Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden

DC churches take creation care to the next level
Getting Ourselves Back to the Garden
July 20, 2018 by: Robinne Gray

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How does your garden grow? Does it delight you with beautiful blossoms and scents? Does it provide habitat for pollinators and other wildlife? Perhaps it yields fresh, homegrown vegetables?

In addition to these familiar garden types, there is yet another possibility: Does your garden collect, slow down and filter stormwater to prevent flooding and support healthy rivers and streams?

As part of DC’s RiverSmart Communities program, the Anacostia Watershed Society works with schools and houses of worship to design and install river-friendly landscaping that does double-duty: beautifying properties with native greenery, and mitigating the flooding that often comes with heavy rains.

Luther Place, a neo-Gothic church of red sandstone listed on the National Register of Historic Places and prominently located on Thomas Circle, became a RiverSmart congregation in 2017. AWS worked with the church community to create a rain garden and path intentionally designed to let visitors to the garden see and hear any stormwater that may be flowing through. Being present to the flowing water in this way serves as a reminder of what the project is about: while protecting the foundation of the 1873 church, the garden also has the capacity to contain and filter over 2,700 gallons of urban stormwater, contributing to better water quality in the District.

Increasing numbers of religious congregations are becoming involved in environmental stewardship – in the Christian tradition, sometimes called “creation care” – as a means of demonstrating their commitment to being good caretakers of God’s creation: the natural world that supports all life. While caring for the entire planet can feel overwhelming, working at the level of the local watershed where one lives, works, or worships is more tangible and immediate, and gives the satisfaction of seeing results.

The Catholic church of St. Francis de Sales on Rhode Island Avenue sits at the very top of Hickey Run, one of the most polluted tributaries of the Anacostia River. The church’s pastor, Father Brian Sanderfoot, reached out to AWS to ask for assistance in improving the church property, which was almost 100 percent hardscape: two asphalt parking lots in need of repair, and four buildings.

Father Sanderfoot and his parishioners, already concerned for the environment, took to heart Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home to accept the challenge of reducing pollution from their church property. As one of RiverSmart’s largest installations, AWS and the church have replaced over 10,000 square feet of degraded asphalt with two beautiful rain gardens and two new parking lots made with permeable pavers that allow rain to soak into the ground. One parishioner said that the transformed lot now "looks like a patio with gardens!" The new gardens and lots dramatically reduce runoff pollution from the church while also making the property safer and more beautiful.

Installing many such river-friendly lots is a key strategy for cities looking for cost-effective solutions to managing stormwater. Traditional or “grey” infrastructure such as levees, dams, and tunnels tend to be large-scale, complex engineering projects that cost millions (or billions) of dollars. A complementary approach is to install “green” infrastructure such as rain gardens, cisterns, green roofs, and bioswales to let Mother Nature do the job for less. By providing funding and technical support to encourage local institutions to play an active role in capturing and treating their rain runoff on-site, the RiverSmart Communities program of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment offers a potential win-win as we work together to clean our water and un-pave paradise.

The Anacostia Watershed Society will be accepting applications for the next RiverSmart program in early spring 2019. If you’d like to learn more or submit an application, please contact Josh Clark at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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