By Alex Russell
The City of Falls Church, as with any community on the planet. can make a difference in battling climate change, Kate Walker, the City’s Environmental Program Coordinator, told a virtual Earth Day event here last month.
The Falls Church chapter of the League of Women Voters (LWV) and Citizens for a Better City (CBC) jointly-sponsored a virtual Earth Day event last month led by Walker.
The focus of the meeting was on environmental protection at the local level, improvement, and how to reflect these efforts in future policymaking “right here, in Falls Church.”
Present for the meeting were Tim Stevens, member of the F.C. Planning Commission and former chair of the Environmental Sustainability Council; Hal Lippman, CBC President; Erica Thomas of the LWV; and Phil Duncan, of Falls Church City Council.
Walker’s presentation, entitled “Environment for Everyone,” stressed the importance of the community playing a “big role” in addressing environmental sustainability as well as the issue’s policy-making implications on the local government level. Walker emphasized that “we need to act and we need to act now…there are things we can do here [in F.C.] that will have an impact.”
Among the main ideas discussed at the event was the importance of managing consumption — whether that means food or any other packaged, store-bought products.
“It’s not really about managing waste, it’s about managing consumption…one of the biggest problems with food in this country is [that] 40 percent of the food…is thrown out.” Walker touched on how recycling is as vital a practice as ever, but that it has often overshadowed other, equally-important methods that should typically come first. She explained that, ideally, “recycling should be the last step.” From a policy standpoint, “the City needs a zero waste plan,” adding that “reuse, reduce, recycle” is “in that order for a reason.”
Walker’s presentation included the recent, large storms that have hit the City in the past year. “We have to acknowledge that this is, in part, attributable to the changes in the environment,” and, accordingly, sustainable flood mitigation will need to be a major change reflected both in policy and by everyday residents.
“Trees are a thing of beauty, but they are also water pumps” and therefore are “an enormously important part of our stormwater plan.” Lawns, on the other hand, are “not much better than paved areas” in terms of maintaining water. “We don’t need to have lawns…the rest of the yard could be trees and plantings,” with trees supporting flood mitigation and other plants helping to support pollinators.
The Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) operates the RainSmart program with the goal of improving the management of stormwater, conducting public education and outreach in Falls Church and offering grants for rain garden and landscape conservation projects. Funding is provided to help residents make use of rain barrels and rain gardens that help rainwater soak into the ground on-site in the service of flood mitigation and to help protect local streams.
Walker strongly recommends mentioning the implementation of trees and gardens for flood and stormwater mitigation “when writing to local and state legislators.”
Expanding on tree health, Walker extolled the benefits of programs like Tree City USA, a program that provides communities with a four-step framework for the maintenance and growth of their tree cover. In fact, “Falls Church was the first Tree City USA in the state of Virginia.” Additionally, an increase in a community’s tree cover can lead to cooler temperatures, cleaner air, and even increase value in property.
In terms of commercial property, she clarified that “you can’t take a tree down without consulting with the arborist,” and that in the event a tree does get taken down through appropriate means, “a replacement tree is required.”
In addition to trees, flowers, and other plants, Walker illustrated how the City is a prime location for urban agriculture. The Little City’s own Sandy Tarpinian, an Extension Master Gardener with over 22 years of experience, offers container gardening seminars that focus on how to grow herbs, vegetables, and flowering plants with limited space, such as on a balcony or patio.
Organizations like Hands On Harvests — beginning as the Grow a Row F.C. initiative in May of 2020 — that work to support food pantries and help feed those in need with fresh produce grown by people in their own backyards provide a link between environmental responsibility and civic engagement.
Besides growing fresh food, proper composting practices can have positive contributions to a community’s ecology. “There are three composting programs in the city,” with one focusing on “backyard composting,” run by Tarpinian. There is also a curbside compost pickup program “at an extremely discounted price here in the City” and a compositing drop-off station at City Hall.
Walker stressed that “managing our impacts on climate change demands us to change how we use [and manage] our energy,” too. There is “only one LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold certified building in the City at this point” — the “Flower Building” at 800 W Broad St.
The new Meridian High School building is also “designed for energy-efficiency,” with its “heat-loss mitigation” and “geothermal heating and cooling system implementation” that make it an extreme help to the environment.
Walker concluded that any practical change that occurs is influenced “through zoning” and policy-making. “Developers are asked to provide concessions” to Falls Church, “letting the City negotiate environmental benefits in new buildings.” There is also the proposed idea of an “energy consultant for the City,” an expert who could help F.C. “get a really substantial energy plan for…the community.” Tim Stevens commented that employing an energy expert is “becoming more common in other localities.”
Going back to citizens reaching out to their leaders in local, county, and state government, Walker highlighted that advocating “for federal and state legislation” in support of “regional and local action” goes a long way and can have lasting benefits. On-going work and new initiatives, however, always begin with concerned citizens who make their voices heard. “Community really counts.”
To learn more about the City’s Environmental Sustainability Council, visit fallschurchva.gov/171/environmental-sustainability-council. More information on the VPIS and their RainSmart program can be found online at vpis.org. To learn more about how to participate in Hands on Harvest, visit handsonharvests.org/about. Visit virginiageneralassembly.gov to find out how to best contact your State government representatives.