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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Greening America's capital cities

Kaid Benfield

Posted January 30, 2013 in Curbing Pollution, Living Sustainably

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  Connecticut state Capitol, Hartford (by: Jimmy Emerson, creative commons)

The federal Environmental Protection Agency sponsors an innovative planning program designed to help bring more green infrastructure and green building practices to our country’s state capitals, making them simultaneously more environmentally resilient and more beautiful.  Implemented with EPA’s cohorts in the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities - the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development - Greening America’s Capitals launched in 2010 and thus far has been selecting five capitals each year for design assistance.  The program is not very well known but deserves to be. 

The idea is that these particularly prominent communities are inevitably ambassadors of a sort for their respective states and for other cities.  Indeed, elected representatives and their staffs – leaders, by definition – from all across their states work at least part-time every year in the capital cities.  What they experience there, good or bad, imparts observations and lessons that can be taken back to the representatives’ home districts or even incorporated into statewide policy.  There are also many visitors to state capitals for business or pleasure, each forming and taking away impressions.

I’m in the Connecticut capital of Hartford this week (where I participated with some very smart state and local leaders and civic-minded folks in a terrific forum on strong communities).  While researching the local facts to prepare myself, I discovered that Hartford had been one of the five initial cities selected for the Greening America’s Capitals program.  The report of the planning generated for Hartford is, in my opinion, outstanding.  Much of the planning was led by the landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz.  (Not many locals know about it, and I have a concern about that.  I'll get to it.  But the substance of the report is impressive and important.)

  parking lots in dowtown Hartford (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz, via Greening America's Capitals report)

See the map just above of downtown Hartford?  The area inside the black lines is the study area chosen for the greening exercise.  It is the prominent Capitol Avenue corridor, running east-west just south of the majestic Connecticut Capitol building.  South of the Capitol, the area includes part of the wonderfully named Frog Hollow neighborhood, where the strong communities forum was held. 

Now:  see all the red areas on the map, both inside and outside the study zone?  Those are parking lots

As you can see, cars get a lot of land in Hartford.  Partly as a result, Capitol Avenue and parts of nearby neighborhoods within the shadow of the state’s majestic Capitol building look like not enough attention has been paid there to people, or to the environment.

 Hartford (c2013 FK Benfield)

I don’t want to say that downtown Hartford is unattractive, exactly, or significantly less becoming than many other American cities.  It includes some lovely green space, some architecture of merit, cultural institutions, and a terrific barbecue place near where I'm staying.  Its good and bad points are all too typical of the northeastern US.  But my hotel is literally half a block from Bushnell Park, which serves as the state’s Capitol grounds, and a quarter-mile’s walk (for most people, about five minutes) from the Capitol itself.  Above is the view from my hotel window, snapped just a few minutes ago.

I know the dreary January afternoon and low-tech camera don’t flatter the scene, but still.  This is steps away from the Capitol grounds.  What I will unequivocally say is that all this pavement for cars in downtown Hartford isn’t doing any favors for walkability - or the watershed, as rainwater picks up pollutants and makes its way into receiving waters.

  Capitol Avenue, Hartford (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

  Capitol Avenue, Hartford, re-imagined (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

That’s where the EPA-assisted planning process, and its appropriate emphasis on green infrastructure, comes in.  From the program’s 52-page final report for Hartford:

“This report provides Hartford with a new vision for Capitol Avenue that highlights existing assets and fills in missing gaps along the mile-long area of focus and into the surrounding neighborhoods. This comprehensive vision includes seven design concepts that together work to improve underused properties, integrate green infrastructure into streets and parking lots, and create new parks and public spaces. Green infrastructure is defined as working landscapes—such as bioswales, rain gardens, and bioretention meadows—that mimic natural systems by absorbing stormwater back into the ground (infiltration), using trees and other vegetation to convert it to water vapor (evapotranspiration), and using rain barrels or cisterns to capture and reuse stormwater.

"The designs offered in this report address goals identified in a public workshop, including linking nearby neighborhoods and destinations to one another, better managing stormwater, improving the pedestrian environment, and stimulating future redevelopment. The city of Hartford can use the designs proposed in this report, as well as the next steps provided, to begin to revitalize the Capitol Avenue corridor.”

Check out these great before and after scenes.

  Columbia Street alley, Hartford (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

  Columbia Street alley, Hartford, re-imagined (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

One thing I really like about the Hartford report is that it addresses not just the prominent thoroughfare but also the back alleys and neighborhood streets.  While the renderings are intended, I think, just to be illustrative, they do as good a job as I’ve seen at visually conveying the impressive transformation that can be accomplished with green makeovers of what is now just pavement.  I love green infrastructure because it simultaneously helps clean the watershed, brings nature into dense city neighborhoods, and cools the “heat island” effect caused by pavement (hot pavement raises summer city temperatures that lead to more energy consumed and carbon emitted for air conditioning).

