June 22, 2016

Marking the culmination of collective work over the last year and a half, Washington, DC, known as the District of Columbia or “DC” locally, has formally joined the Biophilic Cities Network. Leading the effort was Biophilic DC, a group of professionals and organizations committed to bringing nature into the lives of their city’s residents. Co-founder Stella Tarnay observes that “Washington DC is arguably one of the greenest cities in the US, but we still have a lot of work to do make nature a part of people’s lives, especially for children in our poorest neighborhoods, and to build a culture of stewardship and friendship with the natural world.”

Washington DC is known for its many parks and trees, as well as its monuments. Two great rivers traverse its quadrants to join and flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Over the last decade, the City has become known for its progressive environmental policies, especially in the areas of energy and the built environment. DC has one of the largest numbers of ENERGY STAR-rated and LEED-certified buildings in the country. In December 2015, Washington DC received a global leadership award for its extensive investment in wind energy.

Potomac River Panorama from Key Bridge. By Ron Cogswell.

Yet the City faces a number of significant challenges in human health and environmental quality. Nature access is not equitably spread across neighborhoods, and asthma and obesity are chronic problems in many parts of the city. Public health problems tend to coincide with poverty and poor connections with (or lack of) green space, and poor access to fresh, healthy foods. A vibrant community of nonprofits and DC’s local government have begun to address these issues. Urban gardens are springing up across the City, and just last year, Mayor Bowser launched the FitDC program to encourage physical activity.

DC’s Department of Energy & the Environment (DOEE) has taken the lead in addressing environmental challenges such as water quality in the Anacostia River, stormwater runoff, and problems with invasives. While abundant, much of Washington DC’s natural environment is overrun with invasive plants, and animal species such as the wood thrush, DC’s official bird, are considered endangered.

At a May 23 gathering at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), over 160 local government representatives, Biophilic DC group members, architects, environmental advocates, and residents gathered to celebrate the City’s renewed commitment to its natural environment. Prof. Tim Beatley joined participants at Biophilic Cities: Nature at the Heart of Design and Public Policy to give a presentation, and to award a certificate of membership to DC. The event was hosted by UDC in its newly completed Student Center, designed to meet LEED Platinum standards and including biophilic design elements such as a 14,000-sq ft green roof and expansive rain garden.

Stella Tarnay addresses audience at DC Biophilic Cities event.

Sabine O’Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES), opened the ceremony with welcoming remarks. CAUSES has established a Center for Urban Agriculture and Gardening Education, which is focused on improving sustainable farming techniques to equitably improve urban health and wellness and encapsulates well the meaning behind the Biophilic effort in DC: to harness the power of urban nature to improve the lives of city residents. Stella Tarnay facilitated the program, which included an expert panel. Dean O’Hara joined Prof. Beatley and local experts to discuss opportunities to make DC a more biophilic city. Their lively discussion was followed by the celebratory certificate ceremony, at which representatives from DOEE accepted the membership certificate on behalf of the City.

Says Tommy Wells, Director of DOEE:

“The District of Columbia is honored to be among the first North American cities in the Biophilic Cities Network. Creating meaningful ways to connect residents to our natural urban habitat is vitally important, and is embedded in both our Sustainable DC Plan and our Wildlife Action Plan. As our population continues to grow, the District will benefit greatly from fellow Biophilic cities around the world and we look forward to sharing our own successes.”

The City’s Sustainable DC Plan, released in 2013, has the goal to make DC the “healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States” within one generation. Among other measures, the Plan calls for the restoration of the City’s tree canopy to 40 percent, and access to parkland or natural space within a 10-minute walk for all residents. Although “Nature” is one of 11 action areas identified in the plan, Tarnay notes that early implementation of the Sustainable DC Plan focused largely on energy and stormwater management. “More recently,” she says, “agencies have started to pay attention to the experience of nature, and the animal and plant species that we share our city with.” In early 2016, DC finalized an update to its Wildlife Action Plan, which outlines a strategy for conserving critical wildlife habitat, and DOEE now has an active pollinator program.

Deputy Director Maribeth DeLorenzo and Mary Lynn Wilhere from DC DOEE. Image provided by DC Environmental Network.

DC’s progressive stormwater management strategies play an important role in maintaining healthy natural environments. DOEE, in cooperation with sister local and federal agencies and DC Water, is restoring streams and riverbanks, and developing “green infrastructure” to control runoff wherever possible. DC has adopted a Green Area Ratio requirement for several areas of the city, which sets forth landscape and site design standards for new development “to help reduce stormwater runoff, improve air quality, and keep the city cooler.” Further, through DOEE, the City has also instituted a Stormwater Retention Credit Trading Program to create financial incentives for private green infrastructure development within the City.

The DC Government has provided full support for the Biophilic effort.  In April 2015, the Council of the District of Columbia adopted Resolution 210095 formally showing its support for the Network and the promotion of biophilic programs to increase opportunities for all District residents to connect with nature, as well as to promote biodiversity.

With DC’s membership in the Biophilic Cities Network, Biophilic DC plans to work closely with City agencies and nonprofit partners to make their City ever more natureful, a place where people and other species thrive. “We’re especially interested in supporting nature-based public health efforts, and opportunities to promote citizen science. And of course, the creative possibilities of social media,” says Stella Tarnay.  “I’d love for children to be tweeting about what amazing plant or lizard they just saw, and making nature experience part of the everyday conversation of our grown up, overworked federal workers—it would be good for everyone!”


Biophilic Cities are cities that contain abundant nature; they are cities that care about, seek to protect, restore and grow this nature, and that strive to foster deep connections and daily contact with the natural world. The Biophilic Cities Project is devoted to understanding how cities can become more biophilic, more full of nature, and to telling the stories of the places and people working to creatively build these urban-nature connections.

To join the Biophilic Cities Network, click “Join the Network“.

Check out the recent article about Biophilic Cities on The Dirt.