sustainable communities

EPA and Muscatine, Iowa, Work Together Toward Green Development

By Marc Kingston

Muscatine meeting

EPA employees and contractors, along with community members, discuss green solutions for Muscatine at the April workshop

Muscatine, Iowa, is one of 51 communities across the country selected to participate in EPA’s Making a Visible Difference in Communities program, which focuses on building partnerships with community stakeholders to improve public health and the environment.

I worked with EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities and the city of Muscatine to arrange a Green and Complete Street Workshop in April 2016. Jonathan Smith, engineering manager of Tetra Tech’s stormwater services, served as facilitator.

We started with a tour to identify areas of Muscatine that are ripe for green development and sustainable practices. After the tour, we met with members of the community and city leaders who were interested in learning about green solutions, such as diverting rainwater from entering the sewers and allowing more of it to soak into the ground where it can provide moisture for plants.

Muscatine meeting

Jonathan Smith, Tetra Tech (EPA contractor), speaks with Muscatine community members

A number of technologies are available to reduce the impact of rainwater runoff. These include permeable pavement that allows precipitation to soak through into the ground, rain gardens, rain barrels, green roofs, and other green landscape features. New curb bump-outs were also discussed at the meeting. They help channel rainwater into rain gardens, where water collects and soaks into the ground.

The community is considering implementation of green infrastructure practices based on concepts provided during the workshop. EPA and the city realize that green infrastructure in the public right-of-ways will help divert rainwater from the sewers and help prevent sewer overflows.

Muscatine meeting

Muscatine community members share ideas with EPA employees and contractors

Another goal of the workshop is to create a more sustainable, pedestrian-friendly environment along the Mississippi Drive Corridor and other transportation corridors in Muscatine.

Together, we want to change the way rainwater is managed, make downtown Muscatine more beautiful, send less polluted runoff to neighbors downstream, and use less energy to treat water at the wastewater treatment plant.

The environmental projects in Muscatine will truly make a visible difference in the lives of Muscatine residents. And I look forward to continuing my work with the community, which complements the city’s interest in green solutions.

About the Author: Marc Kingston serves as a Making a Visible Difference facilitator at EPA Region 7. He also serves as a grant management specialist in the Region’s Office of Policy and Management. Marc has a degree in environmental studies from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Spring Cleaning Can Be Even Healthier using Green Products

The welcome return of spring sunshine makes me think of one thing – grimy, winter-weary windows. And then there’s the fridge, the baseboards, the carpets, the bathroom grout, the kitchen cabinets. All these little spots we ignored all winter are now ready for a thorough scrub. No wonder nearly 75 percent of Americans like to do a good spring cleaning.

Good thing you can use the EPA Safer Choice label to help you find cleaning and other household products that are made with ingredients that are safer for people and the environment.

Healthy Choices

That’s a great assurance, considering household cleaning products are one source of indoor air pollution, which can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.

Products with safer ingredients improve indoor air quality and can lower the risk of health hazards, including respiratory conditions like asthma; allergic reactions, which can cause skin rashes, hives or headaches; and a variety of other conditions. Children and older people, in particular, are more susceptible to risks — so they’re better off in spaces cleaned with safer products and wearing clothes cleaned with a laundry detergent that uses safer solvents and surfactants.  And what about parents and those who regularly clean and do the wash, coming in close contact with cleaners and detergents? Safer is certainly better for them. Safer Choice recognizes that everyday cleaning products make a big difference to your family’s well-being.

Cleaners also affect the quality of our local streams, rivers and lakes. When Safer Choice products get rinsed down the drain and make their way into the watershed, they are less toxic to fish and other aquatic life. That’s good news for New England’s iconic waterways, whether it’s Lake Champlain, the Charles River or Long Island Sound… or the ponds, streams and wetlands found throughout New England.

