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When Access to Transportation Impacts Your Potential!

I grew up in Selma, Alabama, which is a small town in the deep south, where the options for public transportation were walking and taking a cab. While people rode bikes, they weren’t used to commute but more for little kids to visit their friends around the neighborhood. Growing up I considered having a car as a luxury item that was far beyond the reach of my household. I reflect now, as an adult, and realize the immense impact that growing up without a car in my household had on the opportunities that I could pursue.

For background, my grandmother raised a lot of her grandchildren and we were always dependent on another family member or friend to take us to places such as church, the grocery story, or special occasions. We all walked to school. I walked to my elementary, middle, and high school. All of these were nearly a mile or more away through a variety of neighborhoods. I can vividly recall during my elementary and middle school years jumping across or walking under trains when they obstructed our path home. Dangerous, right? But in our naivety we didn’t want to wait thirty or more minutes for the train to move.

Our lack of viable transportation options impacted all of our decisions. In third grade, I scored highly on an achievement test and was labeled as gifted. I was presented the opportunity to be a part of the gifted program, but there was one immediate challenge, the school that hosted the gifted program was a few miles away and I didn’t have a way to get there. As great as the opportunity was, we had to say no. I’ll never know what other opportunities this might have led to.

Other times, I felt the impacts of a lack of transportation. Around the age of 10, I started piano lessons ; however, I soon had to quit because  paying cab fees or gas money for someone to take me combined with the costs of the lesson became too much for my grandmother to bear. In high school, I got my first job at a local restaurant. I took a cab to and from work every day but when I realized that the hours that I was assigned barely compensated for the cab fare, I quit the job. Anything that I had to do solo was a burden because my transportation options were so limited.

Not until high school did I start overloading my schedule with extracurricular activities because I could finagle a ride from classmates who had cars or those who had parents who were gracious enough to give me a ride. Of course by that time, there were other things that I could not participate in because the foundation had not been set at an early age such as dance, band, and some sports.

Unfortunately, Selma has not changed regarding transportation access. It makes me think of all of the young kids who do not participate simply because they don’t have a ride to tee-ball, softball, football, band practice, or whatever their hearts desire. This lack of transportation leads to new generations of missed opportunities and access to programs that could lead them to a different future. In a place where the high school dropout and crime rate is high, I wonder if access to transportation could be one factor in changing that paradigm.

At Nspiregreen, I’m the environmental principal, but this is what I love about the work we do. We help build and expand transportation systems to improve access and mobility for all people. Through our work, I want to make sure that no one misses an opportunity simply because they did not have a ride.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.

 

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Environmental Impacts: Know Better, Do Better

Dear Blog,
I have a confession to make…I was once an environmental offender.

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Not in an illegal sense and I was never fined for my actions, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have scolded tiny Christine. I never fully connected the dots until I started researching pollutant loads and working on the District’s TMDL Plan.

Growing up in Louisiana, especially with a bayou in my backyard, I wish I would have known more about the functions of a bayou’s ecosystem and how to minimize our impacts. I used to leave our dog’s poop on the ground, help wash our car in the driveway, put grass clippings and leaves in the storm drain, and other environmental offenses that I was not aware of at the time.

Along the banks of the bayou, where I played with my friends, there were huge pipes that stuck out of the earth that were almost 3 feet tall. My friends and I used them as hurdles as we ran along, playing pretend games of pirates or cops and robbers. I later learned they were outfall pipes that allow stormwater and even raw sewage to go into the bayou during heavy rain events.

Here are some key topics that kids and families can understand through easy graphics and outreach:

