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DC Residential Front Yards Seen Not Only as Green Gems but Also Essential for Alleviating Pollution

Accompanying images can be viewed in the September 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

Did you know you can get rebates for “greening” your yard? (30 InTowner Readers were interviewed and only one knew about this program); do you wonder why temperatures are so much higher in DC than Warrenton, Virginia? (For example at 4:30 am on July 11, 2016 it was 60 degrees in Warrenton while at the same time it was 73 degrees in DC.)

DC is blessed with thousands of little front yards and tree box squares. They could become part of DC’s environmental green plans. Trees, shrubs, flowers and lawns, and landscape features such as paths, decks, patios, driveways, walls, fences and the like often significantly contribute to the character of the neighborhood. Front yards are private property — even on L’Enfant plan streets where they are technically not, property owners have legal exclusive use. Thus the design of the landscaping is largely under the control of the property owner.

Among other advantages to transforming front yards and sidewalk squares into eco-friendly gems are increasing water flow resulting in less rainfall flowing to the drain system; lowering city outdoor temperatures (on July 8th at 6 am it was 9 degrees cooler in Warrenton, Virginia than in DC); greatly helps with the eradication of trash, weeds and even rats; attracts birds, butterflies and bees., all of which are highly desirable.

How can resident accomplish these desirable outcomes? There are no DC regulations involving what residents can do with their front yards. At this point, they could cement or pave over completely. Neighbors do not necessarily advocate for new regulations, but would like to create an environmentally friendly culture.

Good examples can be seen from Columbia Heights to Dupont Circle to Mt. Pleasant and Adams Morgan and east to North Capitol and throughout Shaw, such as in the lovely garden with lilies at 1331 Park Road; the beautiful wisteria 1001 Otis Place; the landscaping that sets off the new Morton Mews condo complex at the northeast corner of Morton Street and Sherman Avenue; the pretty and well-tended front yard at 1200 V Street; the striking trumpet vines on the rear deck of 1003 Otis Place which can be seen from the street; the well-kept front yard with garden sprays at 3469 11th Street; the beautiful hostas at the corner of 11th Street and Otis Place; the stunning sunflowers at 3463-10th Street; and the Imperial House condominium’s beautifully maintained from and side spaces at 1601-18th Street, to name just a few of the countless wonderful examples all over.

Unfortunately, there are bad examples, four of which stand out: the Raymond Apartments at 3511 11th Street with its entire front yard cemented; the condoinium association near Park Road and 13th Street and another near Sherman Avenue which have cemented over their entire front yards; the row house on Otis Place where instead of landscaping the entire front yard is covered with slate.

Historic Preservation

Although the DC Historic Preservation Review Board has no direct control over residential front yards, the Office of Planing’s Historic Preservation Office has promulgated landscaping guidelines which remind residents of the value of attractive front and side yards and of how they enhance the overall streetscape:

“Trees, shrubs, flowers and lawns, and landscape features such as paths, decks, patios, driveways, walls, fences and the like often significantly contribute to the character of a[n] historic building and its neighborhood. . . . Traditionally, landscaping, landscape features, and secondary buildings were designed as part of an ensemble along with the main building. This was particularly true of large free-standing residential buildings on large lots. Sometimes the landscape and its features were used to enhance a particular view to or from the main building, or to screen the main building from view. . . . During the first half of the nineteenth century, landscape commonly used native flowers, shrubs and ornamental trees. The plantings were located to add depth to views to and from the main building. When possible, boundary lines were thickly planted to separate a property from its neighbors. . . .

“The design of front yards is one of the most important character-defining features of historic buildings, particularly free-standing residential buildings and row houses.”

Why Create “Eco-Gem” Front Yards?

How can residents be persuaded to refocus on the front yards and sidewalk tree boxes to make them “eco gems” contributing to their block, neighborhood and the entire city?

Julia Robey Christian, Public Information Officer at the DC Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE), offers the following advice:

“It’s important for District residents to recognize that while paving their personal home spaces with impervious materials might be easier in terms of maintenance, it can actually harm the overall quality of the environment here in the District. DOEE’s RiverSmart programs educate homeowners about the importance of these green areas for both human health and the health and wellbeing of our native plants and wildlife. RiverSmart programs offer incentives for residents to improve their landscapes through rebates and rewards, making it easier for residents and communities to beautify yards while helping to improve the District’s natural environment.”

Instructive is the information circulated by the non-profit Casey Trees which is hugely instrumental in assisting property owners and DC’s urban landscape office in maintaining and greatly adding to the tree canopy:

“At Casey Trees we know it’s helpful for people to understand how planting a tree on their property fits into the larger picture of growing the urban forest. The story of DC’s trees extends back to the 1800s, when tens of thousands of trees were planted. At that time the District’s tree canopy spanned much of the city, a feat which earned the nation’s capital its nickname, the ‘City of Trees.’ But DC’s tree cover soon was in decline. By 2011 DC’s canopy dropped to just over 35 percent.

“Casey Trees has set a goal of restoring DC’s tree canopy, and we’re well on our way to attaining it. By planting trees, educating thousands of residents about the importance of our urban tree canopy, and developing a network of trained volunteers and advocates who are ready to stand up for trees, we’re making progress year after year. . . .”

The “RiverSmart” Program

Another way to persuade residents is to inform them of DOEE’s RiverSmart programs. Of the 30 homeowners interviewed in preparation for this article, only one was aware of this program — and she is a real estate agent.

RiverSmart’s primary focus is on reducing storm water runoff that harms the District’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Its programs provide financial incentives to help District property owners install green infrastructure such as rain barrels, green roofs, rain gardens, permeable pavement, shade trees, and more. These practices allow rainwater to stay on site and soak into the ground, where natural processes help remove pollutants.

No matter how large or small one’s green infrastructure project might be, there are opportunities for residents. Some programs offer site evaluations and up-front funding, while others provide rebates or discounts.

Examples include rebates up to $100 to individuals who purchase and plant trees on private residential or commercial property; rebates of $2 per gallon for rain barrels, with a maximum rebate of $1,000; rebates up to $1.25 per square foot of impervious surface treated with landscaping features and rain gardens, with a maximum rebate of $1,200.

There are also incentives to install green infrastructure for homes, communities, and rooftops; property owners. Owners can wait for a storm water audit through RiverSmart Homes or hire their own contractor.

Further, the RiverSmart Communities program offers incentives for condominiums, co-ops, rental apartment buildings, locally-owned businesses, and houses of worship seeking to reduce the amount of storm water pollution draining away from those properties. Included are financial and technical assistance for property owners to install ameliorating features such as rain gardens, BayScaping, pervious pavement, and rain cisterns.

Other Ideas

Predictions are for future extreme rains and with DC’s continuing urbanization and accelerating diminution of its ecosystems, there are numerous ideas being discussed such as re-thinking sidewalks and considering the benefits of utilizing stones.

For example, new sidewalks and replacement sidewalks could be made permeable. One idea is to use duckboards which are slightly elevated wooden slats. These suppresses weeds but also allow water to flow through. Grass paths might be another option; even gravel sidewalks allow water flow.

As for considering the use of stones, some may see stones these as a nuisance but they can be excellent in gardening as they help the soil to drain. Also, they cool the soil’s surface by absorbing the sun’s heat and help warm the soil at night; stone mulching is catching on with gardeners.

*Larry Ray, an attorney and resident of Columbia Heights, is a Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law and Senior Trainer with the American Management Association. He is a former multi-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in both Dupont Circle and later in Columbia Heights and has also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA).

 Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.