IMG_0749

Here’s something that may surprise you. Unlike food producers, cleaning product manufacturers are not required to list ingredients on their containers or make them public. But to display the Safer Choice label, manufacturers must list all of their product’s ingredients either on the product or on an easy-access website.

Safer Choice is the first federal label for cleaning products and it is proving incredibly popular. More than 2,000 products have already earned the right to carry the logo. They’re available in local grocery stores and hardware stores, and include cleaners for use at home, offices, schools, hotels and sports venues.

The agency’s website (https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice) lists all the products that proudly carry the Safer Choice label. We also offer interactive tools to find the best cleaning products for your home and for businesses like schools, hotels, offices, and sports venues. And my personal favorite – cleaners for those grimy windows.

By Curt Spalding, Regional Administrator, US EPA Region 1 (New England Region)

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Work That Matters to Me: Building Trust, Greener Communities

Introduction by Kathleen L. Fenton

David Doyle is a public servant’s public servant. I’ve known Dave for 24 years and if you have a “federal agency” question, Dave will either know the answer or the person to call to help you. He has mentored many of us at EPA about the intricacies of community work, and has truly “woven straw into gold” for many communities with the limited, complicated funding and layers of federal and state resources applicable to them. Dave turns over every stone and has left in his wake a sustainable legacy.

By David Doyle

A tornado devastated Greensburg, Kan. on May 4, 2007.

Aftermath of Greensburg tornado

It’s June 2007, and I’m sitting under a large red-and-white tent in Greensburg, Kan., feeling a little disoriented and anxious. I was told a week before that I had been assigned to work with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on developing a long-term recovery plan for the community that was wiped out by a tornado a month earlier. Once I drove to Greensburg and located the FEMA trailer, their recovery staff directed me to a community meeting.

It must have been 100 degrees under that tent. With huge fans trying to cool the place and only adding to the noise and confusion, I suddenly heard the speaker on the platform say, “EPA’s here to help.” I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I would get from the audience in southwestern Kansas, but as I stood up and meekly waved, I got nothing but cheers and applause. I was relieved by that reaction, but I sat down wondering what I was going to do next.

Emergency response personnel make plans in the aftermath of the tornado that devastated Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007.

Greensburg community meeting 

What I had learned up to then in working with communities is that building trust is by far the most important thing to do. I also understood that being patient with people, listening to their concerns, and being honest and responsive to their needs are key things to keep in mind. Work I had done in Stella, a southwestern Missouri town with a population of 150, prepared me to some extent for what I was asked to do in Greensburg.

EPA had performed a “miracle” in Stella, as described by some of the residents, by demolishing an abandoned hospital that sat in the middle of their downtown, using our authority under the Superfund law. We then brought in architectural students from Kansas State University to design reuse plans for the site and later developed a master plan for the community. The local officials recognized my work, along with other EPA staff, by presenting us with award plaques hand-carved from local walnut trees during the annual Stella Days Fair.

In Greensburg, we decided to form a “Green Team” that came up with recommendations for turning it into the greenest community in the country. The team had representatives from the business community, school district, and a number of local citizens, along with representatives from several state and federal agencies. We met on a regular basis to bounce ideas off each other. Our recommendations were incorporated into FEMA’s Long-Term Community Recovery Plan, and all of them were eventually adopted by the city council and implemented.

The redeveloped Greensburg, Kan., now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in America.

Redevelopment in Greensburg, the greenest community in America

The most important recommendation adopted was that all new municipal buildings over a certain size had to be built to meet Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum standards, the highest certification level for new buildings. As a result, Greensburg (population 800) now has more LEED Platinum buildings than any other community in the United States.

Since my time in Greensburg, I have provided assistance to many other communities here in the Heartland. These collaborative efforts resulted in a new medical clinic surrounded by new businesses in Ogden, Iowa; plans for a new sustainable downtown in Sutherland, Neb.; redevelopment of former gas stations in south St. Louis; new, complete streetscapes in Lincoln, Neb.; plans for a mixed-use neighborhood in Iowa City, Iowa; and improvements in other communities.

