Science Wednesday: Durham’s Journey to Sustainability

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

By Jing Zhang

Each time I visit downtown Durham, North Carolina, I am pleasantly surprised and impressed by the improvements and renovations. Areas such as the American Tobacco Campus have successfully incorporated historic buildings and commercial space with modern architecture and design, winning it industry awards including Best Mixed Use Development, Best Renovated Commercial Property, and Best Redevelopment Project.

Durham isn’t stopping there. Through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, the city is working with EPA, the US Department of Transportation (DOT), and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to create a more sustainable community.

The partnership has adopted six “livability principles” that they wish to achieve:

  1. providing more transportation options,
  2. promoting affordable housing,
  3. improving economic competitiveness,
  4. supporting existing communities,
  5. coordinating federal policies and investment
  6. enhancing the value of neighborhoods and communities

Guided by these principles, EPA scientists are working with community leaders to support the city’s needs and goals. As outlined in their strategic plan, Durham’s goals include reducing neighborhood energy use through conservation and efficiency, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and increasing the percentage of solid waste diverted to recycling.

EPA is developing tools and strategies to support community leaders in evaluating the current state of the community, making decisions to address areas of concern, and measuring progress made over time.

The EnviroAtlas is a web-based tool that maps natural resources. Using the Urban Atlas, a finer-resolution component of the National Atlas, community leaders can evaluate the distribution and function of resources such as trees, which provide numerous benefits like filtering air, providing shade, and storing rainwater. Decision makers can also evaluate the trade-offs and benefits associated with alternative management decisions by mapping different “layers” of data to assess the environment under future conditions such as population growth, resource depletion, and climate change.

Durham will be the first community to implement and use EPA’s new tools and strategies. According to project leaders Rochelle Araujo and Melissa McCullough, “The Durham pilot project presents an exciting opportunity for EPA to demonstrate that, with the right information and forethought, environmental decisions can cascade across the community in the form of health and economic benefits. Using state of the art science, EPA can provide communities with support tools and strategies so that diverse community groups can work effectively in concert for sustainability.”

About the author: Jing Zhang is a student services contractor with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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