In Alexandria, Virginia, a new breed of public utility has emerged, one that will hopefully inspire others across America, and around the world. As readers of Revitalization News well know, there’s a fast-growing global trend that’s upgrading the old “sustainable development” model to “restorative development”.
It’s been called the Restoration Economy, and manifests under the banner of the many “re” words that are proliferating today: regeneration, redevelopment, revitalization, reuse, remediation, rehabilitation, renovation, repurposing, renewing, reconnecting, etc.
Now, a public water utility has embraced this restorative mission to such a degree that they’ve incorporate a “re” word into their name: Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew. But it’s not just branding. They take their role in community revitalization very seriously.
For instance, they built multi-purpose public athletic field as a community amenity on top of an 18 million gallon nutrient management facility. Through an innovative partnership, they were able to help transform a former unregulated city dump by expanding recreational greenspace, providing a public education center, and promoting the value of reclaimed water.
The utility’s South Carlyle Strategy strives to revive an industrial neighborhood through an innovative and successful public-private partnership between AlexRenew, Carlyle Partners, and the City of Alexandria. This project is part of efforts by AlexRenew to better serve its community, make a positive impact on the environment, and increase community engagement.
AlexRenew’s nutrient management facility was an investment in technology to make its water product cleaner, and thus help restore Chesapeake Bay for the region. Even though the facility stores wastewater, the process is odorless, making it difficult for field users to even imagine what is happening right under their feet.
In November of 2016, this facility received the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision Platinum Award for sustainability. Since the start of the Envision program, only 11 projects in North America have received a Platinum award, and this is the first in Virginia and the D.C. metro area.
According to the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, AlexRenew’s nutrient management facility received high scores in all five Envision categories. In addition to the field, here are some additional highlights:
- Removed 85,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and restored a former unregulated landfill;
- Planted more than 1,000 native trees and shrubs and expanded an adjacent streamside buffer by 69,000 square feet;
- Installed sustainable stormwater practices and avoided building in the floodplain;
- Recycled 85 percent of demolition and construction waste;
- Used 21 percent recycled material and at least 90 percent regional material;
- Installed energy and water monitoring systems;
- Built connections to future trails and green space.
“This award shows that wastewater utilities don’t have to be invisible to the communities they serve, but instead, can, and should, be active partners in creating livable and resilient cities,” said Karen Pallansch, CEO of AlexRenew. “We’re fortunate to serve customers and work alongside community partners who value sustainability and support efforts like this that have such a positive impact on our local waterways.”
Another example is the Urban Wildlife Habitat that AlexRenew and community volunteers planted on its campus.
With expansions of its water transformation infrastructure and Alexandria neighborhoods becoming denser, AlexRenew wanted to preserve and restore some of Alexandria’s native plants. It also wanted to improve the property as a haven for visitors like turtles, foxes, ducks, field mice, and birds.
“The project we worked on and the people we worked with were a blast,” said Bob Landsman, an Arlington Regional Master Naturalist who helped coordinate volunteers with the Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and Audubon at Home. “Planting 900 plants in this huge area just feet from AlexRenew’s treatment facilities was excellent. We need more projects like this.”
The planting, one of the largest native plant restoration projects in Alexandria, was the culmination of months of planning by AlexRenew and its community partners. The team included the Master Naturalists, Master Gardeners, and Audubon at Home as well as Native Plant Landscape Design and Earth Sangha. Interests aligned between AlexRenew and these groups in planting a garden that would not only restore wildlife habitat to the landscape but could also serve as an environmental outreach opportunity.
When designing the Urban Wildlife Habitat, Elisa Meara of Native Plant Landscape Design drew inspiration from bold shapes of Brazilian painter and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and from the plantings of New York City’s High Line — a park built on an elevated freight rail line above Manhattan’s West Side. “The High Line is such a wonderful public space that has inspired so many people even in such an industrial environment,” Meara said.
Like the High Line, the hope is that the garden will transform a portion of AlexRenew’s 33-acre campus. “The Urban Wildlife Habitat beautifies our campus and it will be a great place for our team and visitors to enjoy and learn from,” Pallansch said. “We look forward to seeing how the garden changes as the plants grow and spread in the years to come.”
Projects like the field and Urban Wildlife Habitat are the result of the utility’s leadership and Board-led 2040 vision focused on developing an informed citizenry of water stewards, enabling personal connections with local waterways, and maintaining stable rates for its customers.
AlexRenew has thus gone above and beyond to become an agent of positive change in its community, fully embracing the Utility of the Future. Instead of just building new treatment tanks to meet EPA’s nutrient standards, AlexRenew seized the opportunity to work with community partners to better serve its customers by restoring nature and revitalizing their community.
Note from Storm:
This article is the first of a new series of Feature Articles called “Revitalizing Agencies“. This occasional series will focus on public agencies that go beyond the usual goal of providing “better service”, to actually becoming a significant contributor to the revitalization of their municipality, region, or state. Included will be public organizations focused on water, public works, parks and recreation, solid waste, power, telecommunications, health, social welfare, policing, land banking, and more. If you know of an agency that should be featured here, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.