I still remember those hot, windy and dusty days in Greensburg when a local citizen named Jack would often come up to me with a big smile on his face, shake my hand, and say how much he appreciated EPA being there and helping out.

About the Introducer: Kathleen Fenton has worked with communities on environmental health issues, environmental education grants, and Healthy Schools projects for over 20 years.

About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Fresh and Clean, or Fresh and Green?

by Matt Colip

O Street NW, in DC, was revitalized to control stormwater  with 33 individual rain gardens built with native plants.

O Street NW, in DC, was revitalized to control stormwater with 33 individual rain gardens.

I’ve always enjoyed walking along new city streets.  The sidewalks are crisp and clean, free from chewing gum and spill marks.  There are no chassis-rattling potholes in the road.  It’s reminiscent of the new car feel, everything seems minted.

In Washington, D.C., and a growing number of communities in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region, residents and businesses are getting a bonus when it comes to new road construction – green features to control stormwater runoff.

The nation’s capital, like many older cities in the United States, is faced with the perpetual challenges of revitalizing streets and managing a combined sewer system that mixes stormwater and sewage into large underground pipes that feed the wastewater treatment plant.  The challenge for city governments is that residents want the fresh and clean feel on their streets, and a guarantee that their sewage will reach the treatment plant and not overflow into a river because too much stormwater has flooded the system.  To meet these demands, the District, under the leadership of Mayor Muriel Bowser, has chosen to build fresh and clean streets that are also fresh and “green.”

I accompanied our EPA Regional Administrator, Shawn M. Garvin, recently as he helped cut the ribbon for one of the District’s newest green street projects – this one along the 200 block of O Street NW, a street that has been closed to traffic since 1977.

In addition to integrating green infrastructure into street rehabilitation, the revitalized O Street now includes 33 individual rain gardens along the sidewalks that are landscaped with native plants. These rain gardens capture the runoff from an area 5,732 square feet in size – about 20% bigger than a standard basketball court – and keep the water out of the sewer system.  Rainwater and sewage that flows into this part of the District’s sewer system risks overflowing into the Anacostia River.  The more stormwater that is diverted from the combined sewer system, the less likely an overflow will occur into the river.

Not only does O Street now capture rainwater, it will have a new tree canopy from the trees planted street along its sidewalks.  These trees will also slurp up stormwater, keeping it from entering the sewer system, and eventually provide shaded areas.  This shade will reduce the heat island effect of the black asphalt.  Overall, the street looks great!

This work was funded in part through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Streets, Green Jobs, Green Towns (G3) initiative, a program administered by EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. The green infrastructure approach of the partners in this project – the District’s Departments of Energy & Environment, Transportation, and General Services – supports the G3 program goals of improving water quality, community livability and economic vitality.

 

About the author: Matt Colip is a state and congressional liaison in the region’s Office of Communications and Government Relations. He previously worked in the region’s water programs, enforcing wastewater and stormwater regulations. In addition to SCUBA diving, Matt is an avid bicyclist and enjoys riding with friends and colleagues.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Bottom Line: Why Permeable Pavements are Good for the Environment and Your Pocket

by Jeanna Henry

A Philadelphia Water Department parking lot includes interlocking concrete permeable pavers and other types of permeable pavements

A Philadelphia Water Department parking lot includes interlocking concrete permeable pavers and other types of permeable pavements

Are you looking for ways to reduce your environmental footprint, improve water quality, and save money?  If so, permeable pavements are a great way to green your community – and put some “green” back in your pockets.

We’ve blogged recently about the environmental benefits of permeable pavements, a green infrastructure alternative that can be used for stormwater management in urban areas.  Did you know this technology also provides a host of economic benefits?

Permeable pavements are one way take advantage of financial incentives from many state and local governments for reducing stormwater fees, and they can potentially help developers and property owners qualify for credits under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) certification program.

