Making DC the Most Livable City in the U.S. with District Department of Environment’s Keith Anderson

July 21, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. Today we’re so honored to have with us Keith Anderson. He’s the Director of the District Department of Environment, and this is in Washington, DC. Welcome to Green is Good, Keith. KEITH ANDERSON: John, thank you for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Keith, before we get talking about all the great stuff you’re doing in Washington, DC, with regards to the environment and sustainability, can you please share with our listeners your story, your journey leading up to this great position? How did you even get here and what were some of your inspirations and epiphanies along the way? KEITH ANDERSON: I graduated with the Energy Office here in DC government and a few years later, the Energy Office merged with a few other administrations within DC government and they created the Department of the Environment and I essentially just rose through the ranks, John, and now I’m the Director. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great, and such a great tribute to your mom that she was one of your main inspirations to be doing the important work that you’re doing right now, Keith. And, just for our listeners out there, is you want to follow along on your iPad or your other tablets or your laptop or desktop while we get to enjoy some time with Keith today and want to check to check out the great work he’s doing in Washington, DC, you can go to www.ddoe.dc.gov. Keith, this is one of the most important cities in the world. It’s where our White House is. It’s where our government leaders are and this is a very important role that you have. When was the tipping point in DC for you and your colleagues to decide we gotta make DC green and a sustainable city because we are the shining light that the world is watching? When was that point? KEITH ANDERSON: That’s absolutely correct. That point was a few years ago, when DC was, and it still is, experiencing a tremendous economic boom. I don’t know how many of your listeners have been to DC or haven’t been here in a while, but if you haven’t been here in a while and you come back today, you would not recognize this city. There are neighborhoods where there were once parking lots. There are office buildings where there were once bad neighborhoods, so to speak. This city has experienced a tremendous turnaround in the last five or so years, and we noticed that with this economic development, we have to balance the needs of environmental protection and community equity and so that’s when we realized that we have to make sure this city, as we experience this economic development here, this booming economic development, is a sustainable city, that we do not further cause harm to our environment and that we make sure that the long term residents who have been here for 20 plus years experience or are able to enjoy the new city that we have here today and so that was the tipping point when we said, ‘You know what, we have to put something together to ensure that this is the greenest, healthiest, most livable city for everyone here in Washington, DC.’ JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, that’s so important, Keith. That’s a great point is that it’s not just about growth. It’s about sustainable growth; so, if that’s what you’ve done there in terms of your leadership and that’s what you and your colleagues are trying to accomplish, how do you then define sustainability in Washington, DC? KEITH ANDERSON: Oh, we define it as balancing the needs of environmental protection, economic development, and community equity. That’s how we define sustainability here in DC and so it’s just absolutely important that folks reap the benefit of our tremendous city here in Washington, DC, and not only those who live here, those who come visit and work here as well and it truly takes not only the residents, but the businesses, the visitors to make smart decisions. We want people to take recycling, for instance, not as just the right thing to do but the smart business practice so when the city is growing at the rate that Washington, DC, is, John, we have 1,100 people moving here every month and I think when you look around the country, that’s just unheard of. We have to ensure that the new residents coming in and the old residents that have been here for a while, we have to ensure that our city is sustainable and can sustain that growth. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, you made that decision a couple years back. What were some of the goals you put in place and what’s the progress been to date, Keith? KEITH ANDERSON: We put together the Sustainable DC Plan and for your listeners out there, they can view the plan in its entirety at SustainableDC.org. Again, that’s SustainableDC.org, and in our plan, we have 143 actions that we believe will make DC the most sustainable city in the country, if not the world, by 2032 and what we did, John, is we recognized that there were some inherent challenges in our city that we had to deal with and those challenges consisted of jobs and the economy. We want people to be healthy, we need equity and diversity, and we have to address climate change and environmental factors and so those were some of the challenges that our city faced when we looked at this Sustainable DC Plan and the solutions that we came up with, John, are in seven areas and that consists of the built