Thursday, August 10, 2006

Urban Greening

The city of Chicago has been making a major effort to reduce its energy usage and storm water runoff. The efforts have been led by its mayor, Richard Daley. When the city renovates or builds public buildings, it installs green roofs and special drains to handle rainwater.

Atop the scalding eighth-floor roof of the Chicago Cultural Center, workers dripped sweat as they planted row upon tidy row of hardy plants, the latest signal of one big-city government's determination to be green.

On other downtown rooftops, tall corkscrew-shaped turbines will bridle the winds that race across the plains. A new roof on Chicago's vast convention center will channel 55 million gallons of rainwater a year into Lake Michigan instead of overburdened storm drains....

Since Daley began investing tax dollars in greening the city, Chicago has planted as many as 400,000 trees, according to city spokesmen. It employs more arborists than any city in the country. There are 2.5 million square feet of green roofs completed or under construction, boosted by expedited permitting and density bonuses for developers who embrace the concept....

Daley is an especially big fan of green roofs. The City Hall roof, planted with more than 150 varieties of plants, is often 50 degrees cooler in summer than nearby asphalt roofs, whose temperatures can reach 170 degrees.
Washington really could use some programs like this. Green roofs are known to reduce a building's temperature, and therefore energy usage, on hot summer days. When I look around my downtown neighborhood, I see plenty of flat roofs, and thus plenty of opportunities for planting if someone took the initiative. It would be wonderful if the roof outside my window had shrubs instead of bare asphalt. Shade trees reduce the temperature at street level and in the surrounding buildings.

I am not sure that DC is the ideal location for wind energy. The air here tends to be still, especially in summer. Solar power, however, could work, but again it would require initiative.

Getting people to take the initiative can be difficult. The beauty of Chicago's program is that the city offers incentives for responsible building. There, efforts in the private sector have been driven in part by government programs to encourage smarter and greener planning.
Earlier this year, the city issued $1 million in grants for solar thermal panels that generate hot water. Staffers focused on high-volume water users, including laundromats and health clubs. For the past year, the city has waived a service fee -- typically $5,000 to $50,000 -- for developers willing to install a green roof. The projects are assigned to reviewers empowered to expedite approval.

Michael Yannell intends to take advantage of initiatives for the "net zero energy use" house he is building in Ravenswood. If all goes well, the house will generate more energy than it needs. He expects a property tax break and a $5,000 grant for a rainwater collection system.
I wonder if our mayoral candidates could be persuaded to propose such incentive programs. It would help a great deal, especially in the summer when energy use peaks. Reducing storm water runoff could also help with the restoration of the Anacostia River, which suffers from storm drain and sewer overflows.

Unfortunately, as the article notes, such measures will not solve all problems. But they are a step in the right direction, and anything that can be done to reduce a city's environmental impact will help in the long run.