Urban density is essential for a more sustainable future, especially in a city like Hartford that has so much underutilized land downtown and needs more of it. Green infrastructure makes density more appealing and more environmentally functional at the local level. This is great stuff.

  street in Frog Hollow, Hartford (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

  street in Frog Hollow, Hartford, re-imagined (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA) 

And that brings me, of course, to an important caveat:  planning isn’t doing.  But Hartford now has a great vision for greening, at least in and around this very important corridor, and I so hope they follow through. 

Now, my concern about the process followed here:  I don't know anything first-hand, but I do know the forum I was invited to here in Hartford was sponsored by an organization deeply engaged in issues of community and sustainability.  It operates statewide, including in Hartford, and is headquartered inside the boundary of the study area.  Not only were they not approached to be engaged in the process, but they didn't even know about the study or the report until I told them.  Other people I talked to in Hartford who are working one way or another on community and sustainability issues were also in the dark. 

  Capitol Avenue, Hartford (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

  Capitol Avenue, Hartford, re-imagined (by: Nelson Byrd Woltz for US EPA)

That shakes my confidence in the effectiveness of the study's community engagement process, to say the least.  It also makes we wonder about the city's commitment to implement the recommendations, if people in the field aren't talking about them.  And, frankly, it even makes me wonder about EPA's management of the program's grants.  Someone at the agency needs to take a closer look, because this could be the case in other cities involved in the program, too:  these are terrific designs and recommendations, but it's not enough to have terrific designs and recommendations if you want the program to make a real difference. 

Put more positively, this is a truly excellent report that deserves to be publicized, discussed, supported by leaders and the public and, to the greatest degree possible, implemented.

All that said, I remain impressed that the Greening America’s Capitals program exists and has produced such good work.  There is a lot more to it, both in Hartford and elsewhere, than I’ve been able to discuss here, so go to EPA’s website for more information and links to the full report.  And then make sure the work on the ground actually gets done.

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Kaid Benfield writes about community, development, and the environment on Switchboard and in the national media. For more posts, see his blog's home page. Please also visit NRDC’s sustainable communities video channels.

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Comments

LeeJan 30 2013 12:56 PM

Good post, Kaid. Richmond, Virginia actually implemented a very successful Greening the Capitol project a few years ago. The work may continue today. Readers can check it out at greenvacapitol.org.

Martin ConnorJan 30 2013 01:19 PM

Great article. I attended the forum you spoke at yesterday and found your talk very informative. The PSC is doing great work.

Robert A PhillipsJan 30 2013 03:10 PM

I attended the forum yesterday and enjoyed your presentation.

Interestingly enough, the perimeter of the "greening" study area above is the approximate course line of many 5Ks run in the capitol city.

I also did not know of the initiative.

kaid @ nrdcJan 30 2013 07:27 PM

Martin and Robert, thanks for the kind words.

kristen dayJan 30 2013 07:48 PM

Wonderful presentation at the Lyceum. The CT Department of Public Health did share this information when EPA first announced Hartford as one of the cities they had chosen to "green" but then we never got any more information, thanks for the reminder!!! Now we have more than grassroots organizing, and there really is no excuse to move forward. What dreary photos from your hotel room, what a shame!

Mark LerchJan 31 2013 09:49 AM

It would be interesting to know how many projects have withered on the vine in city closest to the suburb I grew up in between 1966 and 1979. I have difficulty thinking of it as anything but a prime example of urban blight and antipathy. Frederick Law Olmstead's home but now regarded as the filing cabinet for NYC. Only later did I discover outlying gems such as the West Hartford Reservoir, well gem not gems. Many of the sidewalks downtown, as recent as the 70's still had the original bluestone paving. From your pics it looks like they have been replaced with concrete.

KerriJan 31 2013 10:14 AM

Your remarks about the lack of community engagement in Hartford are exactly correct.

Bill UpholtJan 31 2013 11:02 AM

I found your talk and the following discussion very useful and have downloaded the pdfs of your slides from the Partnership for Strong Communities website. I am surprised that those you talked to from the PSC were not aware of the Hartford Capitol Greening Project. We live in the neighborhood and attended the Capitol Greening presentations--actually our block and corner is featured in several of the pictures in your blog. A small project with a rain garden and various styes of pervious pavements has been implemented on the State Capitol grounds but there has been little publicity.

Bill UpholtJan 31 2013 01:10 PM

It is interesting to note that the presentation to the community about the Greening of America's Capitols was actually held at the Lyceum, the Partnerships building, on February 16, 2011 from 6:30 to 8 PM at The Lyceum, 227 Lawrence Street.

Cilia KohnJan 31 2013 02:21 PM

Kaid - great post! Houston has actually been implementing a number of green initiatives too - the latest is potentially eliminating ALL trash from the city. It's a finalist in Bloomberg's Philanthropies Mayor's Challenge - check it out: http://www.houstontx.gov/mayor/press/20121105.html

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 1 2013 10:21 PM

Intrigued by the comments of Bill and others, I just did a bit of quick-and-clean research. A Feb 2011 charrette was held over three days at the beginning of the process. Obviously, some people were aware and participated, at least in the community meeting at the Lyceum that Bill references.