Local economies also benefit from the use of permeable pavements because they create “green” jobs. In addition, permeable pavements serve as both a paved surface and a stormwater management system, so they can reduce the need for conventional stormwater management practices such as piping, retention ponds and swales, resulting in overall cost savings.

Permeable paving is being used across the mid-Atlantic, in places like Philadelphia, PA, Washington, DC, and Baltimore, MD. But my favorite illustration of cost savings is out of the University of New Hampshire (UNH), which happens to also be one of five recent Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant recipients researching green infrastructure in Philadelphia.

This UNH case study compares the costs of conventional and low impact development (LID) stormwater management designs.  The LID design included the installation of two porous asphalt parking lots covering a total of 4.5 acres.  Although the paving costs for the porous asphalt drainage systems were estimated to cost an additional $884,000, the LID option provided significant cost savings for earthwork ($71,000) and stormwater management ($1,743,000). Total project cost savings were around $930,000, a 26% decrease in the overall cost for stormwater management.

The LID option doesn’t just save money, monitoring results from the case study show that porous asphalt systems are successfully treating stormwater to remove sediment and nutrients to protect local waterways, and meeting durability and permeability expectations for peak flow.

Interested in more on permeable pavements, like porous asphalt and pervious concrete? The National Ready Mix Concrete Association, the National Asphalt Pavement Association, and the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute have information on certified craftsmen, installers and technicians in your area as well as information on how to become certified in these green infrastructure techniques.

 

About the author: Jeanna Henry joined EPA in 2000 as an Environmental Scientist. She currently works in the Water Protection Division focusing on stormwater management through the use of Green Infrastructure. Jeanna loves nothing more than spending time outdoors with family and friends hiking, kayaking or spending a day at the beach.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Rain Barrels of Savings

by Jennie Saxe

As I spent a recent weekend doing springtime yard work, I noticed that the side yard of my house seems to have washed away over the past few years. After a short investigation, I realized that three downspouts on my home pointed at this exact location. I wondered…could I use green infrastructure to help slow the flow of rainwater?

I decided to install a rain barrel to direct some of the rain water to storage instead of letting it flow as run-off across the ground. Reducing the amount of run-off from my roof will keep the soil from washing away. As an added benefit, the stored rain water will be perfect for watering our flowers and vegetable garden.

Full disclosure: DIY is not my strong suit. Even though it’s fairly simple to build your own rain barrel, I purchased mine. All that was left was to follow the directions for connecting it to a downspout.  Here’s the finished product:

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

A recent, brief rain shower filled about one-third of this rain barrel.

The rain barrel was installed in a couple of hours, but I did make some rookie mistakes. If you’re thinking about installing your first rain barrel, here are some helpful hints:

  • Location: I knew which downspout to connect to, but I also had to be sure I was able to connect a hose. I also had to consider where excess water would drain once the barrel was filled. Excess water can be directed to overflow, to another rain barrel, or to a rain garden.
  • Safety: A 60-gallon rain barrel will weigh 500 pounds when full, so it’s a good idea to make sure that little ones won’t be tempted to play around it. I used a bed of stones to make sure the base of the rain barrel was sturdy in all weather and able to support the weight of the barrel. To protect against mosquitos using your rain water as a breeding ground, be sure to have screening over all openings.
  • Level: This was the hardest part. Since you won’t want to move the rain barrel once it’s installed, take all the time you need on this step.
  • Have the right tools: If you purchase your rain barrel, follow the instructions. Common tools will include a level, a hacksaw, and a tape measure. Be sure you also have gloves and eye protection – a cut aluminum gutter can be sharp!

Now, if it would just rain! The conditions in my area have just been declared “abnormally dry” (designated “D0” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map). But with my rain barrel installed, I’ll be ready to save the rain when it does arrive.

