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New pavement technology kicks technicians to the curb

The city of Durham used to rely on a simple approach to identify the roads that needed the most repairs: a technician driving around the city looking out the window.

Now the city has a newfangled approach: high-tech data collection vehicles with software that can paint a detailed map of the bumpiest roads.

Officials showed off the new vans at City Hall on Tuesday and said they would lead to better decisions about which roads to repair and resurface. The black and white vans, accented with yellow and red stripes, belong to Roadway Asset Services (RAS), a company hired by the Public Works Department to find problematic roads. 

“The vans have got newer, brighter cameras that are going to give us better vision,” said RAS President Scot Gordon. “It’s more of an automated system. It’s more repeatable, it’s more reliable, and it takes away some of the personal subjectivity.”

For the next four months, the RAS vans will cruise around neighborhoods collecting data and images for an online database. 

The vans might seem odd prowling through residential streets with a submarine-like antenna, cameras mounted on the front and the back, and multiple “CAUTION” decals. But Gordon said people will hardly notice them.

“The vans basically get out every day and they flow with traffic. They’re not stopping traffic. They’re not closing any roads. People aren’t even going to know they’re there,” he said.

The vans are scheduled to cover 40 to 50 miles of roads each day, collecting three types of data. An antenna camera will take a panoramic shot of a street with sidewalks, gutters, and street signs included. The back cameras will point straight down at the pavement and photograph cracking or weathering. The front cameras are the “profilers” that will record the smoothness of the road. 

After all 1,497 lane miles of city roads have undergone a “pavement evaluation,” RAS analysts will look at the data and give each street a condition rating from 0-100. Once city officials have these numbers sometime next spring, the Public Works Department will use them to figure out the most cost-effective approach for maintenance. The project is being financed by the city’s annual pavement budget of $7 million.

Clint Blackburn, who runs the city’s pavement management program, says officials will likely opt for a preservation model that focuses on routine, preventative maintenance for all roads rather than the more expensive “worst first approach” that would fix the most problematic roads, but do little in the way of overall maintenance.

“We want to keep our good roads in good shape and then slowly work on those other problematic roads as we have money,” Blackburn said.

Durham residents say they’re tired of bumpy roads. The annual Durham City and County Resident Survey showed that 45% of Durhamites were dissatisfied with road maintenance. They ranked it in the top three issues that should receive the most attention from city leaders in the coming years.

Blackburn said the city’s goal is always to keep residents happy, but they might not see results right away.

“In the long term, we get a lot of great results and that’s going to protect us from wear over time, but at first, it’s kind of a shock to residents because it’s hard to see the change immediately.”

The city tries to educate Durhamites about this work through neighborhood meetings, but COVID-19 has made that difficult in the past year. According to Blackburn, hardly anyone attends the virtual meetings.

“Sometimes we get zero people. It’s hard to get the message out,” he said. 

The city last assessed the roads in 2018 when the Public Works Department hired a contractor with similar data collection vehicles to RAS. (The results of that study can be found online in an interactive map in which roads are colored according to their condition rating. The average rating was 69 and slightly more than 25% of streets are highlighted orange, symbolizing poor condition.)

This year’s analysis should get even more accurate figures because of its use of AI algorithms rather than human analysts, officials said. They are part of a pilot program that will assign condition ratings automatically. Before, analysts had to consult a 98 page manual to identify and mark problems in the roads, now all they have to do is press a button. 

Photo above: Durham has contracted with Roadway Asset Services to use its high-tech vans to assess city streets. The vans are equipped with cameras on the front, back and on an antenna. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Schewel won’t seek reelection as mayor

Mayor Steve Schewel announced Thursday that he will not seek a third term.

Saying that he had “struggled mightily with this decision,” he told a news conference that he is ready to focus on family and some new priorities.

“I’ve been in local elected office for 14 of the last 17 years. Frankly that’s enough. . . I’m ready for something new. I’m only 70 years old so I’ve got a lot of future ahead of me.”

He said Durham is in good hands with the new city manager, Wanda Page, and he wants to leave the job to someone else so he can focus on a new granddaughter on the way. “I want to be there to help her parents and to be with her fully and completely and I’m very excited about that.”

He said he’s also “looking forward to having dinner with my wife every night.”

Schewel was first elected mayor in 2017 and won reelection in 2019. He had previously served six years on the City Council. In his campaigns for mayor, he has promised to focus on affordable housing, livable wages, equitable transit systems, police reform and LGBTQ rights.

He is probably best known for leading the city and county’s aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Durham became the first municipality in North Carolina to adopt a stay-at-home order and mask mandate. 

Schewel is the founder of Indy Week and has taught in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

He said he’s loved his time as mayor. “I’ve been very very lucky in my life. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed, and nothing that I’ve enjoyed as much as this.”

Schewel was asked if he had any advice for his successor. He said, “Durham is a rough and tumble political town, and you’ve really got to be able to roll with it.”

This story will be updated.

Photo at top: Steve Schewel announces he won’t seek reelection in front of City Hall. Photo by Nicole Kagan | The 9th Street Journal

Discord persists about and within Durham County’s leadership

The current and past leaders of the Durham County commissioners agree that board members need racial equity training. But getting started has been bumpy.

At a meeting on March 8, County Attorney Lowell Siler recommended The Robert Bobb Group as trainers. But after a tension filled discussion, most commissioners voted to require proposals from two more consultants instead, a move that angered the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and others. 

County Attorney Lowell Siler at the online March 8 commissioners meeting.

Siler was visibly exasperated. “I think you all know that you need something as soon as possible,” he said.

This was just one of a series of disputes involving commissioners, ranking county staff members and two local political actions groups over the past 14 months. Strife may surface again this Tuesday, during a planned virtual town hall event.

 The public got a first glimpse of allegations of racial discord within county leadership in February 2020. That’s when County Manager Wendell Davis, who is Black, wrote a letter to Commissioner Heidi Carter, a white woman, accusing her of “a consistent pattern of disparate behavior towards me and employees of color.” 

“I am now concerned that it is due to an inherent bias that you harbor not merely towards me, but people of color in general,” Davis wrote in the letter, which all commissioners received.

