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A government-backed program is touting concrete as an environmentally correct material and producers who are wary about jumping onto this bandwagon could be missing a promising new marketing opportunity.

Known nationwide as Cool Communities, the initiative seeks to bring down urban temperatures in order to conserve energy, improve air quality, and stall global warming. Many U.S. cities have formed public-private partnerships to support the effort by staging demonstration projects and campaigning to change municipal policies. The best approach, research has shown, is to combine vegetation with light-colored, reflective building and paving materials. Concrete stands out as an obvious choice.

Local industry associations joining Cool Communities partnerships are finding that in addition to teaching the public about concrete's "green" benefits, they must convince producers that it pays to join this environmental cause.

The American Concrete Paving Association and other members of the Environmental Council of Concrete Organizations (ECCO) are helping promote the Cool Communities program, which was launched in 1993 as a partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy and American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization. An outgrowth of the program, called the Urban Heat Islands Pilot Project, was formed to conduct research and testing.

Producers have many ways to market the use of concrete to achieve environmental goals such as cooler temperatures, clean air, water quality, smart growth, and sustainable development. For example:

  • Promote parking decks as being cooler and occupying less land than large lots at grade
  • Advocate the use of pervious concrete, which improves water quality by filtering contaminants from rainwater as it returns to the ground or is collected for reuse.
  • Campaign for rapid transit and dedicated busway systems that use large volumes of concrete
  • Emphasize that concrete will far outlast other materials, which may have to be replaced and hauled to landfills within decades
  • Support zoning ordinances and building codes that mandate or provide incentives for lighter-colored surfaces combined with vegetation

Efforts in Utah's Salt Lake Valley succeeded in getting such legislation enacted in two local municipalities. The Salt Lake City program took off after a NASA aircraft collected thermal images confirming that dark pavements are hotter than more reflective surfaces. Measurements taken with a digital infrared thermometer showed an average 40° F temperature difference between new concrete and new asphalt surfaces in the area.

That advantage is being challenged, however. The asphalt industry is exploring ways to lighten up, such as applying light-colored, reflective coatings. A prototype tested at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory reduced asphalt temperatures by 30° degrees.

Another roadblock is ongoing funding. Each community is responsible for its own funding, generally through grants, contributions, and foundation support. Cool Communities will work only if the industry bands together.