SPECIAL GREEN- Green ambition: Has C-Ville became G-Ville?
Apparently, if Charlottesville were a super-hero, it would be wearing a green spandex suit and cape (of natural fibers, of course) with a big letter "G" on its chest.
Earlier this year, Country Home magazine named Charlottesville one of America's Top-10 best green places to live. In fact, we ranked 6th on the list behind Burlington, Vermont; Ithaca, New York; Corvallis, Oregon; Springfield, Massachusetts; and Wenatchee, Washington.
The magazine's study was done in partnership with Sperling's BestPlaces, a research company that has been doing "best places to live" studies since 1985. Sperling examined air and watershed quality, mass transit and power use, farm markets, organic producers, and the number of green-certified buildings in 379 major metropolitan areas, using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency, and GreenPeople.org, an online directory.
"We're seeing a real interest by readers in exploring eco-friendly choices," said Country Home editor-in-chief Carol Sheehan in a statement after the results were released. "We wanted to find out who in America is actually taking action, where they are, and what they're doing."
Country Home cited the locality's effort to encourage the use of green roofs (our own County Office Building sports one), rainwater harvesting, porous paving and rain gardens in parks and public spaces, as well as the value our community appears to put on trees, parks, greenspace, streams, and biodiversity. Indeed, when City Council adopted its 2025 "vision statement" last year, the creation of a Green City was one of the things envisioned.
And that was before the 2007 Comprehensive Plan was adopted this summer.
On August 6, Charlottesville City Council adopted as policy a green infrastructure strategy authored by UVA architecture students under the direction of Karen Firehock, a lecturer in urban and environmental planning and a former member of the Charlottesville Planning Commission. Unlike previous versions of the plan that mentioned only general concerns about climate, soils, and geology, this new Plan includes strategies for green building and energy conservation, plus urban forest control, storm water management, and trail construction.
"Now we have real strategies and real data in our Comprehensive Plan," says Firehock. "There are sections on streams and stormwater, trails, trees, and green building. In short, it's a massive change and increase from the comp plan of the past, which had no environmental strategy."
Indeed, the Plan's 20-page chapter on environmental strategies leaves no green stone unturned. For example, nearly 2,000 trees were mapped and studied in an effort to promote the protection and nurturing of our "urban forest." The plan also calls for a 30 percent reduction in energy use by promoting green building through a comprehensive education, assistance, and incentive program.
So why the sudden big push to go green?
While Firehock cites Charlottesville's growing awareness of its role in the larger world and civic responsibility to the environment– as demonstrated by Mayor David Brown signing the Mayors' Climate Change Agreement (along with 299 other mayors) last year– she thinks that growth pressure, which has been so high in recent years based on all our "best places to live" rankings, has also encouraged a green mentality.
"The loss of some of our green spaces to development has made 'green issues' more important," she says. "So many wooded parcels that residents assumed would stay have now been developed."
As a result, Firehock says, the City has realized that more tangible actions are needed to move from platitudes to attitudes. For instance, she notes that the City has hired an environmental administrator and trails coordinator, positions that didn't exist a decade ago.
Firehock also says there have been more partnerships between the City and UVA to help with growth and planning, including her own work in the Plan, a new City watershed strategy, the EcoMod affordable ecological housing project, and other initiatives.
"We have a very progressive City Council and Planning Commission," says Firehock, " who are all committed to environmental protection and community sustainability."
Of course, the County hasn't been sitting on the sidelines, green with envy, over the city's initiatives. Just recently, the green roof atop the County Office building on McIntire Road celebrated its two-year anniversary.
"It's safe to say [the roof] has become a self-sustaining ecosystem that will continue to provide environmental benefits for years to come," says county spokesperson Lee Catlin.
Indeed, according to Catlin, temperature readings show that the green roof is 38 degrees cooler than nearby conventional roofs during hot summer days, and 25 degrees warmer during cold winter nights. The roof is also reducing runoff by retaining up to an inch of rain during storms. Additional benefits, Catlin reports, include improved aesthetics, a natural food source for insects, and an increased life-span for the roof.
Catlin also admits the roof has provided good PR for the county's environmental initiatives, as it has had hundreds of visitors over the last two years, and is part of larger system of stormwater demonstration projects already under way, including a recently constructed rain garden, a rain tank collecting runoff from the greenroof, a rain barrel that collects and stores runoff from roof tops for subsequent use, and an underground storm-vault that removes pollutants from the runoff.
Still, in looking at the green initiatives of the five cities ranking higher on the list than Charlottesville, it appears we could be doing even more. Number one greenie, Burlington, Vermont, collects food scraps from restaurants and supermarkets, as well as yard clippings and leaves from local residents and then chucks them in a huge compost facility to create nutrient-rich soil that's sold back to farmers, gardeners, and landscapers. In Ithaca, New York, 16 percent of the population walk to work, the highest percentage in the nation, thanks to pedestrian-centric development. Wentachee, Washington has the world's only Solar Drag Race, designed to teach young people the importance of energy conservation by challenging them to build sunlight-powered dragsters for a chance to win scholarships.
So, whaddya say, G-Ville... how about we shoot for number one next year? Maybe a "Compost Concert" at the Pavilion? Perhaps a Recyclables Relay or a Table Scraps Table Tennis Tournament?
The UVA School of Architecture's ecoMod project built affordable houses in low-income neighborhoods, and demonstrated how "green" doesn't necessarily mean expensive.
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR