One of the very enjoyable duties I performed this week was to represent Senator Bennet at the reception for the EPA Smart Growth Achievement Award winners. I have been grateful throughout my life for family and friends who have shown up and supported me for important events in my life, and it was a pleasure to personify my boss’s support for the Denver project that won one of the awards. I was joined by staffers from Senator Udall’s office as well as staff from the two Colorado Representatives for that area, so it was apparent that our state constituents are well-supported.
The Smart Growth Achievement awards are EPA’s program to recognize communities that use creative policies and strategies to combine economic development, strategic combinations of housing and transportation, and environmental protection in their projects. There are four categories of awards, but I will focus on the Equitable Development category since I had a chance to learn more about the winning Denver project and the Honorable Mention project from Fort Lauderdale.
Relationships turned out to be absolutely critical for the success of the projects. The Denver project representative was extremely grateful for the staffs of Senator Bennet, Congresswoman Diana DeGette, and Congressman Cory Gardner who all helped to make the right connections with the right state agency people. The folks in Denver also recognized that their neighborhood people did not have the time or inclination to come to large evening meetings, so instead, they had many small kitchen meetings, which was an effective method for getting people engaged and to give them input on the shape of the final project. I can only imagine how much time those individual meetings took, but I sensed that the determination to include the residents was boundless.
Smart growth emphasizes development where people are not required to drive everywhere, so the Denver project has created a space where residents have easy access to mass transit as well as a variety of services such as health care, all without getting into a car. Environmentally, the project was also allowed to serve as a pilot program for dealing with water. The buildings represent an unusually large gray water project, in which water from showers and sinks gets recycled to flush toilets, so only about half the water is needed. Permeable road surfaces and specially designed swaths of land absorb rainwater rather than requiring large pipes to channel the water that usually runs off paved surfaces.
The Fort Lauderdale project also involved relationships with the current residents, and one of the most valuable efforts turned out to be creating a video oral history of the neighborhood to allow the design to incorporate the area’s roots. In that area of Fort Lauderdale, about half of the high school students drop out, so the project set out to reclaim those students as well as the buildings. The drop outs who were hired on to the project were given salaries, which kept them out of trouble, and teachers came in twice a day to help the students work on their GED’s. The students’ work was making all of the kitchen cabinets for the apartment buildings, so the students have earned their GED’s at the rate of about one per month, they have become trade certified, and several have been working on their LEED certifications, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program that is the national standard for green buildings.
I will end with a story told by the man who came to receive the award for the Fort Lauderdale project. He was asked what happened next. He shared that after the project ended, he happened to go around the corner from the apartment buildings, and he saw a woman in an adjacent house painting her front door. He went over to chat with her, and she told him that she hadn’t painted her door in years. She said, “You made me do this. The next thing I’m going to do is go out and buy some flowers.”