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Elevation Q&A: Tommy Wells on urban agriculture, playgrounds, and a tree summit

In early January, Tommy Wells was appointed Acting Director of the District Department of the Environment (DDOE).  Much of Wells' work in the city has focused on cleaning up the Anacostia River; as a councilmember for Ward 6 he had pushed for clean-up efforts along its banks and successfully championed a bag bill which raised money for environmental projects through a five cent per bag fee. As the head of DDOE, Wells will oversee some 300 employees working on huge variety of issues, including lead paint remediation and intervention, toxic material clean-ups, fisheries and wildlife management, and energy planning.  A few weeks after he took over at DDOE, Elevation DC sat down to talk with him about his vision for his department and his priorities for the coming years.  

What do you think the role of agriculture is in this city, and where will food production fall in terms of your priorities?
More and more, what makes a livable neighborhood is being able to grow food at the community garden. But then we've also discovered that it's not just community gardens; we can also take an acre or so of land and turn it into a farm and plant crops and provide food in a very different way and actually make a meaningful contribution in terms of food.  
I think my vision is to not view the department as a stand-alone entity.  If we view it more comprehensively, that our job is to promote and protect and support urban agriculture as a group, it is a different way to go at it as opposed to who has which role where.

Do you see any room for accelerating plans to clean up the Anacostia River?
That depends on which part we are talking about.  We can do a lot more in the area of trash.  Certainly the bag bill worked, and now we have the Styrofoam ban.  We need to figure out what to do about the plastic bottles. 
We can aggressively remediate the ground, the shorelines. In terms of the legacy toxics in the sediment, that's not easy to speed up. The bottom of the river is owned by the National Park Service, and so it took way too long to get us to full permission to start digging in it to start to figure out what's there.  I'm pushing that ahead.  But this has to be done right and it will take a while.

Where does the combined sewer overflow project (in which DC Water is spending billions to dig tunnels that will capture excess stormwater, preventing the excess water from overwhelming the city's sewer system and dumping sewage directly into the Potomac and Anacostia) fall in terms of your agenda? Will the project stay the same size?
I'm not really that worried about that project for the Anacostia.  It is going to happen.  The combined sewer overflow will capture 98% of the overflow and it will all be treated at Blue Plains.  It will be some of the cleanest water treatment a river gets anywhere in the nation, if not the world. 
The greater challenge really is what is not covered by the combined sewer overflow. How we create the infrastructure to manage that is more on DDOE rather than the water department.  DC Water is doing the big dig. If you were to put a price on it, the big tunnel dig is around $2.5 - $3.5 billion dollars.  To mange everything outside of the combined sewer overflow area is $7 -$10 billion dollars.

A few years back, D.C.'s tree canopy reached a low point, although more recently the number of new trees being planted has increased.  What do you think can be done to protect mature trees, especially during any future work done to bury powerlines in the city?
I think there's a diffusion of who is responsible for what with trees: who plants on public lands, private lands, who maintains them, and the preservation of trees. How do you weigh the construction good versus the loss of the tree?
I think we need to have a tree summit. That won't solve everything but it puts the issues on the table.  Having a great tree canopy is a major benefit to a city in terms of cooling, stormwater management, air quality.  There's so many things that a good tree canopy brings us.  It needs to be a priority.

Will more D.C. parks in the future be on public land or will they be privately managed green space open to the public?
I think that great parks will always be a public endeavor. But for the management of it sometimes it is much easier to have the nimbleness of something like a Business Improvement District. 
I think the greatest challenge will continue to be the interplay between the city and the federal government.  There's room for creativity but we're going to have to see how fast the federal government can keep up. The city also has its own infirmities of being able to move quickly.  The greatest challenge will be a common vision and a common standard of implementation in what we do with our green space in relationship to NPS.  We've got a growing downtown.  People love living downtown, people are having children downtown.  There's not one children's park downtown to play in.  Its almost all NPS land.  No one can come to an agreement to the liability, the heights of the fencing.  It's just ridiculous that we still don't have one child's park in downtown Washington. 

What else would you want people to know about your plans for the next few years at DDOE?
One hundred years ago, urban areas were viewed as the place for economic opportunity, but they were unhealthy, congested places. Now cities can be very healthy.  We have longer life spans now in cities than we ever have before, and the future of the planet is dependent upon cities. One of the things that I'm excited about is helping reimagine how our city works.  We can continue to have a city that faces out onto our waterways rather than facing in on the city as it used to. That's part of what I can do at DDOE, is help promote the city as a healthy place to live, raise your children and to age in place. I'm really interested in D.C. continuing to be a model for innovation. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Alison Gillespie.

Alison Gillespie writes about urban environmental issues for a variety of publications nationwide.  She is also the author of Hives in the City, a nonfiction book about beekeepers working to keep bees alive in the cities of the Mid-Atlantic US.
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