But I was particularly interested in what sort of publicity there had been about the final report, which was issued many months later. First, I did a basic web search on the title of the report. The first 100 results yielded many mentions in the press and otherwise of EPA's September 2010 announcement that five cities, including Hartford, had been chosen to participate.

I expected to find at least a press release about the issuance of the findings, but there was not one mention among the first 100 results, and by then I was starting to get weird results such as "Hartford is the capital city of Connecticut" that obviously weren't about this exercise.

Next, I went to the site of the Capitol Region COG. The only thing I found there was a hopeful mention in the minutes of a March 17, 2011 (Happy St Paddy's!) regional planning commission meeting. This would have been a month after the February workshop. The city's representative at that meeting reported that "the Greening America’s Capitals program is underway. The city received a grant from the U.S. EPA to study greening the Capital area and a recent Charrette took place at the Capitol building to study the Capitol Avenue Corridor. [The representative] reported that the city’s new Capital Improvement Plan will fund many of the green initiatives from this study and that the plan is in alignment with the Frog Hollow NRZ’s new neighborhood plan."

So, two years ago, it looks like the city was at least anticipating putting some of the work in their future budgeting. I don't know how well the CIP in Hartford matches up with what actually happens, or whether additional appropriations are required as they are in some municipalities, but the representative's language was positive, at least internally to her colleagues on the commission. (It appears from her language and Bill's that the charrette at the Capitol building was in addition to the session Bill remembers at the Lyceum.)

I then went to the city's website. They had a nice-looking collection of sketches apparently produced by WRT in February 2011 similar to the ones I show in this post, a copy of the city's 2010 application for the EPA grant, a link to EPA's base website for the program, and nothing else.

I finished by going to the website of the Hartford Courant and entered a search for "Greening America's Capitals." Nothing at all.

That doesn't strike me as very much publicity for what, to me at least, is a pretty exciting plan. Apparently, some knew and were engaged at least early in the process. As for the follow-up, I suspect some are in the know again but not many, unfortunately. I hope the city is more excited about making it happen than my hour's worth of primitive research suggests.

In addition, local environmentalists and a group such as 1000 Friends of Connecticut should all over this, advocating for it. I hope they are, but suspect this may be low on just about everyone's to-do list.

All that said, I really appreciate the nice remarks about my talk. The trip was logistically hard for me because of my injury, but I loved the experience at the forum, including the following panel and audience discussion. Thank you so much for coming to it.

Kaid @ NRDCFeb 2 2013 09:00 AM

P.S. A few more thoughts before I leave this bit about community engagement and follow-up behind:

Since I'm not a local, my personal point of view is more like that of an EPA staff person managing the grant. Lessons for EPA to learn from this exercise that might be carried into the future of the program:

- Encourage the local sponsor (in this case, the city) to identify local champions who will, in effect, become your ongoing sounding board, liaison with the grassroots of the city, and publicists. For those of you who attended my talk, remember how, in the context of discussing the work in Boston's Codman Square, I said there's no substitute for leadership? Identify those leaders and make them your partners. It might be worth setting aside a small percentage of the grant to help those leaders help the city.

- On community engagement, I would encourage the city to be very active. Announcing and hosting a charrette is a terrific start, but for one reason or another some important people won't be there, and there will be work to be done outside that part of the process. In my talk, I mentioned the amazing work done for Denver's Mariposa project, which involved an innovative "cultural audit" and some 140 meetings with members of the community. I sat on the jury that nominated Mariposa for a national smart growth award, and all of us in the room who were familiar with it thought it was among the best community engagement examples we had ever seen. Now, the greening of the Capitol Avenue corridor is a smaller-scale (although some ways more highly visible) project with, no doubt, a much smaller budget. So it's not realistic to expect the same volume of work here, but the character of the community activities undertaken for Mariposa is instructive to make sure that what the city wants to do will earn enthusiastic support.

- Encourage the community, with its partners, to promote the heck out of the final recommendations. I'm hoping that there is, actually, at least a story in the Courant and on local TV, even though I was unable to find evidence of one.

- EPA should set aside some of the grant - maybe 10% - for use only in on-the-ground implementation. Use it for that purpose or lose it. It will inevitably be up to the city to find the funding to make the entire project happen, but this helps make sure they can start.

Hoyt HillmanFeb 6 2013 11:58 AM

In the Midwest we are also trying to green up our cities, but are having difficulties with the logic of developers to do more sustainable landscaping. 90% of the new green is fescue which requires more attention and more water.

The recent explosion in the population of Canada geese has crowded our urban lakes with year round residents and the geese love the cool season green grasses.

EPAs sustainable balance solutions for nature and people especially in recommendations for greening cities is hard to find.
The USDA dept of NRCS lists plants and grasses of little food value to wildlife esp. Canada Geese, yet I have never seen the list inverted and used as a list of plants that do not attract wildlife to urban areas.

I love nature, but we have to balance the sustainable needs of both the public and wildlife. I am looking out the window at public sidewalks and a park that few people can use because of all the geese droppings. Better landscaping choices are the only sustainable answer.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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