sites of historical significance.

Hopefully all five cities will be able to find the funds to put the EPA’s design projects into reality; even a little bit more green can go a long way.

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