Every time it rains, San Francisco Bay gets a little sicker. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Asphalt streets collect pollutants from motor oil to metals from brake pads to nutrients from garden fertilizers. Rains quickly wash it all into storm drains, local streams and the bay. When combined with decades of industrial pollution, storm-water runoff damages marine life and kills fish, leaving those that survive too toxic to eat. We cannot completely repair the bay’s ecology, but we can improve its health and ours by changing the way we build city streets.
With $30 million available for street and watershed improvements, the city of Berkeley has a golden opportunity to be a standard bearer for urban design that benefits public health and the environment. However, if the city pursues business as usual, it will squander the opportunity.
In addition to transporting pollution to the bay, asphalt and paving materials contribute directly to pollution that can affect human health. Asphalt is held together by a mixture of petroleum products and waste from refineries and other industrial sources. This “recycled” material means that roads essentially become dumping grounds for waste that would otherwise require safe disposal. In addition, paved surfaces may be coated with extremely toxic sealants, which have been banned in Washington and Minnesota. Over time, these chemicals leach into waterways and the soils surrounding streets.
In 2012, Berkeley voters approved a bond for green infrastructure and street paving. The bond could be a great step forward, because the city needs to move away from asphalt paving alone. Modern pavement can allow water to soak into the soil, removing pollutants as it does. Better design for streets can channel storm water into basins filled with native vegetation that filter and clean the water.
These improvements would provide multiple benefits, including reduced flooding and pollution, aesthetic and safety improvements, and increased local property values. UC Berkeley has successfully installed green infrastructure on its campus. The city of Berkeley should follow the university’s lead.
Unfortunately, the city’s proposed $8.5 million spending plan for 2014-15 misses the mark by overwhelmingly emphasizing asphalt paving. City staff have recognized the need to incorporate low-impact development, but its design standards still specify asphalt paving without meaningful incorporation of green design. It would be a shame if our progressive leaders choose to spend taxpayer dollars on asphalt, when the chance exists to do something truly forward looking for our city and the bay.
As a first step, the city should move away from asphalt replacement. It should do so by emphasizing the green infrastructure that voters approved, and include environmental and public health when making budget decisions. These elements require review by city commissions. Using the bond proceeds to invest in our environmental and human health would pay great dividends for our residents.