Fifty Fixes for the 5th, #16-20: Sustainability and the James River
We're back with the next installment in the Fifty Fixes for the 5th series: specific action steps and policies I will prioritize to improve life in the 5th District and Citywide as a member of City Council. This installment focuses on sustainability, and meeting the needs of the James River Park System. (We will address issues facing other parks in the 5th District in a future installment.)
Can you imagine a Richmond defined not only by a commitment to social and economic justice but a commitment to being a model green city, anchored by the James River? It's a big dream, but one we can work towards realizing with some initial action steps.
16. Make the City of Richmond’s Sustainability Office a Permanent, Free-Standing Agency
There is no more urgent societal priority than reducing our carbon footprint. In the absence of the massive national action the climate crisis requires, localities must step up to lead the way. Indeed, even if we had a concerted national plan to reduce our carbon footprint, we would need vigorous action led by local agencies as well.
Here’s what Richmond can and should do: We need to make the City’s Sustainability Office a free-standing, permanent agency with a triple mandate: a) Developing a strategy by which City agencies (including Public Utilities) can measure and commit to limiting their carbon footprint; b) Developing a set of best practices applicable to other local public agencies that receive City funding and that have substantial carbon impact, such as Richmond Public Schools; c) Engaging all residents and businesses in the City to drive down our carbon footprint. A well-funded Office could draft a strategic plan with specific action steps and timelines, with requirements for ongoing reporting to City Council on progress made.
The RVAGreen plan produced in the Jones administration is a great starting point, but to date it has not translated into concerted direct action or implementation of the many policy steps recommended in the report. Likewise the RVA2050 commitment articulated by Mayor Stoney requires substantial work to be translated into a concrete action guide.
A free-standing, well-funded office directly reporting to the Deputy Chief Administrative Officer for Operations day-to-day but with direct access and regular direct reporting to the Mayor and Chief Administrative Officer is essential if the City is to make marked progress on the plans that have been drawn up. (Currently the City’s Sustainability office has limited personnel and funding and is structurally located within the Department of Public Utilities.)
When elected, I will urge the Mayor to include establishment of the Department of Sustainability in his FY 2021 budget proposal, and if it is not included in the budget proposal I will seek to build Council support for a budget amendment and corresponding legislation to create such an agency within the next year.
17. Adopt and Support Implementation of the James River Park Master Plan
The James River Park System Master Plan draft completed this past summer is a terrific piece of work addressing current conditions and future challenges facing the park system, from accessibility to conservation to improving user experience. I will support its adoption as a Council member, and prioritize taking action on its key recommendations so as to facilitate increased access, usage, and appreciation of the James River by all Richmonders, especially
I endorse former Planning Director Rachel Flynn’s proposition that the most valuable land and property near our natural assets should belong to the public, and hence support moving quickly to acquire islands in the river that are now private property. I also strongly support investments to create outdoor educational centers within the James River Park System to facilitate increased access, usage, and appreciation of the James River by all Richmonders, especially youth.
Items 18-20 speak to some immediate action items (many more could be listed!) :
18. Conserve the Park!
The first obligation with respect to the James River Park is to preserve it for future generations. The draft master plan for the park lays out numerous specific steps to achieve this goal: expanding conservation easements, conducting a natural resource inventory as a baseline for future efforts; increasing biodiversity; remediating land previously used for industrial purposes in the park; banning construction of any new surface parking near the lot and encouraging multi-modal access to the park; and more. The City needs to undertake the conservation action steps laid out in the plan, as soon as possible.
19. Assure RPS kids 4th grade and up visit the James River each year
The James River is the most spectacular and unique resource the City of Richmond has, and the James River Park System is potentially the most powerful tool our city has to teach all our children about the outdoors, ecology, the climate, and more. Yet too many kids in Richmond have never spent significant time in the James River Park.
We can change that. Let’s make it a community goal that every year every RPS student from 4th grade and up spend a day of the school year in the James River Park—yes, to have fun and to appreciate the outdoors, but also to learn. And let’s expand educational programming available for all ages in the park. The draft master plan envisions completing an Environmental Education Center at Pony Pasture and an Outdoor Educational Center at Reedy Creek, projects I will support as a Council member.
We need to do this, whether with public or privately-raised dollars, and we need to do it soon. Let’s not deprive another generation of Richmond kids the chance to grow up with the river as a friend and teacher.
20. Staff the James River Park System Appropriately
Last but not least, it’s critically important not to neglect the operating budget. James River Park System is chronically under-staffed relative to its mission and importance. Currently it has a total of seven full-time employees, for a resource estimated to generate over $33 million a year in economic activity for the city. The draft master plan boldly states: “An enhanced program of operations and maintenance could reflect the high value of the Park by matching world-class operations with a world-class destination. This would require additional staff as well as continued reliance on volunteers and private vendors.”
I agree with that statement. Finding funds for additional positions could lead to tangible improvements in programming and user experience nearly immediately. Let’s start work now towards the goal of making the James River Park System world-class in all respects by the year 2025—a priceless asset to be shared with both our own residents (starting when they are young!) and with visitors from near and far.