The Need for A Greener Arlington

Arlington County government believes it’s leader in promoting the environment. Pointing to a 15 percent reduction in carbon emissions from public buildings between 2000-2012 and the fact that most new private office buildings constructed in the County have LEED certification, as well as expanded residential and commercial recycling programs, Arlington elected officials advertise their green colors.

But looks are deceiving, and the numbers behind Arlington’s green image belie its commitment to the environment. The Arlington Solar Co-op has formed to enable county residents to install solar at lower cost. Yet fewer than 100 residential buildings have installed solar despite its cost saving features. One of the impediments to installation of solar–the existence of mature shade trees–points to another disturbing trend–the loss of an estimated 75 percent of the county’s mature tree canopy in the past 40 years.

Long time civic activist Suzanne Sundburg attributes the  loss of Arlington’s tree canopy to its so-called “Smart Growth” policies. In a recent letter to the editor of the Falls Church News-Press she said:

Over the last 30–40 years, the county has allowed 80 percent of its mature tree canopy to disappear beneath a sea of highrises (built right up to the street), asphalt, cement, and so-called permeable or semi-permeable hardscape that is euphemistically called “open” space. Arlington’s land-use policies and scorched-earth development practices have contributed, among other things, to poor local air quality. The American Lung Association gives Arlington an F for air quality/smog.

Nowhere is the loss of green space more evident than on public school property, where trees are routinely demolished as part of school expansion. In 2015 a 100 year old tree was cut down at McKinley School to expand a parking lot, and an entire tree lined hillside was excavated to make way for a new parking loop at Ashlawn School the year before.

Rosslyn-Highlands Park, which is the only green space in Rosslyn, will forfeit land for new development at the site of nearby historic Wilson School, which will also be demolished. The most recent victim of school expansion was Thomas Jefferson Park, which was sited for a new elementary school in 2016 over the sustained opposition of community residents. In each case the community was ignored by County Board and dismissed by residents elsewhere in the county as nimbies when neighbors objected to the loss of green space for development.

The shortsightedness of “Smart Growth” advocates in promoting growth to the detriment of green space points out the need for a campaign to green the county. What is at stake here is not simply maintaining tree canopy for shade and green space for recreation, it is part and parcel of our quality of life. Smart Growth as presently understood will replace residential neighborhoods with upper middle class slums. Most of us know we can’t afford the rent in those high rises already. What we don’t appreciate is that we can’t afford the side effects of Smart Growth either. Enter the Campaign for a Greener Arlington.