 

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. She thanks fellow Healthy Waters bloggers Steve Donohue and Ken Hendrickson for their helpful hints on rain barrel installation.

 

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Pipe Dreams: Advancing Sustainable Development in the United States

by Apple Loveless and Leslie Corcelli

Standing Sewage in Lowndes County, Alabama

Raw sewage outside a home in Lowndes County, Alabama (source: http://eji.org/node/629)

When most of us think or speak about people who lack access to adequate drinking water and wastewater treatment — if we think or speak of them at all– it usually brings to mind folks in developing countries half way across the globe. Just as an upcoming United Nations Summit on development goals seeks to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all,” we want the people of those countries to have the basic human rights that we may take for granted daily at our taps and toilets. Unfortunately, we often overlook communities in our own backyard who lack access to clean water and sanitation.

Here in the United States, communities that lack access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation can be found in colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border, in rural Alaska Native Villages, in Appalachia, and in the Black Belt of the southern U.S. In EPA’s Sustainable Communities Branch of the Office of Wastewater Management, we focus on these communities.

Last year, we visited Willisville, a small, historic, rural community in southwestern Loudoun County, Virginia, considered one of the wealthiest counties in America. Yet in unincorporated Willisville, many of its largely low income, African-American families lived without indoor plumbing, relying instead on privies and outhouses, and drawing their water from shallow wells, as their ancestors had done since the community’s founding just after the Civil War. In 1998, the Loudoun County Health Department found that the majority of homes in Willisville had inadequate drinking water supplies, and failing or non-existent sewage systems. Additionally, the poor soil quality was not compatible with the installation of traditional septic systems, while more costly alternative systems were out of the price range of residents.

Bringing adequate infrastructure to Willisville had presented funding, planning, and installation challenges. In 2007, a joint venture of the County, the local water authority, and the community, provided an on-site community wastewater collection and treatment system that replaced outhouses and failing drain fields. The County covered most of the cost of connecting homes to the system, drilling new wells, and adding bathrooms, kitchen sinks, and washing-machine hookups. Yet even with these improvements, additional challenges remained. Simply providing indoor plumbing to existing homes, for example, would have driven up property values so much that the average resident wouldn’t have been able to afford the taxes. However, due to the determination of key individuals, Willisville residents were able to work with the County and nonprofit organizations to modify the tax base to allow residents to afford the new services.

Unfortunately, the situation that had plagued Willisville can be seen in other communities around the country.

Take for example, Lowndes County, Alabama, a mostly rural minority community with a 27 percent poverty rate. In 2002, it was estimated that 40 to 90 percent of households had either no septic system or were using an inadequate one. In addition, 50 percent of the existing septic systems did not work properly. The community had been built on highly impermeable clay soils that do not quickly absorb water, making installing sophisticated and advanced septic systems very cost prohibitive. It was not uncommon to see raw sewage in fields, yards, and ditches. Inadequate wastewater management became a public health hazard and an environmental issue that could no longer be ignored. In 2011, the situation was the subject of a United Nations Human Rights Council inquiry.

In 2010, EPA entered into a four-year financial assistance agreement with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise to develop a decentralized wastewater management plan for rural Lowndes County. The grant demonstrates the use of affordable or new technologies in an effort to address the inadequate disposal of raw sewage in Lowndes County. The grant not only signifies an important first step to improving the area’s basic sanitation services, but it provides a model to help protect water quality and human health in this community and others around the country.

Most people living in the United States enjoy access to safe water and sanitation. Yet, there are many communities like Willisville and Lowndes County for which the opposite is true. Providing funding and technical assistance to underserved communities can help them tackle the complex issues of improving their water and wastewater infrastructure. But it’s not a task that can be undertaken by a single individual. These efforts will require multi-stakeholder engagement and the collaboration of public, private, and academic partnerships with the affected communities to achieve environmental justice. We’ve seen the success first hand, and we know it’s possible.

