Green Streets for All

The National Building Museum’s Smart Growth lecture series featured Adam Ortiz, Mayor or Edmonston, Maryland, who put forward his community’s innovative green street as a model, saying that the time has come for green infrastructure best practice to become common practice. Edmonston’s green street, which cost some $1.3 million and took 2-3 years to complete, represents his community’s attempt to “take responsibility” for fixing the unsustainable stormwater managment system. “If a small town can do this, anyone can.”

The town, which straddles either side of the Anacostia River, has been repeatedly hit by major flooding.  Even with a earthen levy built in the 1950’s, the town suffered flooding which put more than 50 homes completely underwater. Immigrants, who rent out basement apartments, were particularly hard hit. “Flooding is as much as a social justice as environmental issue,” said Ortiz. Interestingly, the Anacostia is not to blame. Flooding came from excess water coming off roofs, parking lots, and impervious sidewalks and streets.  “Like most communities, Edmonston is almost completely covered in asphalt.”

To address the flooding, the town council invested in a $7 million dollar, municipal bus-sized Archimedes screw. Its “slurpee machine technology” helps move water overflow out of the town’s retention pond and into the Anacostia River. Thinking long-term, though, the town leaders decided to combine repairs to the town’s aging street infrastructure with a more sustainable stormwater management system. The focus became turning Decatur Street, one of the town’s main thoroughfares, into a green street.

Landscape architects, horticulturalists, engineers, and other local experts got together with local officials to come up with a comprehensive green street plan, which would tackle the stormwater management issue, but also inefficient lighting, non-native trees, and inadequate sidewalks. “This was a total reconceptualization. We wanted to create the most sustainable, environmentally-friendly street we could. We ended up pulling existing technologies together.” 

New bioretention systems on the side of the 2/3 mile street now capture 90 percent of the first 1.33 inches of water on-site, beating Maryland’s own standard of 50 percent of the first inch of water. Ortiz said “most pollutants are found in the first inch of runoff.” The retention beds are rain gardens and also double as traffic-calmers, given their rounded corners. Cut-outs drain rainwater into the beds, and the standard stormwater drains remain as back-ups.

New LED lights replaced outmoded street lamp systems. The lamps are now powered by wind power. Native, large-canopy trees were added and are expected to create canopies over the street lamps. This means light will actually continue to hit the street. Part of the plan also involved reducing space for cars. “We wanted to put the public first. Streets aren’t just for cars.” Pervious sidewalks have been expanded and new permeable bike lanes have been included.

He said the green street project received E.P.A. recovery funds, grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, and support from the Low Impact Development Center and a range of other organizations. Local design non-profit, Neighborhood Design Center, provided the landscape design for the project. Local companies did all the construction work and 70 percent were minority-run. In total, some 50-60 jobs were created. “These didn’t start out as green jobs, but became green jobs as firms learned how to create bioretention systems and install LED lights. This is what the transition to the green economy is all about.”

Ortiz concluded that streets are “community public space. Cars don’t have rights, communities do.” More green streets are being planned in Edmonston. Also, Ortiz is encouraging sister towns to roll-out green streets to help reduce the stormwater sent over to his town and help expand the model.

Lastly, this forward-thinking town mayor encouraged local communities to download free open-source design plans including CAD files and plug-in to their communities. Learn more about Edmonston’s green street project.

Image credit: Edmonston Green Street / Town of Edmonston

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