From the vantage point at the top of Arlington National Cemetery, pale marble headstones march in orderly lines under a thick canopy of multihued leaves. The ruffled procession of trees stretches to the blue of the Potomac, and beyond that, the nation’s capital defines itself by what you see—the needle-like Washington Monument, the fluted columns of the Lincoln Memorial—as much as what you don’t: skyscrapers stretching high, dominating the skyline. Charles Dickens once jokingly called the District of Columbia a “city of magnificent intentions,” one that had, in 1842, not quite lived up to statesmen’s lofty expectations but had the capacity to do so. Washington, DC, is, at its core, a city of contrasts. It is a metropolis divided between low-income and luxury housing; it is one of the nation’s oldest landing points and one of the top American cities for new construction; and it is a district that houses the nation’s government but has no voting power in Congress.

This story of foils is echoed in the District’s journey toward sustainability. It began as a city that Thomas Jefferson wanted to make “an American Paris;” became, for the last several decades of the 20th century, a city whose population shrank every year; and today has emerged as one of the most popular destinations for young, educated professionals. Much of the credit for this resurgence belongs to the progressive thinking behind “A Vision for a Sustainable DC,” an urban plan developed in 2011 and implemented in 2012 to make the District one of the nation’s greenest cities.

GSA_Census_Bureau_Ext (1)

The new US Census Bureau Headquarters, built by Skanska, is among the projects in Washington, DC, that are raising the bar for sustainable development.

GSA_Census_Bureau_Ext (10)

During the project, Skanska recycled nearly 100,000 cubic yards of debris, steel, masonry, and other unusable materials.

“In just one generation—20 years—the District of Columbia will be the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States,” Mayor Vincent Gray promised then. “We will demonstrate how enhancing our natural and built environments, investing in a diverse clean economy, and reducing disparities among residents can create an educated, equitable, and prosperous society.”

The goals were lofty and ranged from nature and climate (aiming to cover 40 percent of the District with a healthy tree canopy and cut citywide greenhouse gas emissions by half) to transportation and citywide health (working to increase the use of public transit, biking, and walking to 75 percent of all commuter trips and, perhaps linked, to cut the obesity rate by 50 percent). Many local leaders in the private and public sectors collaborated to author the project. Among them was Harriet Tregoning.


Tregoning emerged in the Capital landscape in 2007 as a revolutionary and often controversial figure. Trained academically in engineering and public policy, Tregoning served as Maryland’s secretary of planning and the nation’s first state-level cabinet secretary for smart growth under Governor Parris N. Glendening before her appointment as director of the District’s Office of Planning. She often arrived to meetings on her foldable bicycle and pushed to build a DC that didn’t require a car. She helped expand public transit and made the District friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians. She proposed changes that made driving and parking in the city more difficult, a controversial stance in a city already known for limited parking. Among her most disputed efforts was her role in Gray’s push to alter the federal Height Act, which prohibits construction of buildings more than 130 feet high (some buildings, such as One Franklin Square, were granted exemptions).

Tregoning’s tenure had, by her own admission, many ups and downs, and it spurred public debates in one of the nation’s most vocal cities. But she is inarguably one of the most visible and important catalysts in the District’s reconstruction. Her emphasis on smart growth led to the nation’s first bike-share program, Capital Bikeshare, and she worked to expand roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks. She drafted a land use plan for the DC streetcar system that, though it hasn’t been built, serves as a blueprint for growing and evolving neighborhoods. She promoted new development, leading the District to approve several controversial demolitions and building projects to promote density rather than sprawl, particularly downtown.


Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare was the first major bike-sharing of its kind. It has since been copied in New York City, Chicago, and elsewhere.

DSC_0090c_bbll with bike

KGP Design Studio’s bike-storage facility in front of Union Station helps expand transit options in DC.


Five Lessons from Washington, DC

1. Set Specific Goals The Sustainable DC plan has a set year (2032) and goals that include hard numbers, such as making 100 percent of District waterways fishable and swimmable and cutting citywide unemployment by 50 percent. Specific standards give the government an attainable target.

2. Divide and Conquer Nine groups focus on separate topics of the Sustainable DC initiative to improve chances of success in each sector: built environment, climate, energy, food, nature, transportation, waste, water, and the green economy.

3. Engage Your Audience The Sustainable DC plan will never succeed without the support of the citizenry. The government has outlined specific ways citizens can contribute to the goal, such as walking rather than driving and monitoring energy consumption.

4. Get into Schools Among the program’s goals is to educate half of DC children about sustainability and expose all District residents to sustainable DC events in their neighborhoods. Starting this education early can help citizens build a lifetime of green habits.

5. Promote Yourself The Sustainable DC plan is easily accessible online and available in brief, list, and complete forms. This is key to engaging its target audience and achieving success.

Tregoning defers some credit to Mayor Gray, as do many who worked on or critiqued Sustainable DC from the outside. Beth Heider, former chair of the USGBC’s Board of Directors and chief sustainability officer at construction group Skanska, and Kaid Benfield, special counsel for urban solutions at the Natural Resources Defense Council, highlight the mayor’s role in a more sustainable District. 