environment, energy efficiency, food. You’d be surprised that in a city like this, that you’d have neighborhoods where our children or some residents do not have access to healthy food. We call those food deserts and those are some serious issues that probably not only Washington, DC, but every major city in the country faces. We found that nature was one of our solutions, transportation, a very big issue here in the Washington area, how we deal with our waste and how we deal with our water, especially the stormwater runoff here in Washington, DC. It’s a major contributing factor to our rivers and streams that are quite frankly polluted. Currently, for those out there who are familiar with Washington, DC, it’s no secret that the Anacostia is probably one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Unfortunately, over 3 billion gallons of untreated stormwater flows into the Anacostia every year and so these are things that we have to address to ensure that our city is sustainable in the future and for future generations to come. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so honored to have with us today Keith Anderson. He’s the Director of the District Department of Environment. This is in Washington, DC, one of the most important cities in the entire world, and for listeners that want to learn more about the important work that Keith and his colleagues are doing, you can go to SustainableDC.org or to www.ddoe.dc.gov. Keith, talk about now, lay it out, and I’m on your site, SustainableDC.org, now. This is a beautiful site, very simple to understand, very colorful, and it’s very clear but you’ve laid out these seven major initiatives and they’re wonderful and they’re important. Now, what’s the reverse side of this, Keith? How do you then champion and get public participation in your great sustainability goals? KEITH ANDERSON: Well, you know what, John, that is an excellent question. When we first started this movement with Sustainable DC, we reached out to every community group that we could think of because quite frankly, we’ve talked to over 6,000 residents here in the city over the last two years when it comes to Sustainable DC and we planned a meeting one day at the convention center. If you go online, a lot of the goals, the solutions, the challenges, those actually came from our residents. We received, I can’t even remember, John, over 2,000 suggestions from our residents of, first of all, some of the challenges in the city and things that they thought would turn the city around and make it a sustainable city as we grow and that night, we thought we would be lucky if we had 50 people to show up at that community meeting. John, we had over 400 people that one night, that first night, that we wanted to talk about how to make DC a sustainable city so from that night, we’ve had over 125 community meetings. We actually have what we call Sustainable DC Ambassadors. These are people from the community who may be able to reach folks at a deeper level than perhaps someone with a government ID can walk into a community meeting and do and explain to them exactly what sustainability means, how it affects them, and how they can help and that’s just for the residents. It’s going to also take our businesses, John, and we’ve experienced a tremendous amount of help from our businesses because they recognize the importance of sustainability too. Here in the District of Columbia, we have several business improvement districts and they have been tremendously helpful in ensuring that the neighborhoods that they are responsible for put in certain measure to make sure that that neighborhood is sustainable, whether it be recycling programs, whether it be ways to control our stormwater runoff, or just quite frankly, educating the residents, so it takes much more than government. It takes public/private partnerships. It takes educating the residents. It also takes educating those who visit this city. I think in this city, the last I heard, we have over 20 million people who come here every year to visit the nation’s capital and to see the marvelous museums and things that we have here in the National Mall and about the city so it really takes a village, so to speak, John, to make sure that we reach our goal of making DC a sustainable city. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You make some great points, Keith. It can’t just be pedantically the government saying this is how it’s going to be. You’re getting the whole movement and the evolution and the revolution going from the ground up, like you said, from the people’s participation to the business participation and what a great point. You have that many million visitors from around the world every year. Your leadership is so critical on green and sustainability because everybody’s watching. The world is watching. KEITH ANDERSON: That’s right, John, and if we don’t get that level of participation, John, quite frankly, we will fail and we recognized that early on and so it’s been a pleasure to see though, how folks want to be involved, from folks who just moved here three weeks ago to folks who’ve lived here 30 years. Folks recognize the importance of environmental protection. They recognize that climate change is here. It’s not a hoax. It’s not a joke. We’re at the point now where we have to build our cities to be resilient to climate change. Here in Washington, DC, our summers are hotter, our storms are stronger. I never heard of a polar vortex until last winter. It’s something that we experienced. We had one of the toughest winters that I can remember and I’m a native Washingtonian, John. I’ve been here 38 years, so now we have to ensure that not only Washington, DC, but our cities across the country are resilient to climate change so if folks are understanding that and folks are seeing that and folks are waking up and saying whoa, wait a minute, I have to make a difference. My family has to make a difference. My block has to make a difference. My neighborhood has to make a difference. This city has to make a difference and it’s just been delightful to see the level of participation of our residents and our businesses here in the city as we move forward with Sustainable DC. It’s been a wonderful thing to recognize. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, Keith, what we say in business is, ‘What’s measurable is manageable,’ so talk a little bit about where does DC rate in terms of other cities right now, in terms of your progress, in terms of green and sustainability initiatives, and how competitive is it among other city leaders and other department heads that you get to interrelate with nationally and internationally for the biggest green halo and the biggest green kudos for all the great wins that you’re getting every day? KEITH ANDERSON: Right, right. Excellent question and, John, in many ways, the District of Columbia is leading the pack. We have the highest amount of square footage when it comes to green roofs in the country. Keep in mind, DC is only 69 square miles. We’re not that big of a city. Sixty-nine square miles; we have 642,000 residents and counting, but we have the highest amount of green roofs nationwide when it comes to square footage. We have the highest amount of LEED-certified buildings per capita in the country and so in many ways, John, when it comes to green initiatives, we’re leading the pack and another thing that I’m very please with is the way we deal with our stormwater, John. Like I mentioned, stormwater is a major contributing factor to the pollution of our Anacostia River, a river that connects two sides of our great city and pursuant to our new stormwater regulations and our municipal separate storm sewer permit, we have developed a stormwater credit trading system. John, this is the first in the country, if not the world, where here in the District of Columbia, for new developments that disturb more than 5,000 square feet of land, developers have to adhere to certain stormwater regulations and part of that means they have to retain up to a 1.2-inch storm on the property so that’s normally water that would just go down the drain and go to our wastewater treatment facility and in many cases during certain storms, those sewer lines overflow and this is when you get the combined sewer overflows into our rivers and tributaries and so with the stormwater regulations in place, developers have to at least meet up to half of the 1.2-inch requirement and then they can purchase credits for the other half. They have to do 0.6, but there are some developers who go above and beyond of duty and they may create one point seven inches of retention on site and they can sell that 0.5 on the open market and so it’s a wonderful system. It’s just got off the ground. It’s moving and I’m very proud of the team here at DDOE for creating this stormwater credit trading system. John, the world is looking at it. The world is looking at it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, others are going to follow it. Keith, we’re down to three minutes or so, unfortunately. You’re the head of this very important Department of the Environment in DC. How does it interrelate with the mayor’s office and with other government agencies and how much latitude are you given to continue to lead in this very important city where all eyes are on around the world? KEITH ANDERSON: The good news here, John, is that The Sustainable DC Plan is an umbrella and it actually touches almost every agency in DC government from the Department of Parks and Rec to our Department of Public Works to our Department of Transportation. Every director, every agency has a role to play in making our city sustainable and if your listeners would go to our website, SustainableDC.org, you will see the 143 actions and then you will also see what agencies are responsible for certain actions in that plan and you will notice that it affects almost every agency in DC government so we all have a role to play. As a matter of fact, the mayor has commissioned a green cabinet that is made up of 27 other directors. my colleagues, to keep us accountable to ensure that we’re moving forward with accomplishing these actions in the plan. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it’s become really part of the culture and the DNA of Washington, DC, to make it a more green and sustainability driven city across all your agencies. KEITH ANDERSON: Absolutely. It has. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Awesome. Well, that’s great and Keith, I just want to say thank you again for coming on Green is Good today. I want to share with our listeners two ways to find out more of the important work Keith Anderson and his team are doing in DC. Go to www.ddoe.dc.gov or SustainableDC.org. They’re beautiful websites. You’ll learn more. You’ll get inspired and we can do more to save the planet. Thank you, Keith, for being an inspiring sustainable leader. You are truly living proof that green is good. KEITH ANDERSON: Every day. Thank you.