After INDY Week published the letter, commissioners hired Duke University law professor James Coleman to investigate. Coleman concluded that “none of the behavior about which Mr. Davis complained was motivated by racial bias on Commissioner Carter’s part.”

But Coleman called out the board for being in a “state of periodic dysfunction” and “a troubling lack of trust and meaningful communications” between the board and the county manager. Coleman recommended that the five-member commissioners find a constructive way to move forward.

Vice-chairwoman Wendy Jacobs at the meeting.

Both former chairwoman Wendy Jacobs and current chair Brenda Howerton have said  commissioners should receive racial equity training. A desire to do so with the School of Government at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill last fall didn’t work out, Jacobs said on March 8.

That night, representatives of the Bobb group presented a training strategy whose first step would be assessing the scale of the problem among commision members, Bobb team member Clara Axam said.

After the presentation, Jacobs said board members weren’t given a chance to craft a needed plan in advance, including the training’s timeline, its scope and what would be made public and kept confidential. On top of that, she said, the Bobb group’s almost $50,000 price tag was “astounding.”

After commissioner Carter made a motion to pursue training after county staff brought two more training proposals to review, only Howerton opposed that plan.

Commissioner Nimasheena Burns, who took her seat in December, said she voted for requiring more proposals to serve due diligence when making spending decisions. She stressed, however, that the county manager is not the only county employee who observes bias. “This is not about one particular employee, there is a sea of employees here who feel abused. That is why we are doing this training,”she  said.

Chairwoman Brenda Howerton at the meeting.

The Durham Committee issued a statement on March 22 saying commissioners should apologize for the “blatant disrespect shown” at the meeting. “The community witnessed first-hand how certain county commissioners treat Black county staff and a Black consultant seeking to provide much needed, individualized services,” the letter read.

Charges of disrespect are inaccurate, Jacobs, Carter and Allam stressed in written statements. Their reluctance to make a hire was rooted in favoring procurement practices that seek bids for sizable contracts, each stressed.

The influential People’s Alliance has weighed in on this strife too, but by taking aim at Davis. The left-leaning political action committee on March 8 urged commissioners not to renew Davis’ contract, which expires in June. Davis is too moderate and is paid too much, the group argued.

Commissioner Heidi Carter at the meeting.

Racial Equity Talks has organized a virtual town hall for Tuesday to discuss, among other things, whether Davis is being targeted for alleging that he perceived a white commissioner’s bias.

“Durham, North Carolina, self-professed and outwardly perceived  as one of the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive communities in America, is in a battle for its racial soul,” reads the dramatic description of the 6 pm event.

Leaders of the People’s Alliance initially declined to participate, but have changed their mind, Millicent Rogers, the alliance’s co-president said Wednesday. 

“After more thought, we decided that we had more to say and we are prepared to make those statements during the town hall,” she said.

Rogers, according to a poster promoting the event, is slated to participate in a segment titled: “Black Public Leadership and White Liberalism: The Case for or against Wendell Davis.”

9th Street Journal reporter Dryden Quigley can be reached at dryden.quigley@duke.edu

Community vision gives Belmont Park a makeover

For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected. 

“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it. 

Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality. 

Neighbors Guy Meilleur and Chris and Kaia Moyer discuss park plans on April 6, 2021. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people

Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites. 

“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”

Participatory budgeting at work

According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services. 

Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.

After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.

At least 25 Watts-Hillandale residents showed up at Belmont Park on April 6, 2021 to vote for the new plan. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.

“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.  

“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track. 

Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops

A vision realized

On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence. 

“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people

Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake. 

Kids voted, too.

“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.

Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.

By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.

A mockup shows plans for Belmont Park’s makeover at the corner of Albany and Sovereign Streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff. 

Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.” 

Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts. 

“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.

Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

I watched all 162 crashes at the Can Opener. Here’s what I saw.

The stoplight is red and the “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign flashes urgently as a semi-truck waits at the intersection. The driver has a moment to consider turning before impact with the railroad bridge above Gregson Street. Instead they keep going and approach the bridge at a crawl, hesitate, then charge on. Wrong move. 

The crash on Nov. 13, 2020, was just one of more than 160 recorded in this very spot, the scars etched onto the bridge’s protective beam. The beam is the real foe, unmoving and unforgiving. Its scratches are an inventory of human error, of man versus metal (man losing). 

The bridge at the Norfolk Southern–Gregson Street Underpass is known to the world as the Can Opener for the merciless way the beam peels the tops off of unsuspecting trucks. To watch it (160+ times!) is like seeing a giant hand pull the tab on a can of sardines and seeing the metal curve to unveil the prize within.

Since 2008, the Can Opener has developed a cult following well beyond Durham. The website 11foot8.com and its YouTube channel, operated by Jurgen Henn, an IT Manager for the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development, have shared videos of the crashes from cameras Henn set up at his office in nearby Brightleaf Square, and, later, in a shop kitty-corner to the bridge. 

Henn, who has worked in Brightleaf Square since 2002, got the idea to start recording the videos after a couple of years of hearing trucks smashing into the beam. His YouTube channel had a slow start but now has 164,000 followers. A typical video will get more than 1 million views. 

To understand the Can Opener, I watched every video. As I sat in cafes around Durham, I watched hours of scrapes, smashes and crashes, catalogued the human error, the reliability of steel, and the fragility of sheet metal and fiberglass. I laughed and gasped and winced. People stared. 

This is what I learned, spiced with some quotes from police reports that give you a flavor of the action.

VEHICLE 1 WAS IN THE RIGHT LANE OF TRAFFIC TRAVELING SOUTH ON GREGSON ST WHEN IT COLLIDED WITH THE OVERHEAD BRIDGE GUARD JUST SOUTH OF W PEABODY ST

Drivers cause the crashes, but in the videos, you don’t see the people very much. They exist in the periphery: innocent bystanders shielding themselves from debris or drivers who jump out of the trucks and throw their hats in frustration. The trucks become animated and the people are minimized to supporting characters. 

From what I could tell watching all the videos as well as reading accident reports and news coverage, very few injuries have been reported, and no one has died in the crashes. The majority of the harm seems to be to the drivers’ pride.

While each crash is its own special snowflake, I identified three main types of encounters: the Curious Cat, the Bullet, and the Barbershop Shave. 

The Curious Cat takes a hesitant approach; like a troublemaking feline, the driver suspects something is amiss but can’t stop themselves from exploring. Their foot barely touching the gas, they ease toward the bridge. (Perhaps they believe if they are quiet enough, the Can Opener won’t notice the oversize trailer!) Then they hear the unmistakable bang and metallic scrape from above as the beam peels away their roof. Because they’ve gone slowly, some are able to shift into reverse and delicately extract themselves; others need to be rescued. 

The Bullet is the most exciting of the Can Opener crashes. The driver approaches with velocity, seemingly unaware of the trap that lies ahead. The impact causes a whiplash, like a dog jerked back by their leash—the cabs sometimes lifted into the air by the impact of the beam. The top layer of aluminum is sometimes guillotined to varying degrees, usually triggering Newton’s first law (objects in motion stay in motion), ensnared where it is crumpled by the equal and opposite force of the wrinkled metal.

And then there is the Barbershop Shave. These trucks almost clear the height requirement, and usually make it most of the way through without much damage—but they leave with a kiss from the bridge. Debris rains down like rice at a wedding, marking union. 

DRIVER 1 SAID THAT HIS TRUCK IS MEASURED AT 12’4”; SIGNAGE FOR THE OVERPASS INDICATED THE CLEARANCE IS 12’4” 

The North Carolina Department of Transportation has futilely tried to stop the crashes over the years. When I spoke with them, they made it clear that there’s only so much they can do, as the bridge is technically the property of the North Carolina Railroad Company. 

“You know from our standpoint, we’ve done everything we can do to help the situation,” said Marty Homan, a spokesman at the NCDOT. 

In 2013, new signs indicating the height of the bridge were installed, in addition to a static overhead caution “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” black and yellow sign, to make the clearance warnings more visible. Two hours later, there was a crash. 

In 2016, traffic lights were added to the overhead warning that forces drivers to stop, stare at the now height-activated electronic “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN” sign, and ponder their options before they crash into the beam. That day, the camera recorded some successes from the new setup. Two months later, an Excel Moving and Storage truck crashed into the beam. 

Jurgen Henn, whose videos have made the Can Opener famous. The bridge was raised to 12-feet-4, but his website is still known as 11foot8.com. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone – The 9th Street Journal

In 2019, the North Carolina Railroad Company threw the NCDOT a bone—it raised the overpass 8 inches to 12-foot-4-inches. The project was not to prevent damage to trucks, but to level the tracks above. Crews lifted the bridge on hydraulic jacks, re-graded the tracks, and placed shims on the old foundation to add height. They also took the opportunity to spruce up the paint job. 

And to accent the bridge’s fresh, unjaded, bright yellow protective beam (installed to replace the one tormented by years of violence) the NCDOT positioned new height warning signs. Still, the bridge is more than a foot below standard overpass height. 

“You know, there are multiple signs, there are literally flashing lights that tell you, you’re about to strike the bridge. We can’t really do anything about it,” says Homan, “Because again … it’s not our bridge.”

Three weeks after the 2019 renovation, an Idealease box truck hit the beam and lost a piece of its roof. 

DRIVER 1 STATED HE WAS NEW TO THE AREA, WAS DISTRACTED BY THE GPS/NAVIGATION UNIT, DID NOT SEE EITHER OF THE OVER HEIGHT SIGNS OF THE ROAD, DID NOT SEE THE LED AND FLASHING SIGN HE WAS OVER HEIGHT, AND CRASHED INTO THE IRON RAIL PROTECTING ACTUAL RAILROAD BRIDGE

Drivers on Gregson heading toward the underpass are inundated by warnings of their impending doom, but some still crash into the bridge. 

How can that be?

The problem is not unique to the Can Opener. Traffic sign experts and traffic engineers from across the globe are baffled and intrigued by this question of road sign efficacy. 

“Criteria for the Design and Evaluation of Traffic Sign Symbols,” a 1988 study published by Robert Dewar, explores various aspects about why signs work and don’t work. Dewar’s careful analysis found “understandability” and “conspicuity” to be the most valuable aspects of effective signaling. The report leaves a reader thinking that a combo like, “OVERHEIGHT MUST TURN,” surrounded by flashing lights, and accented with clearly noted height requirements, might persuade drivers not to crash into a railroad bridge. But apparently not.

Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman writes that the signs aren’t flawed, we just have too many of them. Monderman believes that drivers have become numb to the forests of signs on  many roads. They just tune them out.

For clarity, look no farther than “Driver’s Cognitive Workload and Driving Performance under Traffic Sign Information Exposure in Complex Environments: A Case Study of the Highways in China” (a paper whose title seems to be a “cognitive workload” itself).  It, too, makes the point that drivers are overloaded with stimuli and can’t process all the signs they see.

Indeed, I noticed that many of the Can Opener’s victims are Penske or other rental trucks. That suggests the drivers might be unfamiliar with their trucks, unaware of their clearance and don’t realize they need to  be on the lookout for overheight signs. 

Henn, resident 11’8” (now +8”) expert, has some different ideas. 

“I think people are just distracted. They don’t expect it, sneaks up on them a little bit,” he said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “And the location is a little tricky because it’s a two lane, one-way road between two relatively tall buildings. So the approach is really narrow.” 

On top of that, drivers are often speeding on this road. The speed limit is 25 mph; an impact at that speed would not cause Bullet level damage. 

“If you haven’t been paying attention to the signs, you won’t catch the bridge, and by that time you’re on it,” he said. 

VEHICLE #1 COLLIDED WITH A LOW BRIDGE PROTECTION PILLAR, DAMAGING THE TOP OF THE BOX TRUCK. THE PILLAR PROTECTS THE RAILROAD BRIDGE THAT CROSSES OVER N GREGSON ST.

To watch over 160 of these collision videos is to understand the modern limits of onomatopoeia. Somewhere around video 30, “shhhhhhrhastpt,” “craaasttshp,” and “sRTkkkst” all start to tire of their intrigue. 

Watching them is to realize, too, how few verbs there really are to describe the length, magnitude, and velocity of a large truck unknowingly stopped by a steel beam. “Collide”, used often in the police reports of the incidents, seems to forget that the tops of these trucks are flayed effortlessly. “Smash” ignores the delicate niche of the truck’s cab gliding under the bridge, only to be harangued back by the bar’s unsympathetic disposition. “Hit” is useless. I looked up synonyms for “decapitate.” 

I tried to be precise in my descriptions but found the terms of local trucking were a bit baffling. In the case of the box truck, stout or extended, the structure tends to be made up of dry freight aluminum sheeting within a heavy duty metal frame or Fiberglass Reinforced Plywood, according to a US Truck Body brochure. Both styles are adorned with an aluminum “Zephyr” front nose and corner castings. This seems to be the piece that sustains the Can Opener’s initial blow. 

But the beam is not discriminating in its victims, and box varieties are not the only overpass underpassers with battlescars to show. Many campers will find themselves sweating in the summer months, as their RV’s AC units get plucked off by the beam. One trailer carrying a stable’s worth of hay lost two bales from the top of the pile to the team, and trailers alike often find themselves stacked too high for the bridge’s liking. 

The worst crashes look horrible. The top is guillotined with a swift but abrasive punch. In some cases, the roofing is rolled off with precision, like those fancy ice cream places that take a scoop and turn it into a tube. Depending, then, on the extent of the damage to the top, the sides begin to give. If the beam intersects at the right angle, the sides sometimes mangle from the get-go, and the whole truck box suffers a rupture. 

Every now and then, a driver is able to escape. When November’s 18-wheeler victim moved forward after its sneak approach, its cab bounced under the beam with a snap and pop. Thinking quickly, the driver dropped the air suspension and backed out to avoid further damage. After careful extraction, his box attachment escaped unscathed. 

The Can Opener was left hungry. 

THE VEHICLE WAS RETRIEVED BY ONE OF ITS COMPANIES REPRESENTATIVES AND CONTINUED IN MOTION. 

Photo montage at top: Six of the 162 videos we watched from 11foot8.com. Copyright Jürgen Henn – 11foot8.com 

Durham residents’ biggest gripe? Lousy streets

In 2020, a turbulent year of disease and conversations of racial equity and police violence, residents of Durham were most unhappy with the city streets. 

In the annual survey of city residents, road maintenance had the highest rating of dissatisfaction (45% were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied), higher than the public schools (34%) and police protection, which scored remarkably well, with 53% satisfied or very satisfied.    

Residents also chose city streets third to receive the “Most Emphasis from City and County Leaders over the Next Two Years,” behind police protection and public schools.

The city conducts the survey to get feedback on its services as well as those offered by the county and Durham Public Schools. The city’s news release about the survey was quite cheery (“Durham Satisfaction Survey Shows Residents Pleased with Employee Service During COVID-19 Pandemic”), but we decided to focus on the persistent grumpiness about the roads. 

“We get this every year,” Mayor Steve Schewel said about the road complaints. “It always amazes me.” 

Schewel noted that the roads that receive the most complaints aren’t ones that the city maintains.

He said key streets in Durham such as Hillsborough Road, Cameron Boulevard, and Fayetteville Street aren’t managed or maintained by the city itself. They are actually state-owned and maintained. 

One problem is money. He said that state maintenance relies on the state gas tax, but it can’t keep up with the changing fleet on the roads.

“People have been driving less, driving hybrid vehicles, and driving more fuel efficient cars,”  said Schewel, whose wife drives a Prius. “So gas tax collections have really gone down. The state has been strapped for cash for road maintenance.” 

City residents, probably unaware of nuances of road ownership and budgeting, just want better streets. When asked which government service should receive the more funding, 47% of survey recipients said street maintenance.

Schewel said it’s a constant challenge to balance the needs with available revenue. “Part of it is that we need to continue to spend local money on street paving,” he said, “but the state also needs to do its job on thoroughfares which they tend to own.”

But don’t be surprised if next year’s survey is very similar. Said Schewel, “We are never quite where we want to be on street paving.” 

In photo above: Drivers have to dodge large potholes on Erwin Road between Cameron Boulevard and Morreene Road. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama | The 9th Street Journal

Work orders pile up as Durham public housing faces ‘system breakdown’

In Sasha Pass’s three-bedroom unit at the Hoover Road public housing community, toilets keep clogging. Because of a broken showerhead downstairs, Pass must trek upstairs every night after caring for her seven children, an inconvenience, but one of many in a long day.

Then there’s the ceiling, still leaking after three repairs, a constant reminder of the Durham Housing Authority’s failure to help her.

“It’s a blessing to have this, but at the same time it’s stressful,” Pass said of her housing.

She isn’t the only resident trying to get help. The housing agency, which oversees almost 1,900 public housing and subsidized apartment units, has struggled for years to fix issues ranging from old appliances to pests and mold. A January 2021 report from the agency reveals a backlog of hundreds of maintenance requests across the agency’s 17 properties. 

DHA leaders pinned delays on the pandemic and a persistent shortage of maintenance staff. But activists and some residents contend that there are long-standing breakdowns in communication and accountability between residents, property management staff, and agency leadership.

Deteriorating conditions

Residents of Durham’s public housing have long struggled with deteriorating conditions. DHA properties have failed more federal Housing and Urban Development physical inspections than public housing agencies in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Raleigh, and Greensboro. The problems are exacerbated by the sheer age of some DHA properties. Hoover Road, located in East Durham near North Carolina Central University, was built in 1968, making the 54-townhome complex one of the agency’s oldest sites.

In November 2020, the housing authority removed a storage trailer infested with rats near the homes of some Hoover Road residents. Pass and her neighbor Shaneeka Marrow, who lived next to the trailer, said at the time that they first called Hoover Road’s property management office for help in July. But Emanuel Foster, DHA’s housing operations director, said he was not aware of the rat problem until Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods activists advocating for residents emailed and called him in October.

According to a January 2021 report prepared for the DHA board of directors, the agency counted 776 pending maintenance requests, called “work orders,” at the end of December 2020. 219 of them had been pending for over three months.

DHA CEO Anthony Scott attributed the backlog to the agency’s decision to suspend most maintenance work in March 2020 after difficulties getting protective equipment as the coronavirus first hit Durham. Staff worked only on emergency repairs and didn’t tackle non-urgent requests until August, he said.

Clothing lines stand outside of McDougald Terrace, a 360-apartment DHA public housing complex.

Data from DHA is not always publicly available or clear. Several DHA reports from 2020 were only made available on the agency’s website after The 9th Street Journal requested them. Some totals appeared to not add up in several monthly work order reports from the summer. Other figures were repeated from one month’s report to another without explanation. Foster and Scott did not answer questions seeking to clarify the data.

Durham CAN, the activist group, carried out an informal survey about conditions at Hoover Road and sent DHA feedback and photos it collected from 16 residents. Mold, electrical hazards, and ceiling leaks were the most commonly reported problems, and nine tenants said they or their children had respiratory problems or felt sick. At the end of 2020, when DHA staff surveyed Hoover Road residents about work orders, five of the 11 households that responded said there were still health and safety issues that hadn’t been properly fixed, and three said they were waiting on repairs.

Communication breakdown

Hoover Road residents say there’s a recurring pattern. When mold spreads, vermin move in or door hinges break, they are told to call their property management office to report issues. But residents are concerned about a lack of documentation of these requests, said Regina Mays, a volunteer with the city’s Partners Against Crime program who talks with residents weekly and assists them with DHA matters.

“Some of them don’t get any type of feedback,” Mays said. “How can you give me a date if you say you don’t even have documentation?”

Pass, who has lived at Hoover Road since February 2019, said property management does not give residents receipts or tracking numbers for their requests. Maintenance staff have come to work on her unit without giving prior notice, including when she is homeschooling her children during the day, Pass said.

Some residents received repairs after speaking to local media about their struggles, Mays said. Others have resorted to asking family or friends to help them with fixes.

When asked about residents’ communication concerns, Scott acknowledged that the agency needs better channels for feedback and concerns.

“We have some system breakdowns,” Scott said. “You’re trying to fix a system breakdown, that’s not going to happen quickly.”

DHA officials told CBS17 in January that the agency plans to start a hotline for work orders. In the meantime, Scott said residents should contact his office directly if they don’t get a response to an urgent work order.

But Pass said it was unlikely she would have the time or desire to do so. “Why would I talk to him?” she said, adding that when Scott visited Hoover Road in 2019, she had shown him her leaking ceiling.

Next steps

To address the backlog of work orders, DHA is bringing in 30 to 35 temporary contractors, CBS17 reported. Once those are fulfilled, Scott said the agency’s own maintenance crews will keep work orders from piling up again. Although he acknowledged complications with scheduling repairs, including families homeschooling children, Scott was firm about the agency’s goal.

“This year, we want to clear our entire backlog,” he said.

Scott also said rebuilding trust and increasing resident engagement would be part of the solution to communication problems. He said DHA would prioritize efforts to revive each property’s resident council, an elected group of residents who he said would facilitate complaints and create a sense of community. As a public housing agency, DHA is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to maintain a Resident Advisory Board composed of resident council members.

Scott said many resident leaders step down due to health issues, death, or other circumstances, and that having resident engagement in public housing is not easy because people are busy.

But he could not identify more specific reasons why DHA faces challenges with resident engagement.

“It’s been a big mystery for me,” Scott said.

At top: A storage trailer infested with rats sits by the Hoover Road public housing complex in October, before it was removed. Photo by Henry Haggart.

9th Street Journal reporter Charlie Zong can be reached at charlie.zong@duke.edu 

Mandy Cohen Day … without Mandy Cohen

Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, was “Secretary Mandy Cohen Day” in Durham. But Dr. Cohen, the North Carolina secretary of health and human services, didn’t come to Durham, nor could she stand before the City Council as members honored her with a key to the city. 

It marked the first time someone has received a key to the city without actually being in the city. Quite appropriately, Cohen was following her own COVID-19 safety directives to avoid indoor gatherings (the City Council meets by Zoom these days). That directive and many others from the state have surely saved countless lives, which has prompted considerable praise for Cohen’s handling of the pandemic as North Carolina’s top health official.

During the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel honored Cohen for her “exceptional service to our city and its people.” 

“We are only able to present the key to you virtually tonight,” Schewel said. “We do have a real key to give, but we’re following your COVID-safe instructions.”

Schewel said the key will be kept at City Hall along with the proclamation in “beautiful physical form.”  She’ll receive both once city officials determine it is safe to return to City Hall for mundane duties such as mailing packages.

After the meeting, Schewel said he was sorry she could not attend. “I would love to have shaken her hand. I would love for her to have actually heard a crowd of people rising and applauding.”

Cohen, who took part in the meeting while sitting with her family by the stone fireplace of their Raleigh home, said she felt both lucky and saddened to have received the honor without leaving her front door. 

“It’s amazing to be in your own home and still be connected to everyone,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “But, we miss being in person, as everyone does. There’s an intangible aspect there … we try to replace it, but it’s never really the same.”

Cohen said she was grateful she could share the moment with her husband and young daughters.

“It’s been a hard year not just on me, but on all of our families, so it was nice to be able to include them in the moment and for them to hear how my work and our team’s work has been impacting the state.” 

Cohen’s key recognizes her response to COVID-19, but she has other public health responsibilities. Since her appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Cohen has worked to combat substance abuse, raise mental health awareness and close the health care coverage gap. She has earned Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership in Public Health Practice Award and been named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare.

“She is leading probably the most difficult, complex department that we have in state government,” Cooper said during the meeting. “And I’m grateful for her everyday.”

Cohen said she is eager to visit the city.

“We spend, as a family, a fair amount of time playing in Durham,” she said. “And we look forward to being able to do that again.”

In photo above: The City Council honored Mandy Cohen, lower left, during its Zoom meeting on Jan. 19.   

Durham can’t achieve a carbon-free future alone

In 2019, the city of Durham committed itself to an ambitious climate goal.

The City Council passed a renewable energy resolution that said by the end of 2020, the city would develop an action plan to transition government-run trucks, police cars and buildings, to renewable energy sources. By 2030, 80% of city operations would use renewable energy, with a goal of carbon neutrality by 2040, and 100% renewable energy reliance by 2050.

Now, coming up on that 2020 deadline, the city has to figure out how to make this goal happen.

Many of the implementation details won’t be spelled out until a consultant delivers a plan next summer to City Council with strategies and costs.

But the challenges are obvious. A dramatic reduction in the city vehicle fleet’s carbon footprint is necessary and is likely to be expensive. Doing the same with city buildings will require major help from city electricity suppliers like Duke Energy.

“We’re gonna do our part, but we need everybody else to step up in order for us to meet those goals,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson.

More than 100 cities and counties across the U.S. have launched plans to eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions — starting with their own operations. Durham’s City Council joined them by passing a renewable energy resolution calling climate change “real”. It acknowledges that rising greenhouse gas levels will lead to food and water shortages, increasing numbers of refugees globally, greater poverty and mass extinction of plants and animals.

Earlier this year, the city hired the Georgia-based engineering firm GDS Associates to finalize a blueprint for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction by next July. This blueprint would be limited to city operations and exclude community or residential emissions.

The city’s carbon footprint

City of Durham 2020 carbon emissions by emission source. Statistics provided by Lauren Davis.

In Fiscal Year 2020, city buildings and operations released about 48,318 tons of GHG emissions into the atmosphere, said Lauren Davis, administrative analyst for the General Services Department. She explained that that was a 20% reduction since FY 2010.

Some of this pollution comes from the city’s 1,349 vehicles – police cars, fire trucks, garbage trucks and other vehicles driven by city employees every day, said Davis.

Some of it comes from city buildings that run on electricity generated by Duke Energy and natural gas from Dominion Energy. The two utilities sell Durham power produced by plants that run primarily on nuclear energy, natural gas, water-power and – decreasingly – coal.

In the year ended June 30,  Durham spent nearly $10.6 million on fossil fuels and electricity, with more than $6 million of that going to the power companies, Davis said.

Duke Energy’s key role

The city’s goals call for an increased reliance on solar, wind or hydroelectric power to keep its vehicles moving and its buildings heated and cooled. To reach carbon neutrality by 2040, government officials can also invest in strategies that offset remaining GHG emissions – possibly by planting trees that sequester carbon.

Duke Energy, as the city’s primary electricity provider, will be a key to the success of the renewable energy plan, a fact that city officials and Duke Energy representatives have acknowledged.

“The goals are not achievable without Duke Energy really changing a lot of things about how they create energy,” said Johnson, the mayor pro tem. “If we are going to adopt these goals then we need to be serious about them. And that if we are going to be serious about them, we need to get serious about getting Duke Energy on board with these changes.”

Earlier this year, the city and the utility reached an agreement – called a “memorandum of understanding” or MOU – setting the power company and Durham on a path to work together to reduce carbon emissions.

“This MOU calls for the creation of a work plan between the city and Duke Energy. We anticipate creating the work plan after the final delivery of the carbon neutrality and renewable energy action plan from GDS Associates,” said Davis.

“We have a long standing collaborative relationship with the city and so we’re really excited to work together with them to achieve their clean energy goals,” explained Meredith Archie, spokesperson for Duke Energy.

This partnership will likely include infrastructure for electric vehicle charging stations, the replacement of street lights with lower-emission LEDs, and more energy-efficient lighting in city buildings, said Archie.

“[The city] is also currently evaluating the Green Source Advantage Program, which would allow them to offset their power purchases by securing renewable energy from projects that are connected to the Duke Energy grid,” Archie said.

Electricity generation produces nearly 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. And power companies have been under significant pressure from regulators, investors and private and public customers like Durham to move from fossil fuels to renewables.

Duke has already scaled back its reliance on coal in its generating facilities. A decade ago, coal plants produced more than 60% of Duke’s power; it is now 22%. Duke is still heavily dependent on nuclear power and natural gas, but by retiring coal plants, it reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 39% throughout its six-state service area between 2005 and 2019.

Last year, the utility announced an updated climate plan to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and to achieve “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. In other words, any emissions in 2050 would be offset by greenhouse gases taken out of the atmosphere by the utility.

The problem with that, says Tobin Freid, Durham County sustainability director, is that “net zero” does not guarantee Duke will achieve that goal with renewable sources.

Like the city, Durham County wants to reduce its emissions by transitioning to 80% renewable by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The county hired its own expert, Eco-Shift Consulting, last month to come up with a renewable energy plan by March.

Freid questions whether Duke will be able to accelerate its renewable portfolio to meet the city and county goals. “Duke Energy plans to go 100% carbon-free. But that’s not the same thing as renewable,” Freid said. “What does that mean for the city and county’s renewable energy plans by 2050?”

Carbon-free energy, she noted, could include non-renewable sources like nuclear power.

Even some renewable sources are potentially problematic, such as biogas derived from hog waste. Under state law, Duke must generate 0.2% of its retail sales from swine waste by 2024, and it has begun by partnering with Smithfield Farms at the pork giant’s Tar Heel processing facility.

But the 2,400 hog farms and nine million hogs in North Carolina, one of the nation’s leading pork-producing states, have created environmental problems with waste lagoons and methane gas emissions. While biogas may grow to be a significant renewable resource, it comes from an industry that has been criticized and sued for adverse health impacts on neighbors, frequently people of color.

So, Freid questioned, if not biogas, then what? “I think it’s very naive for people to think that we’re just going to electrify everything, get rid of natural gas altogether, and then meet all of that electrification need with renewable energies.”

She did point out the potential to use human waste as a power source. Raleigh is building a biogas facility using sludge from sewage plants. If Durham were to do something similar, that could not only generate power but reduce emissions from wastewater treatment facilities.

