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Urban Jewels by Ben Grumbles

(Original available here)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Author: Ben Grumbles

Urban water sustainability includes conserving natural assets but also discovering (and re-discovering) hidden treasures like metro/suburban parks, mini-refuges, river walks, and wetlands often buried deep within compact cityscapes rather than rural landscapes. Recent meetings and collaborations point to progress in protecting and restoring these gems so vital to sustainable urbanization and access to America’s great outdoors.

An earlier Pipeline column described the need for “Water Parknerships” and the work of diverse organizations to advance green infrastructure, smarter regulation of stormwater, and expanded use of recycled water. There’s a growing number of city sustainability officers and mayors joining forces with environmental planners and developers to grow the green in cities and suburbs and points in between. For example: the Green Roofs for Healthy Cities Alliance, which works throughout North America to boost green roofs, living walls, and livable landscapes in urban settings. There’s also the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, launched two years ago, that’s doing good work raising awareness about the need for action and access to clean and healthy waterways and adding pilot communities along the way to build environmental and economic bridges.

But here’s one of the most exciting recent developments: A May 14, 2013 letter and budding partnership among 8 national conservation organizations to encourage Secretary Jewell to make urban environmentalism and access to parks and wildlife in metropolitan areas defining priorities of her term as the nation’s 51st Secretary of Interior. I’m proud to say the U.S. Water Alliance is one of those organizations; the other 7 who are national leaders in conservation and collaboration with the Department of Interior and who helped spearhead the letter writing effort: theNational Recreation and Park Association, the City Parks Alliance , the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and the Conservation Fund.

Why request a meeting with Secretary Sally Jewell?

As Secretary of the Interior, Jewell leads an agency with more than 70,000 employees. Interior serves as steward for approximately 20 percent of the nation’s lands, including national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other public lands; oversees the responsible development of conventional and renewable energy supplies on public lands and waters; is the largest supplier and manager of water in the 17 Western states; and upholds trust responsibilities to the 566 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. Prior to her confirmation, Jewell served in the private sector, most recently as President and Chief Executive Officer of Recreation Equipment, Inc. (REI). Before joining REI, Jewell spent 19 years as a commercial banker. Trained as a petroleum engineer, Jewell started her career with Mobil Oil Corp. in the oil and gas fields of Oklahoma and the exploration and production office in Denver, Colo.

The bottomline: She’s uniquely qualified and positioned to help other agencies, organizations, and individuals grow the urban conservation and metro green space movement like never before.

Here’s some of my favorite language in the letter to the Secretary from what I like to call the Urban Green Gang of 8:

“It has taken our country over two hundred years to create the cities and suburbs we have today. Moving forward and addressing this infrastructure backlog and challenges like climate change and stormwater pollution will require a new approach to rebuilding our cities—a new ethic that weaves the built and natural environments into a more symbiotic system. This approach must better integrate green infrastructure—the parks, trails, streams, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, forests, and greenspaces—with the buildings, homes, roads, transportation and sewage systems that now need major upgrades. Simultaneously, it requires multiple stakeholders across sectors working in partnership.”

I also like our letter’s reference to specific strategies:

“The tools for rehabilitating 21st century communities are numerous. They include—

  • Revitalizing urban parks and streams that provide places for children and adults alike to play and connect with the great outdoors, and make communities safer
  • Creating greener playgrounds, properties and streets to conserve water and manage stormwater
  • Planting more trees and restoring urban forests that provide critical habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife while addressing urban heat islands
  • Landscaping for wildlife where people live, work, learn, play and worship
  • Restoring wetlands that contain storm surge and provide critical wildlife habitat
  • Building riverwalks that connect residents to trails and close-to-home nature and parks and help ameliorate flood damage.”

Water touches on all of the tools, either directly or indirectly, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. What is surprising, however, is the convergence of interests to help a major new player lend a hand and wield a megaphone for a very good and timely cause.

The in-person meeting with Secretary Jewell on June 18 was surprising, as well, but all in very good ways. It was intimate, candid, and lengthy. Each of the 8 organizations had a single representative and Secretary Jewell had an impressive array of the Department’s leaders with her, including Deputy Secretary David Hayes, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, National Park Service Deputy Director of Operations Margaret O’Dell, and Lisa Pelstring, Advisor, Urban Environmental Issues and the Anacostia River.

Secretary Jewell underscored her strong support for conserving our natural assets, urban as well as rural, and to following through on key components of America’s Great Outdoors even as we all face enormous budgetary pressures and fiscal constraints. She embraced the effort to find new partners and opportunities in the urban arena. She described her emphasis on reaching out to other Cabinet Members and federal agencies to partner on initiatives, such as the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. There was specific discussion about an upcoming report on urban opportunities under review by the Interior Department, the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the challenges it faces, and the opportunities to connect with other federal agencies on green infrastructure, large and small, riverbasin-wide and locally-focused, including EPA and USDA. We all left the meeting impressed, optimistic, and committed to following through on various ideas for further partnership.

As the meeting broke up, we continued to linger in the Secretary’s office, sharing with her and her staff examples of public and private sector leadership, in the East as well as the West.

Some of my favorite examples: Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Water Commissioner (and Vice Chair of the U.S. Water Alliance) Howard Neukrug, who are winning widespread support for Philadelphia’s “Green City, Clean Waters” program. Kevin Shafer, Director of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Chair of the Alliance’s Urban Water Sustainability Council, who is continuing to advance the award-winning “Greenseams” program to reduce pollution and improve watershed health. Bill Dickinson, Board Member of Alexandria Renew Enterprises and former Chairman of Northern Virginia’s Regional Park Authority, who is advocating for more linkages between water, parks, and people and briefing Congressional, Executive Branch, and NGO officials on the power of special purpose districts, a potential lynchpin in the effort to manage land for specific, water-based objectives.

The May 14 letter and June 18 meeting could lead to some great new partnerships. Stay tuned and keep thinking about ways to link land and water and the various agencies, programs, and people committed to sustaining nature’s jewels.

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