“In April 2012, Mayor Vincent Gray made a statement that surprised a lot of people,” Heider recalls. “He said he wanted the District to be fossil-fuel free by 2030. And he was serious.”

Even with Gray at the helm, Tregoning and others hit stumbling blocks, due in large part to the District’s dual personality. Congress retains oversight on major changes in the capital, and the tug-of-war between local and federal administrators often slows or halts projects—a model that Tregoning maintains is not sustainable.

“There are two narratives that pull in opposite directions,” Tregoning says. “On the one hand, we’re a city with visibility. It’s great for us to innovate because our innovations are seen by many visitors, both foreign and domestic, and every member of Congress. The hard thing is that there’s the city, and then there’s federal Washington. The rhetoric around federal Washington is so harsh and … dysfunctional. People find it hard to believe that the city can accomplish anything.”

That the District is governed by a body in which it has no elected representative is an additional vexation, she adds. “It’s the only democracy on planet Earth in which the citizens of the capital are disenfranchised in this way,” she says. “It makes everything hard to do. It’s hard for some of them to believe that we govern our city better than people elected from somewhere else.”

Heider has a more optimistic viewpoint about construction and planning under the city’s governance. Listed in Skanska’s international portfolio are several District developments, including the US Census Bureau Headquarters, the $4.1 million security upgrade and beautification project of the Lincoln Memorial East Plaza, and the reconstruction of the 11th Street bridges and adjacent interchanges near Washington Navy Yard. Because DC operates as a city-state, the lack of a state government, oversight, and standards limits the number of jurisdictional challenges builders run into, she says. There are fewer loopholes to navigate.


Fulya Kocak is the director of sustainability at Clark Construction and chairperson of the USGBC’s National Capital Region Chapter. Photo: Geoff Chesman, ImageLink Photography

Fulya Kocak, director of sustainability at Clark Construction, also sees DC’s unique setup as key to the success of the region’s sustainable initiatives. Simply put, the capital is a vibrant hub of sustainability professionals and advocates. More than 700 consultants contributed ideas and research to the Sustainable DC plan, and many national organizations like the NRDC and USGBC have headquarters in Washington. “You have so many different voices and so many people working together to make it happen,” she says. “I love that about this town.”


Though Gray is often credited because the official plan was published during his tenure, the push for a greener DC came even before he took office in 2011. The city’s “Bag Law,” which charges shoppers buying food or alcohol five cents to use disposable paper and plastic carryout bags, was passed in 2009. The Green Building Act of 2006 requires all non-residential District public buildings to be built to LEED Silver standards or higher. It adds that District-owned or financed residential projects of at least 10,000 square feet must meet or exceed Green Communities certification, and since January 2012, all new private development projects of at least 50,000 square feet are required to meet LEED standards. Kocak credits the restructuring of LEED certifications from one construction guideline to a comprehensive system of integrated standards as the impetus for the District’s green growth.

“This wasn’t just the government telling us what to do. It was a joint effort,” Kocak says. “We all thought that it was a good idea for our city to be a sustainable environment, so we supported this mission together.”

Though Tregoning has moved on and Gray will not be on the ballot for a second term as mayor, their influence lingers as Sustainable DC’s goals loom for another 18 years. Benfield says many changes are already in place and visible despite the program only being in its second year. Sidewalks, streets, bicycle lanes, and motorways have undergone renewals that are hard to miss. Other changes, such as the plan’s goal to add 250,000 new residents by 2032, might not be possible. “We may achieve a portion of that number, but 250,000 is asking a lot,” Benfield says. “I think the same thing could be said for a number of the goals. They’re set very high. I think they’re idealistic by design. But in every instance, they go in the right direction.”

Tregoning, meanwhile, maintains that the goals are absolutely within reach and, though ambitious, were written with the belief that they could be obtained. Kocak and Heider agree.

“You need to think big to achieve big,” Kocak says. “Some of these changes are already in place. Some are aspirational. It will take generations to achieve some of them, but we’re showing that progress.”

However successful Sustainable DC proves in the next 18 years, there are facets of the city that will remain unchanged. You won’t see, gazing above the treetops, the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago. “People have flocked here after falling in love with the city’s Southern charm, enviable beauty and dramatic vistas,” journalist Jonetta Rose Barras wrote last year in her Washington Post piece “In Praise of a Towerless D.C.” “Why mimic Chicago and Gotham City? …On a spring day in the District, I can see the sun and feel its warmth on my face. A walk around Manhattan often is like traveling through an endless tunnel.”

What you will see, still staring up, are cranes—miles and miles of T-shaped metal structures dotting the landscape, proof that Washington, DC, is no longer merely a city of intentions. 


They are two buildings, but they work as one. From what I have heard, the new residents all love being there. It’s very exciting.”

– Jack Moyer, Senior Associate, Shalom Baranes Associates

Go inside CityCenterDC


thumb“By 2040, half of the built environment will be buildings that don’t exist today. We have a chance to really get it right.”

– Kaid Benfield, Director of the Sustainable Communities, Energy & Transportation Program, NRDC

Read the Q&A