The fleet

The city’s cars and trucks are the second-greatest contributor to the city’s emissions, and it has already started replacing conventional gasoline-fueled cars with hybrids and electrics. The city recently purchased 21 hybrid police cruisers and now has a total of 47 hybrid and seven electric vehicles.

“As existing vehicles and equipment come to the end of their life cycle, opportunities to invest in smaller, more efficient, and environmentally-friendly replacements is the goal,” said Davis.

It is unlikely, however, that all government vehicles will quickly transition to electrics, given the cost and current technology limitations.

“It’s not reasonable to just retire all of the vehicles now and replace them with electric vehicles,” said Freid. “They have a long lifespan and so rotating the vehicle out with take time.”

“How do we run our ambulances if there aren’t electric ambulances?” asked Freid. “So until these things actually exist, we can’t replace what we have with them, regardless of what they might cost,” she said. “And, then again, if they cost a lot more, we can’t do that either.”

And while the city will be working with Duke Energy on a pilot electric vehicle charging program, questions remain over how quickly charging stations will spread around the city.

“Charging infrastructure is a concern,” said Davis. “We look to our General Services department along with [GDS Associates] to develop a comprehensive plan to provide the charging infrastructure.”

One winner in the road to carbon-neutrality may be public transit, as cities look to greener alternatives for car owners looking to reduce their own carbon footprints. Johnson highlighted that in the eventual transition to electric buses, there may be opportunities to increase public transit options for Durham residents.

Busses lined up at Durham Station. Photo by Henry Haggart.

“The motivation for expanding transit is definitely partially an environmental and sustainability motivation as part of our sustainability goals,” said Johnson. “But a lot of it’s related to access for residents who are low-income and who can’t afford vehicles. We are expanding transit overall.”

Some history

What Durham is trying to achieve now builds on 25 years of struggling to grapple locally with the city’s share of a global problem.

The city started measuring its greenhouse gas emissions in the mid-90s. In 2007, the city and county created an emissions inventory and adopted a 2030 plan, but it lacked milestones, said Freid.

“At the time, we were the first community in North Carolina to adopt a plan, and it was very, I guess, state-of-the-art for 2007, but not so state-of-the-art for now,” Freid said.

Recent events may be working in Durham’s favor.

Although Durham’s carbon reduction plans do not rely exclusively on federal funding, Joe Biden’s victory last week in the presidential election could have an impact.

The U.S. signed the Paris agreement on climate change action when Biden was vice president, and he campaigned on an aggressive program to combat global warming. By contrast, President Trump pulled the country out of the Paris Accords, acting as a pro-coal climate change skeptic and reversing key Obama administration policies to reduce GHGs.

Now officials in cities and counties throughout the country will be watching to see if a Biden administration will boost funding substantially for localities embarking on programs like Durham’s.

Federal agencies tend to favor regional solutions, and Durham and Durham County have been working together even as they develop separate plans.

The city’s consultant, GDS Associates, and Durham County’s Sustainability Office plan to go before their joint Environmental Affairs Board on Nov. 12 with updates on the respective city and county plans.

“We’re actually currently in discussions about potentially a joint renewable energy project,” said Freid. “And there’s a joint fire-EMS station. So the fire station is run by the city, but the EMS, emergency services, is a county function. We have a joint facility, it’s new, and that has solar panels on it.”

In July 2019, solar panels were installed on the roof of Durham’s Fire and EMS Station 17,  home to firefighters and emergency medical service staff. The station, located at 5502 Leesville Road, can now generate approximately 60,000 kWh of its own electricity annually, covering about 60% of the facility’s annual energy consumption. Image provided by Lauren Davis.

What about Duke Energy?

One wild card in the mix is the future of Duke Energy itself.

Duke, one of the nation’s largest power companies, was recently the target of a buyout proposal from NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light. NextEra calls itself the largest generator of renewable energy from wind and solar, and if it acquired Duke, it is expected that it would speed up Duke’s renewables timetable.

Duke rejected the proposal, according to the Wall Street Journal, which noted that hostile takeovers in the utility industry are rare.

Whether Duke, in response to takeover attempts or the arrival of a significantly greener administration in Washington, will speed up on its own is uncertain.

“I think in terms of next steps over the next year,” said Duke’s Archie, “we’ll work with the city to help provide input and develop a work plan that will advance different priorities to achieve their goal around energy efficiency, economic development, electric vehicle infrastructure, and renewable energy expansion among other areas.”

“We understand that we’re an important partner in their ability to achieve their goals and certainly we want to. We’re committed to helping them get there,” she said.

Johnson believes the city’s pressure on Duke Energy could encourage other cities and states to put similar pressure on the energy provider. Locally, Chapel Hill has committed to the same 100% renewable goal by 2050, as have Orange County and Hillsborough. Gov. Roy Cooper in 2018 ordered that the state reduce its overall emissions to 40% of 2005 levels by 2025.

“What we hope will happen is if Durham starts pushing Duke Energy to make these changes, and they agree to do so, that can have a ripple effect on other municipalities,” Johnson said.

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: Exhaust fumes flow out of a GoDurham bus downtown. Photo by Henry Haggart.

Durham’s plan to plant 1,500 trees a year may face funding, development challenges

For almost three years now, the city of Durham has committed to planting 1,500 trees a year, nearly all of them in low-income communities. 

The city’s initiative to add more street trees is an effort to maintain Durham’s canopy and address historic discrimination that extended even to the ground between streets and sidewalks.

But this ambitious program faces questions about how it will be funded, and whether the rapid development in Durham’s booming real estate market will uproot trees as quickly as new ones are planted. 

“The city is doing more and they have this goal,” said Katie Rose Levin, executive director of TreesDurham, an advocacy group. “It’s just a matter of ‘Now that you know the right thing to do, you actually have to pay for it.’” 

When the program was launched in 2018, the plan was to pay for it with a mix of private and public funds, according to Durham Mayor Steve Schewel.

Schewel said the city never intended to pay for the program by itself. “I don’t think it’ll ever be true that there won’t be private donations for tree planting,” he said. “But I’m sure that the city will continue to fund more and more trees. I agree that we need to be increasing public funding for it.”

