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Freeways can give us Cleaner Air. Is that something you’d be interested In?

posted Nov 7, 2018, 1:41 PM by Rahni Sumler   [ updated Nov 7, 2018, 1:43 PM ]
Posted story written and reported by contributor Bret VandenBos through Daily Kos Freelance Program

One thing that’s amazing about Las Vegas is its ability to constantly create new revenue per square foot. What used to be a pool is now a “day club,” and it costs $40. What used to be free parking now costs $15, but at least you get those little lights that tell you when a spot’s available. What used to be a free drink is suddenly doled out based on how much you spend gambling. And let’s not even get started on resort fees.

Green Walls, Living Walls, and Vertical Gardens

Green wall - Longwood Gardens - DSC01041

Green wall - Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania, USA. A green wall is a wall partially or completely covered with greenery that includes a growing medium, such as soil or a substrate. Most green walls also feature an integrated water delivery system.  They are also known as a living wall or vertical garden. Green walls are also acknowledged for remediation of poor air quality, both to internal and external areas. Image by Daderot [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
Now, it might be a little strange to equate America’s mecca of consumption and excess with climate change, but there’s a lesson here: It’s time for America’s cities to start channeling their inner Las Vegas Strip. But instead of dollars per square foot, it’s time to start thinking about how to generate more carbon reduction per square foot of land, especially under-utilized land. In one-off ways, this is happening through different projects all over the world. Eco roofs, new energy efficiency standards, solar roads, and EV car shares are just a few examples of how cities are looking at existing square footage with a lens toward climate change and carbon reduction.

These Policies have the added benefit of being Practical, Tangible, and Physical

—As opposed to the kind of 40-year commitments and percentage targets we often hear about on the state or national level. One particularly interesting project along these lines can be found in the western hemisphere’s most polluted metropolis, Mexico City, though it’s not without potential tradeoffs. There, a project called Via Verde is bringing vertical gardens to freeway pillars.

Now at the moment, the scale of this project is somewhat limited, but the implications are compelling. Using reclaimed rainwater, the vertical gardens will filter an estimated 27,000 tons of toxic exhaust fumes annually. That equals cleaner air for 25,000 people and a greener, more vibrant cityscape. The plan is to expand these vertical gardens to more than 1,000 freeway pillars across Mexico City, and it’s currently financed entirely by the private sector.

Check out the short video below to see the process. 

In a vacuum, this sounds like an objectively good thing, right? A city that has long battled with pollution gets a creative tool to clean its air. A densely populated metropolis gets an infusion of greenery. What’s not to like? Well, like most things, it comes down to money. Specifically, the vertical gardens are really expensive (around $25K per column), and that investment does nothing to actually expand recreational green space or get people out of their cars.
Additionally, about 300 trees could be planted for the price of one column—which leads to the very natural question of where to put inherently limited dollars. Still, a lot of this criticism speaks to what the project doesn’t accomplish, as opposed to what it does.

On the Whole, Projects like Via Verde represent a Net Positive for Cities

—repurposing under-utilized square footage for a public benefit. These columns operate on land where trees would not grow, and economies of scale tell us that the more widespread this technology becomes, the less manufacturing costs will be a concern. Plus, there’s the added emotional and psychological benefit that comes from green space.

Speaking to Reuters, Via Verde project director and architect Fernando Ortiz Monasterio noted: "We live in a very grey city. Very grey, and we forget—because we have become used to that being our urban landscape. As soon as we find a park, a green landscape, we realize our mood changes."

This is the exact kind of initiative that should be taking hold in American cities, especially those with ingrained car cultures.

Call to Action: How to get Via Verde Projects in your Community!

The good news is, this is the type of project that you can help bring to your neighborhood. In Mexico City, Via Verde was citizen-led, first started by young people and community leaders, with a petition that garnered over 80,000 signatures in seven days. That enthusiasm spurred the city council to take action—and so the project was born. 

Another Avenue for Action: The Creation of local Nonprofits and Civic Organizations designed to work as Intermediaries between Government and Private Industry

 A project like Via Verde, of course, requires public land (which, depending on where you live, may be controlled by the state, city, or even county), but also private investors—if you want to scale the same model, that is. In Mexico City the investment is 100 percent private, with one of out every 10 columns dedicated to advertising. That allows for public benefits from public spaces without public investment—you just have to deal with the picture of a Lexus or a Hershey bar once in a while. Seems like a fair enough trade to bring cleaner air to 25,000 people, right?

Of course, this is just one of the interesting policies that cities are exploring, and one of the ways to reimagine our public and private land for carbon reduction. The opportunities are quite literally all around us. And, as Via Verde shows us, we don’t have to wait for a broken Congress or a climate-denying EPA to take the action we care deeply about. All we need to do is take a look toward America’s playground, think about the lessons from the Las Vegas Strip, and get to work scaling good ideas that are producing real results.

Bret VandenBos was a speechwriter to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and served in the press office of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.