A pilot project to enable my adopted hometown to factor ecosystem capital into weighing decisions is rooted in place making efforts more than forty years ago.
Long before it was named the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA,) the EPA’s research center called Durham, North Carolina home, settling into a downtown office building in the fall of 1967. At the time it was part of the Public Health Service which had begun investigating water pollution back in 1913.
As investigators unpacked boxes in Durham, I was on my first airplane flight, an overseas-bound Boing 707, the beginning of a two and a half year interruption to college. “The Letter” by the Box Tops was #1 but my “lonely days” had just begun.
Four months later, Americans were stunned, first by the Tet Offensive, followed a few months later by the My Lai Massacre and then the assassinations of civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King and Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.
By the time I re-enrolled again in college I was a very different person and much more seasoned than most 21-year-olds. Within the year the EPA was born and given an activist persona by its first director, William Ruckelshaus who served under two Republican Presidents.
Yes, Republicans of the past were leaders in environmental protection, even conservatives.
At the time, big corporations like Chrysler and “Big Coal” companies were buying full page ads in an attempt to scare Americans and demonize the EPA. By the end of 1971, the EPA’s research center was moving from downtown Durham four miles southeast to Research Triangle Park which had been carved out of woodlands in southeast Durham a decade earlier.
Our paths would cross when I was recruited to jump-start Durham’s official marketing agency in 1989. In 2012, two years after I retired from that organization, the EPA made Durham a pilot for its EnviroAtlas. I remain involved in a number of related advocacy organizations.
Working with city and county agencies, EPA researchers mapped layers of Durham data related to ecosystem services such as tree cover, green space and other natural resources into the EnviroAtlas.
Local officials from a wide variety of agencies and non-governmental organizations will use the tool to “diagnose environmental problems, analyze alternatives and track performance of implemented management approaches” including both development and transportation decisions.
It will soon be accessible by the public and has already been available to university researchers here at Duke and North Carolina Central universities. It will be of particular importance to the joint Durham Sustainability Office which has launched an alliance of agencies and neighborhoods called for now the Durham Tree Initiative.
Even though trees are a focal point of community pride and an important attribute to economic development including tourism, Durham has seemed complacent about its tree canopy over the years, letting it slide to 50% in the county overall and 40% in the city.
In part, the Tree Initiative here will help bridge what has been a highly fragmented approach to Durham’s tree canopy and spawn a new, collaborative and cooperative inter-agency and intergovernmental approach.
Mapping by The Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI,) a phenomenal resource of the University of North Carolina, has documented that from 1976, a few years after EPA research put down roots in Durham through 2005, just two years prior to the great recession, our development growth which includes vast amounts of impervious surface, outpaced population growth by 8 to 1.
This more than tripled the “human footprint” per person. Between now and 2040, development is projected to consume another 4 acres a day, quintupling the “human footprint” per person in 1976.
To grow economically while sustaining quality of life and place, means and political will must be found to restore and expand the tree canopy in order to offset the impact of projected development.
Tools such as the EnviroAtlas will inform decisions and tradeoffs. It will also enable progressive developers to think in terms of full-cost accounting rather than simply pushing the costs of development off on taxpayers and residents as is currently being enabled by the state legislature.
Without the proper balance of ecosystem services and development, Durham is not sustainable as a community. Without sustaining environmental capital, commercial forms wither in value. Without caring for its tree canopy, Durham’s unique sense of place so crucial to economic development is even more at risk.
With factions in the General Assembly determined to override democratically approved initiatives at the local level, including efforts to replace trees with billboards and ignore air and water quality, it may seem Pollyanna to think in terms of community sustainability.
But the pendulum will likely soon swing again with North Carolinians, including a majority of Republicans, rising up to defend the state constitution and the amendment they passed by 7 to 1 the month before the EPA research center cut the ribbon for its headquarters building in Durham.
Remember, the amendment had been championed by business leaders because they understood the crucial link between economic development and the preservation of “forests, wetlands, estuaries, beaches, historical sites, openlands and places of beauty” (Section 5, Article XIV.)
This may be lost for now on narrow interests in power, but it will never be lost on the people of North Carolina.