Slightly more than half the funding this planting season, around $65,500, will come from nonprofit Keep Durham Beautiful, which works very closely with the city. In fact, its executive director, Tania Dautlick, is paid by the city and works in the city’s General Services building.

The rest of the money, around $60,000, is supposed to come from donations to the city, which is cobbling together its share from tree-planting donations citizens make in their water bills, stormwater funds and donations from Duke, through its carbon offsets program. 

There is no sizable, recurring line item in the city budget for the tree initiative. Last year, the city came up with its share, nearly $68,000, through the participatory budgeting process, a one-time community budgeting source.

When asked if Keep Durham Beautiful had the same understanding of where funding would be coming from and the nonprofit’s role in funding this program as Schewel, Dautlick said: “The City continues to support the tree planting program, while leveraging additional community resources to meet its goals. The City has always worked closely with Keep Durham Beautiful and other community partners, as part of its ongoing tree planting partnerships and will continue to do so in the future.”

This lack of a guaranteed source of city funding worries tree advocates inside and outside City Hall. The city’s share of the funding for this year has not started flowing yet, and planting season begins in November.  

“We actually don’t have funding for our tree-planting program as of right now,” said Daniel Hickey, the city’s tree-planting coordinator.  “We were expecting to get it this year, but due to COVID, there’s been a lot of, you know, stalls with funding,” said Hickey. 

Dautlick said that Keep Durham Beautiful will continue to support the project every year. But Hickey worries about the impact of the pandemic.

“I think my concern is how many years in this post-COVID economic depression are there still going to be donors,” he said. “If we don’t have a tree-planting budget and the donors dry up, we’re going to have to get really creative.”

Kevin Lilley, director of Durham’s General Services Department, and Mayor Schewel are confident in the city’s ability to maintain city funding.

“Durham will continue to have a tree-planting program.” said Lilley, whose agency includes the city’s urban forestry unit. “We have a remarkable staff and wonderful community partners who find creative ways to fund the program,” he said in an email. 

Schewel agreed. “The city is 100 percent committed to planting at least 1,500 trees a year. That’s a commitment of the City Council,” he said. 

Towering trees extend over houses and the road in Trinity Park and a view of downtown Durham seen from South Street in a formerly redlined area. Southside has changed dramatically in recent years due to the Southside Revitalization Project. Photos by Henry Haggart.

Schewel has made the 1,500-tree initiative one of his signature programs, an effort to not only  beautify Durham and provide shade, but also to provide a measure of social justice. The goal of the program is to plant 85 percent of the new trees in low-income neighborhoods. 

“Durham street trees are about 100 years old. They were planted about 100 years ago and they were planted in primarily white neighborhoods,” explained Levin of TreesDurham.

TreesDurham, an environmental justice non-profit dedicated to protecting forests and creating environmental equality across Durham, was established in 2018, when the city had no formal plan for its tree plantings. Without Durham’s former urban forester, Alex Johnson and Keep Durham Beautiful,  dying trees wouldn’t have been replaced at all, Levin said. 

However, it wasn’t enough to replace dying trees; historic redlining practices had left many low-income and minority communities without much needed greenspace. 

“When the research came out showing the racial distribution of trees . . . if we just replanted the trees where they died, we perpetuated this racial inequality,” Levin said. 

“We have two problems,” said Schewel. “One of our problems is that we’re losing our tree canopy, but an equally important problem is that our tree canopy is inequitably distributed. This is a racial justice issue, and we have to be able to help correct that inequity.”

But the reality facing the tree-planting program, besides the need for long-term funding sources, is  the impact of the bulldozers and chainsaws that have been reshaping the urban landscape. 

Only stumps remain of trees recently cleared from the property of Grace Baptist Church. Photo by Henry Haggart.

As developers have discovered Durham over the past two decades, the fate of the city’s trees has become bound up in concerns about growth, gentrification, and the health of neighborhoods.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, trees provide important health and air quality services for Durham locals. 

The coronavirus pandemic has made apparent the need for tree cover and greenspace in urban settings and in lower income communities. Tree cover helps to reduce urban heat island effects and local air pollution, lowering air and ground temperatures through shading and the absorption of carbon dioxide. 

“If you live in a place that doesn’t have trees, your house and your yard is 10 degrees hotter than people who live around trees,” said Levin, noting that those communities without adequate tree cover are also known to have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, or immune-compromising conditions. 

“The way that we’re developing is killing us,” said Levin. “In fact, Durham has such a bad tree cover, our developed spaces are up to 20 degrees hotter than the surrounding areas. This is the difference between life and death for our vulnerable residents. Trees are the difference between life and death.” 

Several neighborhoods including Braggtown, Walltown, and Merrick Moore are currently fighting developers that plan to cut down local woodlands. 

“We can’t plant our way out of this, we have to preserve trees, and we have to stop emitting,” Levin insisted. 

Schewel said that when land is developed, about 85 percent of the trees, on average, come down. “With so many people moving here, we’re not trying to stop development. But what we do need to do is strengthen our regulations around tree preservation.”

When he began advocating for the tree initiative Durham was planting around 750 trees annually. Doubling that was a start.

Since the program’s inception, the city has been on track to meet its 1,500-a-year goal, with 1,275 planted in those communities that have historically gone without trees. Ninety percent are planted along streets; the other ten percent are planted in public parks. 

Schewel has modeled the program after a similar one in Charlotte that also depends in part on private contributions, and his goal is to eventually get to 3,000 trees a year.

Durham’s 36,000 acres of tree canopy currently covers around 52 percent of the city. The goal is 55 percent by 2040, a challenging goal given the pace of development.

Hickey, the tree-planting coordinator, questions the value of that metric.  

“I don’t think that we should have a canopy on our plan,” he said. “It just makes no sense because so much of the land in Durham is privately held and developers are just going to do whatever they want anyway.”

9th Street journalist Cameron Oglesby can be reached at cameron.oglesby@duke.edu. 

At top: March 7, 2020 tree planting at W.G. Pearson Elementary in partnership with TreesDurham. Image provided by Tania Dautlick.