December 7, 2015

It Takes a Village

by Grace Molino ‘18, Janice Gan ’17, and Kai Salem ‘18

We are the Climate Change and Environmental Justice TRI-Lab: a team of three students who have been working on issues of environmental justice, climate resiliency, and green infrastructure in the West End of Providence.

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How many people does it take to depave a traffic triangle? Apparently, an entire city.

Our current project came about through in-depth mapping and research that we conducted over the summer. After coming to understand the unique assets and challenges of the West End, we identified the intersection of Dexter and Bucklin Streets as a key site for a green infrastructure intervention: we plan to remove over a thousand square feet of impermeable, heat-retaining asphalt in the unused center of the intersection and replace it with an oasis of trees and hardy vegetation. This is intended to cool the area, reduce runoff, calm traffic, provide a beautiful neighborhood focal point, bring shade and green space to the over-paved industrial area.

This process was by no means a smooth one, as we’ve run into barrier after barrier over the past few months. First and foremost: neither the city nor our partner organizations had the funding to implement green infrastructure, and nothing can get done without money. Second: we’re not engineers, and to permit a site plan the city needs to see an engineering site plan. Third: if utility lines (water, sewer, gas, etc.) lay under our planned excavation site, we wouldn’t be able to dig. Fourth: if we didn’t have the support of the adjacent businesses, including Pilgrim Screw Corporation, which uses the intersection to turn its trucks around, our project wouldn’t be able to go through.

Our project was off to a surprisingly smooth start. We had just gotten an engineer to help with our site plans pro bono, our funding sources finally surpassed $10,000, we had discovered that utility lines did not, in fact, lie under our planned excavation area, and after a successful meeting we had received the support of the Pilgrim Screw Corporation, whose garage borders the project site. What we didn’t foresee, however, was soil contamination and all the ensuing steps we would need to take to surmount this hurdle.

Let’s start from the beginning: since the industrial revolution, Providence has been home to numerous factories and industries that have leached lead and other substances into the soil throughout the city. Elevated levels of metals and PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are considered standard, and many sites are listed as having major contamination issues. Because our project would remove the pavement and allow for stormwater to infiltrate and leach chemicals into the groundwater, this was a major issue. Soil contamination had the power to completely derail our project.

We started contacting everyone we had met over the summer or knew through our partnerships that could possibly advise us in how to handle this problem. We call Jon Ford, a civil engineer we met over the summer at a Green Infrastructure Coalition meeting. We called Giles MacDonald at Groundwork Providence who is one of our community partners on this project. We called Karen Beck, a landscape architect, who met with us over the summer. Everyone had a different opinion: depave, don’t depave, use raised planters.

Finally, we were put in contact with Neal Personeus at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He advised us to assume the soil was contaminated, but that the infiltration would not be large enough to cause problems.

The next day, GI Coalition confirmed what Neal had told us at their quarterly meeting. Even better, coalition members offered to help with the site plan and tree donations. The three of us breathed a huge sigh of relief - our project could continue on as planned, with even more support than before.    

During the course of our work, the power of personal relationships has become increasingly apparent to us. The green space that will be built in the West End rests on the support and contributions all those we have met: neighborhood residents, community partners, the GI Coalition, Brown University, the City of Providence.

In Providence, projects live and die by the connections you create - and ours is no exception.

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