Washington, D.C. - Expensive, but not Taxing: 4. Environment

Washington, D.C. - Expensive, but not Taxing: 4. Environment

4. Environment

Diversity of Uses + Density of uses and people = Environmental Savings

In recent decades, humanity’s awareness of its negative impact on the global environment has produced numerous counteractive strategies, policies and programs to reverse such effects. In some way or another, each of these initiatives falls under the scope of building density, population density and transportation. Why so much importance on these factors? Well, it’s because the construction and operation of buildings and the transportation we use to get to those buildings are the primary culprits of environmental issues facing our world today, some of such being global warming and ozone depletion. In both cases, these phenomena have harmful associative effects such as rising sea levels, harmful UV exposure, and poor air quality. But Buildings and transportation remain at the top. Here are a few statistics provided by the Environmental Protection Agency...

As of 2010 buildings account for...

  1. 14% of drinkable water consumption in the U.S.

  2. 30% of the material waste stream in the U.S.

  3. 40% of raw material usage in the U.S.

  4. 40% of Greenhouse Gas  Emissions (GHG) in the U.S.

  5. 50% of energy consumption in the U.S.

  6. 72% of electricity consumption in the U.S.

  7. 58%  of GHG's globally!

As of 2010 transportation accounts for...

  1. 35% of GHG's in the United States

  2. 15% of GHG's globally!

So on a global scale, buildings and transportation are 73% responsible for humanity's contribution to global warming, rising sea levels, and drastic climate changes. Of that number, the U.S. is responsible for 19%.  Ozone depletion is another global issue directly related to the construction and operation of buildings. To combat these undesirable global circumstances, cities are restructuring themselves and returning to some basic principles of urban living while infusing enhancements that come with modern technology. American cities are recognizing the environmental and sustainable benefits they that come along with living in mixed-use, compact communities  that offer alternative modes of transportation such as biking, walking and public transit. Washington D.C. is such a city and in my opinion will serve as a fantastic (but not perfect) paradigm for subsequent cities to model themselves after – or in most cases to remodel themselves after. Below are a list of ways that Washington D.C. doesn’t ‘tax’ the environment. 

1.      Environment not taxed by Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and the burning fossil fuels.

GHG’s are gases in the earth’s atmosphere that trap heat and consequently cause our planet to have higher average temperatures. As with anything in nature, our atmosphere operates within a closed system, so one ill effect begets another. Higher temperatures alter ecosystems, change climate patterns,  raise ocean levels, among other problems. The primary GHG’s of concern are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), and Nitrous Oxide (NO2). The largest producer of CO2 is vehicle exhaust emission which makes car usage the poster child for Global Warming. Because a high percentage of people that live or work in Washington D.C. either bike, walk, bus or metro to get to where they have to go, the amount of Greenhouse Gases that are emitted into the atmosphere is dramatically reduced. And even if people do choose to drive, the distance in which they travel is also shorten because of the density of building uses and their close proximity to each other. So those that drive don't drive for long. This results in an healthier environment and ecology as well as better air quality.

Can not driving or diving less really make a difference in global climate change? Politicians and scientists have been debating this for decades now. But extracted from the political arena I think the answer is pretty clear to the average person. if they were able to make the comparison. In the summer of 2014, I got the opportunity to work on a master planning project designing a city center for 800,000 residents from the ground up in Nanjing, China, about an hour west of Shanghai. Overall my experience there was beyond amazing! Nonetheless, the amount of air pollution was noticeable even before my first landing at Beijing International Airport. Upon landing, I couldn't see the runway until we were hovering over the ground at a mere 100 feet or so.  In the city itself the pollution is even more noticeable and at times uncomfortable when combined with a hot day. Some days the sun can not be seen at all. I understand now why our Asian friends are so used to wearing masks over their faces when in the city. However, in the country side and on the weekends the pollution is more than significantly lessened because of decreased amounts of drivers and construction activity. China presents a unique case because it is the most populous place on Earth and one of the most dense. But if any thing, China teaches us that the effects of GHG's are real. Moving forward humanity must find more sustainable ways to build cities and to move about in them. A huge part of that, are the age old urban principles of diverse and dense land use communities that support a healthy population density.  

2.     Environment not taxed by buildings and construction

Among the United States and its territories, Washington D.C. leads the country with the highest quantity and concentration of LEED certified buildings and “Green” buildings. LEED is a certification and credit program that guides project teams in the construction, operation, and maintenance of buildings in efforts to reduce their negative impacts on the environment and improve occupant comfort. This program translates to significant reductions in GHG's  and Ozone Depletion substances emitted into the atmosphere through construction. Buildings are designed to use less energy, be more energy efficient and in some cases use alternative energy which lower the local carbon footprint. Mechanical systems for heating and cooling buildings use refrigerants that lessen the contribution to Ozone Depletion. When these methodologies of making buildings are combined with high urban densities and diversity of uses this makes for truly sustainable and ecologically healthy places.

Washington D.C. is also the very first city in the United States to adopt into law the IGCC (International Green Construction Code). Like other building codes, the IGCC is lawfully enforceable by the adopting municipality that has jurisdiction. The goal of the IGCC is to require developers, architects, and building owners to reach a minimum level of environmental consciousness and energy efficiency when constructing their buildings. Where LEED is optional, the IGCC is mandatory. Hopefully other cities will follow the Capital's lead.

3.     Environment not taxed by trash and rubbish.

Trash and Recycling bins are strategically placed around the city in a multitude of neighborhoods and not just in the downtown area. This simple tactic encourages D.C. residents and visitors to properly get rid of their rubbish and recyclables as opposed to tossing trash into the street. The city also sweeps the street twice a week for those individuals who didn’t quite get the memo that gutters and curbs make for poor landfills. 

The city of Washington, D.C  does a pretty decent job of keeping streets clean, and picking up trash and recyclables. 

4.     Environment not taxed by material waste.

Because of D.C.’s rich history, the preservation and adaptive reuse movement in the city is very strong. Hundreds of buildings, around since the 19th and 20th century, are preserved, renovated, or adapted in some way each year. The architecture firm that I work for, Bonstra|Haresign Architects, is a local firm that does a lot of the aforementioned work and is consider to be an expert in the adaptive reuse of D.C. buildings. Besides helping to keep the local character of a place, adaptive reuse helps reduce environmental issues associated destroying building waste.

When a building can't be adaptively reused, deconstructing the structure and moving the waste to salvage yards should be the next option. There are several salvage warehouses in the D-M-V area where citizens and businesses alike can purchase materials and products that were harvested from old structures. Developers and building owners can also donate their demolished materials to the warehouse for tax-credits. Reusing existing materials in any capacity prevents them from ending up in landfills which lessens the waste burden on the city. Diverting this waste from landfills prevents the expenditure of energy required to incinerate that waste and thus prevents the emission of GHG's as a byproduct of that process.

Humanity across the globe is realizing that the way in which we have envisioned and lived in cities for the last 200+ years is damaging our planet.  To reverse these negative effects we must must reverse our ideology of how cites should function and how we should live in them. Reverting back to some basic principles of urban living I believe is the starting point.  As Iv'e mentioned in previous posts, these principles are proven, time-tested and will assuredly assist humanity in reducing its negative environmental impact. Washington D.C. is among the country’s leaders in the effort to re-thinking city making so that our existence on this planet is not a burden. 

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