  1. Pet Waste: Growing up we had a dog, Ralph, a lab mix that we walked around the neighborhood and in the backyard. I hated picking up his poop- it was gross, it smelled bad, and attracted bugs. I would leave it in the yards, in the very yard I ran in, or if I had to pick it up I used a shovel to fling it into the bushes. Out of sight, out of mind, right? WRONG, tiny Christine.
    1. Why it matters: Aside from being really gross to step in, pet waste contains fecal coliform bacteria- one of the worst environmental offenders and most prevalent polluters of our waterways. Just one gram of dog poop contains over 13 million strains of fecal bacteria. Not only does it make waterways unsafe, it helps in acidifying the water, and robs it of valuable oxygen for the underwater ecosystem. Ever seen a fish survive in a tank without an air pump or regularly changed water? Me either!
    2. What you can do: Pick up that poop. Every time. Don’t just give those that leave the poop a dirty look, tell them about it! Educate your fellow neighbors and keep your open spaces clean.
  2. Organic Material: Grass clippings, fall leaves and pine needles, sediment. In suburbia, people love their lawns. They spend painstaking time carefully cultivating the perfect green carpet. It felt like my dad and our neighbor had an informal competition for who had the best patch of grass. This maintenance involved much grass mowing and raking of leaves by your disgruntled children- for zero allowance, I might add. But no matter the care you take to clean up afterwards, inevitably grass clippings and piles of leaves make their way into the storm drain, or if you are a lazy, angst-y teenager that doesn’t want to carry the wheelbarrow back to the compost pile, maybe you just dump it directly into the storm drain (sorry, bayou).
    1. Why it matters? Green materials like grass clippings carry nitrates into the waterways which sparks a process called “eutrophication” which basically causes plant life and algae to grow and choke off the animal life by absorbing all of the oxygen in waterbodies or waterways.
    2. What you can do: Compost it! Bag it and leave it for the recycling program! Your local state or town might just have a composting program that you can help contribute to. Also- monitor those lazy teenagers!
  3. Fertilizer and Pesticides: Similar to the impacts of grass clippings, fertilizing the lawn and applying pesticides are also harmful for waterways.
    1. Why it matters: The nutrient group known as NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium) can also cause eutrophication.
    2. What you can do: Follow state or local guidelines for fertilizer use, or, my preference- abandon the lawn completely! Planting your lawn more densely with beds of native plants makes for a more effective use of water (they don’t need it as often) and require less fertilization and reliance on pesticides because they are specifically tailored to your climate. Or, and the best option in my opinion, grow food not lawns! Agricultural land is quickly disappearing and with it, biodiversity of our fruits and vegetables. You can use your yard to grow food for you, your family, and neighbors and delight in the delicious varieties you won’t find in the grocery store. Just get your soil tested to be sure it is contaminant-free!
  4. Heavy Metals, Oils, Grease, and Surfactants: In residential areas, we have driveways and in those driveways we have cars, and when those cars get dirty, we wash them in our driveways, or on the streets. I bet you can just hear the 80’s hair metal and flop of sudsy sponges on the windows.
    1. Why it matters: Sure, car washing gets the sediment and dust off of your car, but the water carries that sediment along with oils from the car and the cleaning chemicals (called surfactants) into storm drains that then flow into waterways. Also, it’s just a waste of water.
    2. What you can do: Official car washing businesses have special requirements for filtration and retention of the soapy, oily, and sediment-laden water. Turn on Rose Royce’s “Car Wash” and go support those businesses.

I hope this helped enlighten a few of you. Educating each other and modeling better behaviors for our younger generations can help improve behaviors and waterways at the same time. If you need some help in explaining these or any other environmental issues you know who to call. We are relying on you-reader of this blog- now that you know better, do better. Pass it on!

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Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 

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The Intersection between Highways and Social Justice

As the result of well publicized documentation of police brutality against young African-Americans in the United States, social activists across the country have recently taken to major highways and interstates and blocked these roads in acts of non-violent civil disobedience to protest the treatment of their fellow citizens, bringing traffic to a standstill. Protesters in San Francisco, Atlanta, and St. Paul, MN, all used these roads that at one point erased the established communities that existing in the right-of-way long before the term “Interstate” was part of the national lexicon.

It can be argued that one of the single most destructive federal policy decisions that negatively impacted urban cities in the United States was the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. With the enactment of this legislation meant to expedite cross-country travel and commerce, federal transportation planners began to seek avenues and thoroughfares that bisected and subdivided the civics cores of numerous metropolitan cities as the controlled-access highways left indelible marks on the urban landscape.

The decision making process, in regards to where the Interstate System would travel through, acted as a catalyst for suburban growth and eventually facilitated “White Flight.” The alignments and right-of-ways of the interstate system were destructive in their action through the razing of city blocks and the erasure of neighborhoods from their physical location to accommodate the space needed to allow for multi-lane highways to snake through the urban fabric, as no attention was paid to local interests and the significant impact that the of construction the freeway caused.