Apple Loveless has a graduate degree in environmental management with a focus on water resource planning and management, and is adapting to life in the Mid-Atlantic region. Leslie Corcelli has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals. Apple and Leslie are Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participants in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Community-driven Revitalization: Tying it Together in Freeport, Illinois

by Melissa Friedland

The East Side of Freeport, Illinois, is a remarkable place. This African-American neighborhood has been home to families for generations. Residents have a strong sense of community and deep affection for the area. However, frequent flooding from the Pecatonica River has not just damaged homes but impacted the community’s economic vitality. The community also has vacant former industrial areas, petroleum contamination, and has been subject to illegal dumping at the CMC Heartland Superfund site. These have exacerbated the legacy of racial segregation, strained relationships with civic leadership, and diminished access to community amenities.

In 2013, community members began to tackle these challenges. Their goal: to make it possible for Freeport’s East Side to again support quality housing, thriving businesses, and public amenities. At the outset, stakeholders identified two key outcomes for the project – reducing flooding impacts and addressing floodway regulations. Properties in the neighborhood’s floodplain are subject to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state floodway regulations as activities such as rebuilding and improving housing and commercial space after flood events are considered. Residents have indicated that addressing these challenges could lay the foundation for pursuing additional neighborhood revitalization goals.

To help make this happen, EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative (SRI) and Region 5 office sponsored a reuse planning process for the CMC Heartland site and other contaminated properties in the neighborhood. The year-long effort brought local residents and business owners together with city officials and federal agency staff.

Building trust and relationships was the first priority, as a legacy of poor communication and strained relations between the community and the local government threatened to derail progress. A pro-bono Cultural Competence training brought city staff and neighborhood residents together. Breakthroughs followed, as participants shared their experiences and people realized that everyone at the table was interested in addressing past challenges and ensuring a brighter, more sustainable future for the East Side. The training was an early turning point that enabled participants to understand each other’s perspectives and plan for the future.

Reducing Flood Impacts

011080410 FEMA assists IEMA with flood assessments

With good working relationships in place, the work shifted to understanding where and how flooding was affecting the neighborhood. During several working sessions, residents and city staff developed a detailed map that incorporated community feedback about areas of concern as well as technical floodplain information. In a follow-up session, participants explored ways to manage stormwater differently. Where traditional gray infrastructure approaches rely on pipes, sewers, and other physical structures, green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality, and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency.

Participants then prioritized a set of goals for reducing flood impacts, including addressing areas where floodwaters enter homes and block street access, ensuring safe access to a neighborhood school, tackling areas of standing water, and designing green infrastructure features to beautify the East Side neighborhood and the Stephenson Street entrance corridor.

Addressing Floodway Regulations

East Side residents, city staff, and elected officials knew that engaging with FEMA was essential to reducing flooding impacts and supporting community revitalization. Parties developed a joint statement describing how the neighborhood’s economic vitality and housing quality have been impacted over time by its location in the floodway where residents contend with recurring major and minor flood events. East Side residents would like to work with FEMA on the best possible ways to maintain and improve their homes.

In a presentation to FEMA in 2014, the group invited agency staff to join a dialogue to focus on finding solutions. In addition, a plan that focused on flood impact reduction and neighborhood revitalization was developed with the support of the EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative and Region 5. More information can be found in the final report.

Through its work with communities, EPA’s goal is make a visible and lasting difference. The East Side project shows how these efforts can lead to new partnerships, vital innovations, and long-term revitalization.

About the author: Melissa Friedland manages EPA’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative, an EPA initiative that helps communities reclaim cleaned-up Superfund program sites.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Cities on the Edge: Tools and Assistance for Revitalizing Distressed Communities

By Katherine Takai

“While municipal bankruptcies have gotten a lot of national headlines, it’s not the bankrupt cities that are the widespread problem. It’s the ones on the edge—the ‘distressed’ cities. These are places that likely will never declare bankruptcy but are nonetheless struggling to become economically viable again.”

