Is Washington, D.C. finally about to become a state?

Washington, D.C., yesterday. Image: public domain.

While Americans go to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the residents of Washington, DC will also vote on a slightly lesser known issue - whether their district should become a state.

The District of Columbia is unique in this denial of its civil rights. DC does neither have full control of its local affairs, nor voting representation in the House of Representatives. As the nation’s capital, it falls under the direct jurisdiction of the US Congress.

Over the years, a political movement has formed calling for statehood. There have been many fruitless attempts towards statehood,  the most recent in 1982, when citizens were last consulted on the issue. The effort went largely ignored by Congress…

Will this referendum be different? DC Mayor Muriel Bowser hopes so. Her idea for an advisory referendum plan and a state constitution was unveiled back in April. A draft document was debated, and in October the city council approved the proposed constitution should the district became a state.

The initial name ‘New Columbia’ has been dropped for the simpler ‘State of Washington D.C.’ - D.C. standing for Douglass Commonwealth, in honour of the abolitionist reformer Frederick Douglass.

So how would DC become a state?

DC can do so by either amending the US constitution, or by having Congress pass a bill that would grant the district state rights. Many believe constitutional amendment is necessary, however, Alan B. Morrison, the Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service at George Washington University, asserts that technically “no amendment to the US constitution is required for DC statehood.”

Hence, Mayor Bowser is pursuing option two. The plan would follow the steps of the process used in 1796 to admit Tennessee as the 16th US State, that included establishing and ratifying a constitution and establishing necessary governance means such as selection of delegates and representatives.

Were a possible future state to be formed, a constitutional convention to allow residents to fine-tune the document would be held – a last-minute DC Council requirement that vindicated Bowser’s critics for drafting a state constitution with limited citizen input.

Who wants statehood?

Statehood approvals within the District of Columbia are at record high, with recent polls pegging them at 70 per cent. However nationwide, the approval only amounts to around 27 per cent.

President Obama expressed his support for statehood in 2014, though more recently he has been accused of remaining silent on the issue. The Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised to be a vocal champion for D.C. statehood if elected president. Naturally, DC Republicans have been supportive too. Yet, at the national level, the GOP oppose the plan aggressively, while Donald Trump also appears to be reluctantly against

Muriel Bowser has been mounting the pressure. In April For the first time in 200 years, the DC Council has challenged Congress over its power to approve the local city budget. The Mayor and Council planned to implement a $13 billion spending plan without congressional approval. Yet, soon afterwards the Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee advanced a bill to block the city from enacting the measure. Subsequently Mayor Bowser maintained that such difficulties with Congress helped demonstrate the need to make the city the 51st state.

What happens after the election?

The morale boost of a decisive statehood backing would be immense. DC voters have not expressed themselves about statehood for 34 years. The referendum is both a means to gauge public opinion and a tool to put pressure on Congress by acknowledging that the three pre-conditions for statehood are met: a state constitution, boundaries, and acceptance of a representative form of government by a majority of the city's residents.

Still, it will take determination to get Congress to go along with DC statehood.  The biggest obvious barrier to achieving statehood is Republicans in Congress. “As long as they have a majority—or strong minority—in either chamber, they're not going to let it go forward,” says Washingtonian staff writer Ben Freed, who covers local politics. “For states that lean Republican, the likelihood of two more democratic senators will be a problem,” agrees Alan B. Morrison.

Mayor Bowser is hoping for a more favourable political environment – especially if the Democrats gain control of both the House of Representatives and Senate. However, even that wouldn’t be a silver bullet to statehood, as also Democrats have proven fickle with regards to this issue.

Alan B. Morrison believes that the biggest challenge in achieving statehood is “getting the word out and getting others interested in our plight.” It is important that people understand “how unfair the current regime is,” he says and stresses the unfortunate situation in which DC residents pay federal taxes and serve in the army but have no say in their government (hence the famous slogan Taxation without representation).

But there are other barriers, too. Quite simply, DC is not ready to be a state because it is not equipped to carry out many of the functions that states are expected to. “The elements of statehood fall into two categories. One can be called the ‘levers of democracy,’ like budget autonomy and changing the attorney-general position from an appointed one to an elected one,” explains Ben Freed, adding that there is also “the public services residents of states expect from their governments.”

DC does not fund its own judicial system. Criminal prosecutions are handled by the US attorney's office, courts are paid for with federal funds, and convicted criminals are housed in jails all over the country. Nor does it have a reputable public research university that can attract top-tier academic talent. “Quite simply, even if we're emotionally ready for statehood, we're not structurally prepared,” he says.

Even if statehood attempts do not succeed, there are steps that could improve today’s deadlock. Allowing the district’s representative in Congress to vote would be a brilliant first step that would allow for direct representation. An overwhelming win in next week’s referendum would certainly help. As Washingtonian’s Freed puts it: “the moral case for statehood is unimpeachable.” 

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.