Monday, July 26, 2010

Anacostia River Town Gets Makeover with Clean River Approach

When a small town two miles northeast of Washington DC on the Anacostia River pondered its flooding problems, tarmac-like streets, lack of an urban center and the health of its residents, an urban design solution came to mind: the green, efficient and attractive redesign of its main residential strip; but the real beneficiary was to be the health of the Anacostia River.

The township, a short bike ride away from DC, revels in its small-town feel and celebrates its connection to the Anacostia. Bike paths run the length of the river, here just north of where the Anacostia's two branches merge, the river at this point so shallow that scattered rocks serve as a footbridge in several places. But poor urban design plagues cities and towns across the United States that - like Edmonston, MD - were built in the post-automobile era. For decades, Edmonston's outdated and ailing infrastructure has been collecting industrial contaminants from paved areas and funneling them through the drainage systems into the Anacostia, floating through Washington DC into the Chesapeake. Despite the river's small size, flooding was a problem because of Edmonston's extremely low-lying position among surrounding towns with sprawling shopping centers and gargantuan parking lots that pushed water outward, requiring steep levees on the riverbanks. The city's streets were engineered for width and speed, despite frequent intersections and stop signs, leaving the car unrivaled on main street, with retail and foot traffic nonexistent.

That was the old Edmonston. In a single-handed bid to slow down traffic, encourage non-vehicular circulation and beautify the city, the suburban town began a makeover of its streets last year, expecting that its neighbors will emulate its efforts to maintain a healthier Anacostia.

With a boost from federal stimulus funding through the Chesapeake Bay Trust, Edmonston's Mayor Adam Ortiz initiated a project to green the town's main street. Applying smart growth principles, the plan for revamping the town's central artery includes the restoration of the native tree canopy to reduce urban heat island effect; wind-powered, down-pointing streetlamps with energy-efficient LED ballasts; four new bike lanes with permeable brick paving; wider sidewalks connected to regional bike trails; bump-outs to slow down traffic; and, most importantly, 90% on-site rainwater capture.
The plan exceeds the Maryland standard, which requires that the first inch of rainwater be captured for treatment on 50% of all impervious surfaces. Through the inclusion of rain gardens with bioretention cells on either side of the street, the plan provides for 1.33 inches of stormwater capture on 90% of all paved surfaces. Runoff drains into the rain gardens through sloped curb cuts with traditional curbside drainage in place as a fail-safe measure. On top of improving the town's image, the urban planning measures are expected to nearly eliminate the unfiltered runoff that can overwhelm the river.

The initiative will start small, greening just two-thirds of a mile of Decatur Street, creating a communal space primarily belonging to pedestrians, bikers and runners, and lastly the automobile. "Cars don't have rights; communities have rights,” Mayor Ortiz said in a lecture he delivered on July 8th at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC as part of a series on green building practices. Thanks to $ 1.3 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, Ortiz says his shovel-ready project sustained engaged citizen support, generated 50-60 new green jobs, and employed a 70 percent majority of local, minority-run consulting firms such as VMT Contractors and G&C Consultants of Prince George's County.

In the near future Edmonston plans on applying for more federal funding to expand its greening efforts. Speaking with DCMud, Mayor Ortiz said the town would be begin with its main thoroughfare then progress to industrial streets such as Buchanan St. and 49th Avenue. He distinguished between the tangible and intangible effects of redesigning Decatur Street, which will serve as a park as much as it will a street, but community spirit and resident activity will create the sense of place. "Decatur Street is not about getting from point A to point B. We're looking at it as a sole community asset because it serves community purposes as public space,” he said.
Besides encouraging healthier lifestyles and celebrating the increasingly popular notion of a vibrant street life, the improvements on Decatur Street are expected to increase property values in a town where most single family homes are two-bedroom Sears model homes and ranches selling from $80,000-190,000, down 40 percent from two years ago. Plans include connecting Decatur Street to regional bike trails via the Hyattsville spur and the MBT bike trail, tying Edmonston to DC and the National Mall and regional trails. Bikers, runners and paddlers from the DC metropolitan area will have new and improved access to Edmonston, which boasts a model streetscape with interpretive signage explaining all the improvements to and history of Decatur Street.

Equipped with its own public works department, school system and local police force, and seeking resources to forge its own sustainable future, Edmonston officials do not shrink from holding the town up as a potential leader in urban planning and redesign. Immediately adjacent Bladensburg is duplicating storm water management efforts in a large waterfront park along the Anacostia.

Unlike bigger west-coast towns like Seattle and Portland, which have implemented green street initiatives on a much larger scale, Edmonston's 1500 residents are committed to setting a regional example in active, healthy communities with a vibrant street life, not only for the Washington, DC area, but also the mid-Atlantic. Mayor Ortiz equates sustainability with responsibility and calls for best practices to become common practices. More than anything, Ortiz hopes that Edmonston's success will serve as a model for other small towns in the Anacostia watershed. Committed to open-source information sharing, the town of Edmonston has made detailed information on the project available through the town's website.


Anonymous said...

Nice piece and great to hear about this town but the font is black on a black background in some places. You should change it to a lighter color.

Anonymous said...

It's inaccurate to say the town has it's "own school system". While tyhere may be a school in town, all public schools in Prince George's County are operated by the County school system.

Tom A. on Jul 28, 2010, 11:33:00 AM said...

Great news! Go Edmonston!

Maybe this wil help them get their own zip code/post office someday!

Anonymous said...

hopefully this move won't push industry away from edmonston.

Anonymous said...

why can't industry and environmentalism coexist, if any industry is scared away because there is an effort to keep an area green, then why would you want them there anyways...what you mean we can't dump our waste in the river here? fine we're taking our business to elizabeth, nj

Anonymous said...

anon 9:48

i was being sincere, you're being snide. i have not suggested that environmentalism is bad.

this is a great move, to be sure. its not soley about environmentalism however, but also streetscaping that will increase property values and property taxes and rent.

this is problematic for industry as many exist on narrow margins. it is not about the ability to pollute. it is about the ability to stay solvent.

where will the industry that exists in edmonston go? further away from our metropolitan core means increased pollution for transportation and increased costs for consumers.

my concern is legitimate despite your portrayal.
and i do hope that it doesn't push industry away. is your hope different?

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