Conserving and Revitalizing our Green Infrastructure (see link in story box)

At a James River Green Building Council luncheon this week, one current and one former member of the area’s planning commissions discussed their contributions to green infrastructure initiatives.

Tuesday’s luncheon at CitySpace on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall came as part of the building council’s Sustainable Design for the 21st Century series.

Albemarle County Planning Commission member Julia Monteith, the senior land-use planner in the University of Virginia’s Office of the Architect, provided examples of UVa’s current development strategy.

“Our approach,” Monteith said of UVa’s Grounds Plan — the document that will guide university development for the next 20 years — “is a compact design, so that all future development would happen on the Grounds, rather than continuing to build out.”

To describe how she thinks about planning, Monteith said she’s looking down from “about 5,000 feet.” She continued by emphasizing that it’s important not only to understand “what are we doing already,” but also “what we could do as a next step.”

Currently, UVa’s green infrastructure initiatives include 75,000 square feet of green vegetative roofs on Grounds, as well as a goal to reduce university greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent from their 2009 levels by 2025.

Taking a design approach similar to Monteith’s compact, in-fill plan, former Charlottesville Commissioner Karen Firehock heads the Green Infrastructure Center, a nonprofit that works with communities and local government entities to adopt green building practices.

“We’re trying to get cities to think of natural assets as part of everyday planning,” she said. “We’re not trying to restrict development. We’re trying to think about how we develop.”

Her main question was, “What have we learned, and what do we need to do to create developments that are cleaner?”

When asked about the types of projects she chooses to work on, she said she tries “to pick projects that demonstrate different principles, because it’s all about having teachable moments.”

Both speakers also discussed how they involve students in their work.

Firehock, who is also an adjunct professor in UVa’s School of Architecture, highlighted that her students learn by drawing conceptual designs.

As for course design, her ideal is that she teaches a class on sustainable planning of a whole city or town, followed by a “sites class,” in which students learn to redesign or retrofit a specific site to meet green standards, and then a grants class, in which students learn to raise money for implementation.

Monteith said she will often coordinate with professors of planning and architecture to have students work on current university projects as a practicum. “We actually have a lot of interaction with … students on our projects, which is really excellent.”

The average resident who’s interested in green development “should start in their own backyards,” Firehock said. “Plant trees, and then coordinate backyard connections with the people on your block.”

“When I arrived,” Firehock said, “the environmental section of Charlottesville’s Comprehensive Plan was one page. I’m happy that UVa is doing this, because I used to have to take my students far away to see green things — and rent vans — but now we can walk.”