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Building a Sustainable Bottom Line from the Bottom Up

By Washington (DC) Mayor Vincent C. Gray
March 5, 2012

Some of the issues I faced when I took office just over a year ago will sound familiar to other mayors: unacceptable rates of unemployment and crime, a severely constrained budget, an unsettling future financial picture and a school system in need of ongoing reform and attention. More unique to the District was—and still is—the fact that I represent more than 617,000 Americans who have no vote in Congress and who lack the ability to spend their own locally raised tax dollars absent congressional approval.

Within six months of taking office, however, I realized there was another equally pressing issue that needed urgent attention—the long-term environmental sustainability of our city. Discussions at last summer’s USCM meeting in Baltimore helped bring this realization into focus.

In July 2011, I committed to develop a strategy for the long-term sustainability of our city, and to do so from the perspective of the “triple bottom line”—the nexus of environment, economy, and equitability. The fact is, we will not reach our greatest potential as a city unless we create the green and healthy environment that brings people together, builds civic pride, and inspires investment in our city. We’re calling the strategy Sustainable DC—and we’re building it in close partnership with a wide array of District residents.

Crucial to this effort is enabling growth of a green economic sector in our city that will design, engineer, build, and maintain our buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces in ways that benefit all our residents. We must provide educational and workforce opportunities to everyone—particularly populations and neighborhoods historically left behind. We must understand that our air, water, and land are precious resources that bind all residents, businesses and institutions together—and our ability to preserve and protect those resources is critical to the entire city’s future.

I believe this is true for all of our cities.

In the District, we are approaching developing this sustainability strategy from many angles. We’re taking the time to garner feedback and suggestions from residents across our city. Last fall, we launched “Start in September,” an intensive community-outreach campaign that included a website ( with crowdsourcing capabilities as well as more than 50 community discussions and other events. Through this process, 2,500 people shared their vision for a more sustainable DC, offering recommendations on how best to make us the greenest, healthiest, most livable city in the country.

In November, we kicked off targeted working groups that have meet bimonthly to develop recommended visions, goals and actions across nine critical areas—Built Environment, Climate, Energy, Food, Green Economy, Nature, Transportation, Waste, and Water. The kick-off event was attended by 450 people, and we have had more than 1,600 people involved in person or online in the working-group discussions.

We are focusing on the integration of economic development and community equity into this green vision for the future. Each of our working groups has been asked to focus on the interrelationships between their areas and job and business growth as well as strengthening opportunities for our residents from all walks of life. We are also convening community conversations focused on equity-related topics such as health, community engagement, and education that cut across multiple areas.

In April I will release a Sustainable DC vision document drawing on all this information, and we will spend the next six months completing a detailed implementation plan.

In addition to reaching out to residents, we are identifying and forging strong partnerships across the city. In January, representatives from 50 international embassies and diplomatic institutions in the District signed a pledge to help improve their environmental performance. In February, presidents of nine universities located in the District signed a pledge to continue their leadership as developers of green campuses and to apply their intellectual capital to our citywide sustainability efforts.

As we develop our sustainability plan, we are implementing some programs now that exemplify our triple-bottom-line approach. Capital Bikeshare is a prime example. This largest-in-the-nation bicycle'sharing program is fast approaching its two millionth trip, moving people around our city quickly and cleanly while allowing them to get a little exercise at the same time. With a burgeoning population, many of the District’s new and existing residents now realize that Capital Bikeshare is yet another reason to drop the expense and stress of owning a car. Capital Bikeshare is fun and visible, but it is also a path to healthier residents with more money in their pockets—and we continue to expand it across the District. Another sustainability initiative we are already implementing is replacing all of our public street and alley lights with 30,000 LED lights—which will pay for themselves with energy-cost savings.

Sustainable practices aren’t just about being green; they are critical to our effort to improve the quality of life and maximize economic growth. Furthermore, sustainability will help us compete in an increasingly global marketplace for business, talent and investment.

We invite you to track our progress on sustainability and to consider these themes and the benefits to be gained from collaborative, thoughtful planning to make sustainability a key element in growth and development. After all, the District is just one city. The same air, water and land that binds my residents together binds us all together across these United States…and across the world.

For more information, send e-mail to Mayor Gray at