This quote from Liz Farmer’s March 2014 article in Governing Magazine refers to the plight of cities, like Scranton, Pennsylvania and Milwaukee, Wisconsin and others across the nation, facing the effects of population decline, job loss, and high rates of poverty. Vacant properties, brownfields, and other remnants of lost manufacturing industry are common.

Population and job loss, decreased public service capacity, and abandoned, vacant land are issues that are all too familiar to me as a native of Metro Detroit. Through my work with local governments on sustainability issues, I have observed cities that are home to declining urban centers in many areas of the country that face similar challenges. Low-income and minority communities are disproportionately represented in these cities; and these communities are most susceptible to environmental harm, often with little capacity to voice their concerns with decision-makers.

This isn’t always the case though. We’ve seen the effectiveness of integrating environmental justice principles to enhance economic competitiveness in the Regenesis effort to revitalize Spartanburg, SC. Spartanburg’s city and county governments’ partnership with local community groups and leaders demonstrated the key role that local government can play in efforts to address economic development and environmental justice issues.

National Resource Network

And Spartanburg isn’t alone – efforts to increase the economic competitiveness of cities across the country are introducing an opportunity to integrate equity and environmental justice considerations for more sustainable and resilient communities. One such effort is the National Resource Network, recently launched through funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide local leaders in city governments with the expertise and resources necessary to tackle the biggest barriers to increasing economic competitiveness. The Network, a core component of the White House’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2), offers access to experts, technical advice, and information to address the biggest barriers to economic competitiveness.

Through the Network website, you can explore customized tools and advice, such as:

  • The Resource Library – a searchable database of vetted published resources with information about targeted topics for overcoming obstacles faced by distressed cities, including public health, economic development, sustainability, citizen engagement and more.
  • The Technical Assistance Clearinghouse – the country’s first-ever searchable database of more than 100 technical assistance programs offered to local governments and communities from federal, state, and local agencies and non-government organizations.
  • 311 for Cities” – an online assistance resource where local public agency staff in selected cities can connect with a rich a network of private and public sector expertise and receive strategic help on key issues their cities are facing. See if your community is eligible to participate in “311 for Cities.”
  • The Request for Assistance (RFA) portal – a direct technical assistance program designed to help local governments and their partners develop and implement strategies for economic recovery. The Network is now accepting applications from eligible cities to have a team of the Network’s private and public sector experts provide on-the-ground help to implement locally identified projects and initiatives that will deliver economic benefits in the near term. See the FAQs for more details.

To address issues facing cities similar to those in Detroit, finding the resources, knowledge, and expertise to identify and implement solutions presents a seemingly overwhelming challenge. This is especially true for smaller communities with less staff and capacity. As a comprehensive resource for distressed communities, the Network aspires to decrease the size of the challenge and broaden the federal government’s reach to those cities who may not traditionally have the capacity to apply for government assistance and truly transform communities through local action.

HUD Secretary Julián Castro recently said, “knowledge is fuel for progress and innovation. The National Resource Network will be a valuable tool in helping local governments address their challenges and achieve their goals. It will provide on-the-ground technical assistance and human resources that cities can use to build for the future. Working together as partners, I know we’ll expand opportunities for more Americans.”

About the Author: Katherine Takai has been a project manager with the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Sustainable Communities since 2012. In addition to working on the National Resource Network, she supports EPA’s National Brownfield Training Conference, the Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN), and a number of other local government sustainability projects. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Management from Carnegie Mellon University.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Revitalization is Good Medicine

By Stephanie Cwik

Exiting the toll road in Gary, Indiana isn’t something I would have casually done a year ago. With smoke and gas-belching steel mills to the left, and a meandering, sometimes garbage-strewn waterway on the right, it’s not the most welcoming sight to the weary traveler — this Grant Street exit that doesn’t even take you to Grant Street.