This construction displaced residents, destroyed the physical form of neighborhoods, and scarred (both physically and psychically) our cities for decades to come. “The desire of the car owner to take his car wherever he went no matter what the social cost drove the interstate highway system, with all the force and lethal effect of a dagger, into the heart of the American City.” (Carl Solberg 1973)

As time progressed, new highways were constructed, as homes were razed and neighborhoods disappeared to create space for the highway’s footprint, residents began to band together to counteract the top-down planning efforts of government agencies and entities that were focused on giving the motor vehicle primacy in the urban transportation network. Thus began the era of the “Freeway Revolt.”

Examples of citizens revolting against the destructive force of highway alignments and right-of-ways:

Wallace, Idaho, (pop. 790) sought National Register of Historic Places recognition for the majority of its Downtown as a historic district. This classification resulted in the Federal Highway Administration to reroute its planned level-grade alignment of Interstate 90 through an elevated viaduct, because a large majority of the buildings in Downtown Wallace gained National Historic Place status, thus legally blocking any attempts to raze the community for the freeway.

Interstate 95 (I-95) runs the entire length of the East Coast of the United States, some 1920 miles, from Florida to Maine. It is the longest North-South Interstate in the United States. But when plans were announced to have the alignment of I-95 to bisect the Nation’s Capital, opposition to these plans began to foment. After significant opposition from all segments of Washington society with a rally cry of “White man’s roads through black men’s homes,” the plans to take I-95’s alignment through Washington were scrapped, and the alignment was routed around Interstate 495, the Capital Beltway, thus making I-95 non-contiguous as a result of public opposition.

In recognition of the negative impact that urban interstates have burdened cities with, policy shifts by municipal leaders across the globe began to acknowledge the positive impact that removal of freeways could have on their communities.

In Seoul, South Korea, then-Mayoral Candidate Lee Myung-bak ran on a platform to “daylight” the Cheonggyecheon is a 4-mile creek that had been covered to allow for the construction of a major arterial highway through the center of Seoul. The removal of the roadway created a tabula rasa for landscape designers to create a three-mile urban park that has increased local biodiversity and incited economic development.

In San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake several damaged State Route 480, also known as the Embarcadero Freeway. The alignment ran along the Bay front of San Francisco, acting a visual barrier between the city and the waterfront. As a result of damaged sustained during the earthquake, plans by Caltrans to rebuild the freeway were met by opposition by city residents and officials. Then-Mayor Art Agnos staunchly supported the complete removal of the Embarcadero, eventually being ousted from power when his political coalition shifted allegiance, but twenty years later the Port of San Francisco honored him due to his unwaivering support of the Embarcadero demolition with a monument stated “This pedestrian pier commemorates the achievement of Mayor Agnos in leaving our city better and stronger than he found it.”

By facilitating the removal of highway infrastructure in the urban core, communities can become reconnected to waterfronts, parks, and other physical space that people were once cut off from, as the highways themselves created physical barriers to urban connectivity. In light of the results of removal of freeways and interstates from the urban core, there is an emerging amount of empirical evidence and real estate statistics that show improvements in property values of real estate near areas benefitting from the removal of highway alignments and road infrastructure. The long lasting effects of the highways across the United States will reverberate for years, but the forward-thinking policy views of bold leaders can seek to begin the process to reverse the negative impacts that freeways have caused in our urban communities.

The direct social action by modern day social activists in utilizing the Interstate as a tool of protest, in light of the historical inequities brought upon the communities where the right-of-way of the roads were located, almost brings full circle the conversation about the impact of highways have had on the social fabric of the urban cores of our major cities.

David Simon, MCP, is a Community Planner who has worked in diverse communities across the United States ranging from the Rust Belt to Appalachia,  from communities metropolitan to rural, with municipal planning agencies and non-profit neighborhood Community Development Corporations. Returning to the DC Metro area where he grew up, after 15 years working and going to school in the Midwest, he is impressed at the growth and development that the Region has accomplished. As the newest team member of Nspiregreen, he seeks to make an impact in the communities that our team works with, through proactive community engagement, while utilizing his passion for urban environments and community development.





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