D.C. mayor planning environmental initiative

By Tim Craig, Washington Post, 12 December 2012

Hoping to jump-start his legislative agenda while boosting his standing with city progressives, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is undertaking an environmental initiative he thinks will one day make the city a national model for clean energy, urban farming, green space and car-free transportation options.

Gray (D), who is heading into his second year as mayor, said he formed his “Sustainable D.C.” initiative to strengthen city efforts to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and lay the foundation for proposals that would revitalize an administration criticized for lack of vision.

Although the details won’t be finalized until spring, the plan could include more solar panels on government buildings, gardens in vacant city lots, new walking and biking trails, storm water retention ponds and turning waste into fuel.

“To lead, we must be bold,” Gray said at a speech recently. “This isn’t about incremental improvement. It’s about leaping beyond the competition.”

But in a city where study groups and comprehensive plans are routine and follow-through less frequent, some activists are skeptical Gray’s initiative will have a substantial impact.

Gwyn Jones, chair of the Washington chapter of the Sierra Club, said the “jury is still out” as to whether the initiative will result in lasting change.

“The devil is in the implementation,” said Jones, noting the 2000 Anacostia Waterfront Initiative has not been fully implemented. “But they have good people involved who seem to really want to make a difference, so our approach is, ‘Let’s play and see what we can get.’ ”

Gray’s proposal comes as many big-city mayors are competing over who can be the greenest. With the federal government and many state legislatures gridlocked over climate change, cities have been on the front lines with new environmental initiatives.

Yet Gray is putting his own touch on the concept. Perhaps better than any other policy effort to date, his efforts highlight his 2010 campaign pledge to seek community input in government decisions.

Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was often criticized for being isolated in his decision-making, but Gray has begun seeking consensus from residents and experts before formally unveiling his plan. And despite early concerns over Gray’s go-slow management style, advocates say his approach makes them feel more connected to the government.

In September, the city launched a Web site where residents could provide suggestions for what should be in the plan.

On Nov. 29, to kick off the second phase of the project, Gray gathered residents and experts to brainstorm, breaking up 400 people into nine working groups dealing with the environment, climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water and green economy. The groups are expected to report in late February so the administration can produce a draft plan by April.

“It’s got a lot of people energized,” said Michael Barrette, who works at the Environmental Protection Agency but also helps manage the Capitol Hill Energy Co-Op. “The mayor seems to be serious about getting citizen volunteer engagement, so we are really optimistic.”