Last month a fox was sighted at Logan Circle, one of the Washington, DC’s bustling residential neighborhoods. A wild turkey, part of a flock that lives at the former Civil War encampment Fort Dupont Park, found its way to the windows of downtown law firms, setting off a flurry of tweets and speculation. This spring we welcomed once again the blooming of the cherry blossoms and the arrival of thousands of visitors—human and feathered—to our fair city. (If the use of digital cameras is any clue, the pink blossoms are a star player in tourists’ spring vacations.)
Some of our non-human visitors stay for a while, like the wood thrush, the acadian fly catcher, and the yellow-billed cuckoos, who settle in the under story canopy of Rock Creek Park. The park forms a green spine that runs north-south through the center of the city, attracting over 170 species of birds during the course of the year. Along the banks of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers , spring brings the belted kingfisher, the egrets and great blue herons, and the magnificent ospreys, who stay to breed and hunt for the summer.
Life surely makes a dramatic re-entrance here every spring. But you can say that we are ourselves rediscovering nature and renegotiating our relationship with the ever-present ecological world of which we are part. The signs are as distinct as the spring blooms. The Washington, DC government recently released new regulations that will require much of the rain that falls on city lots to be contained on site. More water yields more life. Additionally, federal agencies are now implementing green building standards that include green roofs and other sustainability measures. Developers are competing for the highest designation of LEED certification for their Class A buildings (the same buildings where that turkey wandered), and the Downtown Business Improvement District boasts the highest number of ENERGY STAR-rated buildings in the city. In the fall of 2011 Mayor Gray declared that he would make the nation’s capital the “greenest city in America,” one of a dozen or so mayors of major cities in the U.S. who have thrown their green hat into the ring. This February, the DC Sustainability Plan was released, with plans for action in ten areas, including nature, water, and climate and environment.
The policy wonk in me finds all of the political progress encouraging. Mayors should be competing with each other to make theirs the greenest city in the land. If developers garner kudos with clients for ENERGY STAR and LEED certification, I am thrilled. But the most compelling changes, for me, and I suspect many others in our city, are ones that express themselves in direct contact with nature because contact with nature reaches across social barriers. More than a century of the parks movement in the United States has taught us that, but perhaps Shakespeare said it best: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
I am reminded of the scene I saw unfolding a few weeks ago in front of the World Bank. Near the corner of Pennsylvania and 18th, all traffic stopped when a pair of mallard ducks led their young across the avenue to a small park. Someone who looked like an international finance expert, a more modestly attired security guard, and a student from nearby George Washington University (we get a lot of them visiting Dumbarton Oak Park pulling weeds just before exams), helped the feathered family make its crossing. A hurried taxi driver came to a full stop, pulled out his smart phone and took a picture—to send to his kids I imagined. Contact with nature, in the city especially, invites us to be present to ourselves and to the world we share.
Stay tuned for Part II of “Biophilia is Catching in the Nation’s Capital”, in two weeks.
Post by Stella Tarnay
Stella Tarnay is an urban planner who writes about cities, the environment, and the arts. She is Chair of Education for the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy and an Advisor in the Sustainable Landscape Design Program at George Washington University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image 1 courtesy of Eric T. Gunther via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2 courtesy of Steve Maslowski, US Fish and Wildlife Service
Image 3 courtesy of American Rivers
Image 4 courtesy of Anacostia Watershed Society