But follow the signs to the hospital (if you can find them) and keep your eyes open, because when you start to look around you find that Gary is brimming with potential. The air quality is improving. That waterway is slowly being remediated, foot by foot, with native plants and habitats taking ground faster every day. And the blight from years of disinvestment that greets you when you swing left from some street that is definitely NOT Grant Street into the Horace Mann neighborhood, is on its way out. The City’s only hospital is a major anchor here, and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has determined it’s time to work together with the medical community to improve the quality of life for her residents.

Region 5 EPA has been working closely with Mayor Freeman-Wilson on issues of blight and abandonment, redevelopment, and economic development since 2012. Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities Gary Northside Redevelopment Project, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and EPA have engaged the City and its medical providers in recreating the concept of a Medical District in the Horace Mann neighborhood. Surprisingly, health care has become one of the largest employment sectors in the City, and is growing. With four major health providers within walking distance of each other, the creation of a formal district just made sense.

Initially, the Gary Medical District existed only as a fleeting idea within the City’s planning department but, after great success engaging a growing and broad range of stakeholders at a workshop about Employer-Assisted Housing in February 2014, the Partnership team wanted to do more to formalize the brewing cooperative interest in revitalization. The collaboration included local medical providers and non-profit organizations, many of whom are long-time Gary residents, as well as federal agencies.

Architects from HUD and EPA designed and conducted a four-hour charrette to examine the potential to actually create a medical district in Gary’s west side Horace Mann- Ambridge neighborhood. Crucially, local citizens joined the Mayor, her staff, and the City’s medical providers to examine physical and design changes to improve the quality of life for Horace Mann residents as well as to determine where these multiple agencies might partner to achieve greater results with the community. These early conversations built consensus among local leadership and addressed concerns about the increasing amounts of real estate speculation in Gary that too often derails the local redevelopment process. Discussions about creating a long-lasting district in the neighborhood initially examined the existing and overlapping services already provided, and identified possible efficiencies that could be created through cooperation. During the charrette, conversations about gaps in services, district branding, and how to engage the stakeholders required to implement and sustain this district were examined and shared.

Six assorted teams presented recommendations, as well as identified ways to improve the built environment with sustainable development features such as: bike lanes, sidewalks, green infrastructure, street trees, improved transit connections and wayfinding (I’m looking at you, Grant Street exit), ecological restoration, and single and multi-family housing that address vacant and blighted brownfields. In addition, the teams addressed the role of grocery stores and retail and commercial needs in addressing access to food and encouraging economic stimulus.

Charged with excitement, the Mayor agreed to match any potential planning funding provided by Methodist Hospital to create a plan for a medical district. And although they may not have seen eye-to-eye in the past, these two powerhouses of potential are eagerly entering into a new era of teamwork. The resulting excitement has caused the City and its partners to include the Medical District in two new planning efforts:

  • Gary Public Transit Corporation’s Livable Broadway Plan, which will assess opportunities for improving bus service while enhancing economic development, environment and land use and promoting livability; and
  • Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission’s Livable Centers Initiative, which promotes investment and redevelopment in the places where people already live and work to create an improved working and living environment that is supported by travel choices.

The Partnership team has summarized the results of the charrette, and will reconvene its participants and new planning contacts to discuss how to move toward concrete next steps, funding opportunities, and cultivating these new relationships that will carry the Gary Medical District into the future. Word of mouth is spreading the news of the emerging partnerships, and as the two planning efforts come together, the City stresses that the continued involvement of local residents is key to the long term sustainability of this historic neighborhood.

About the Author: Stephanie Cwik has been working in EPA Region 5’s Superfund – Community and Land Revitalization Branch on sustainable redevelopment issues since 2007, and is now a full time member of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities team housed in City Hall in Gary, Indiana. She has a Master’s Degree in Hydrology from the University of Arizona.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.