Community Progress Blog

Achieving the Triple Bottom Line with Green and Blue Infrastructure

Written by on December 11, 2012


As the definitions and best practices of blue and green infrastructure evolve, cities are finding that making the environmentally sound choice saves both money and time while also adding value to existing property, creating jobs and revitalizing neighborhoods. We’ll take a look at some example projects in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Detroit and see how these post-industrial cities have been able to harness this concept for a sustainable future, while learning lessons for other cities to follow.

In 2010, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing launched a large-scale initiative called the Detroit Works Project. The goal is to create a roadmap for how the city will change its “physical, social and economic landscape.” The project is split into both short- and long-term goals, some looking as far as 50 years into the future.

The blight of Detroit is a familiar story. The City of Detroit was meant for four million people, but currently has a population of just over 700,000. The mismatch between the infrastructure Detroit has versus the infrastructure it needs has caused a crisis that Scott Bishop of Stoss Landscape Urbanism (Boston, MA), a part of the Detroit Works Project, hopes to help fix.

“We are regional planners, urban designers [and] landscape architects,” he says. “So, in this project, we deal with how the landscape works to help the city reform itself. One of the ways that we can do this is via a new, 21st century type of infrastructure.”

While it is common practice to use the term “green infrastructure” to specifically apply to new above-ground techniques in stormwater management, Bishop refers to infrastructure that relates to water quality as “blue,” while using “green infrastructure” to refer to air quality.

For Bishop, air quality becomes an issue of both social equity as well as environmental justice. Low-income neighborhoods can often be found near major corridors, like highways, or near industrial zones. Residents here are exposed to greater health hazards than those living in other neighborhoods. Hardy trees can be planted as both visual and physical buffers to ensure particulate matter and pollutants are not being ingested while simultaneously improving air quality. A thoughtful, intentional return to nature can also help eliminate some of the blight that unemployment, a struggling economy and population loss has caused.

“When you look at a map that shows what land is underutilized or vacant, [these buffers] are some of the things we might consider filling up those areas with and potentially changing their use in the long-term away from being residential,” he says.

Community Progress has been a part of the DWP Long-term Technical Team, whose role includes developing strategies for decision making  regarding  land reuse solutions, and strategies to coordinate the many public land-holding entities to create a stream line process for public land disposition.

One of the biggest problems with traditional gray infrastructure is something your average resident does not see. Many older cities have combined sewer systems, meaning that wastewater and stormwater essentially end up in the same underground infrastructure. A heavy storm will cause the system to overflow. When the water treatment plants can’t keep up, they discharge into the water body, which pollutes the water and can lead to flooding.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires cities to better manage their stormwater to avoid these pollutant issues or face heavy fines. The expensive, invasive way to do things would be to tear up roads, build separate water tunnels or reservoirs, and put everything back together. According to Bishop, it could cost the City of Detroit over one billion dollars to comply with EPA regulations on stormwater management with new gray infrastructure.

Bishop says there are two ways to deal with water. You either hold it, or you put it in the existing system. When rain hits concrete, there is no way to hold it; it flows into the gutters and enters the underground system. The goal is to intercept a portion of the water, and the best possible scenario, Bishop says, is that plants, animals, microbes and people use the water. “We’re proposing a new living system with a lot more capacity,” Bishop says.

While new gray infrastructure would perpetuate the system of underground tunnels, green infrastructure stands to have a higher return on investments (ROI), with external benefits of beautification, increased property value, improved air and water quality, community engagement, job creation and sustainability. Rain gardens, porous pavement, bioswales, green roofs and other methods can be employed to collect stormwater in ways that rehydrate groundwater, nourish plants and jumpstart other biological activities. Bishop also mentions low-lying areas, often prone to flooding. These problematic areas, he says, could be transitioned over many years into areas where stormwater collects naturally, like a lake or pond. This would serve as something of a natural detention basin, but with the addition of amenities and public access.

“A lot of things can be programmed that people can enjoy that’s not just a pipe in the ground,” he says. “In a natural lake situation, we would look at starting a new ecology.” Meaning that eventually, what used to be a flooding hazard could become a lake where people go to fish. “This kind of infrastructure brings people together,” Bishop says.

Philadelphia was an early adopter in the implementation of green infrastructure as a form of stormwater management. Christine Knapp, director of strategic partnerships at the Philadelphia Water Department, points to a recent agreement with the EPA that will result in 20 years of continued sustainable infrastructure, like Percy St., a “small sidestreet” that has been redone with porous pavement. Completed in May 2011, the street absorbs water as opposed to allowing it to pool, and prevents excess water from entering the drains. Porous pavement can also be especially helpful during hurricanes and other large storms — like the recent superstorm Hurricane Sandy — where flooding is a hazard.

A city of three million in the 1960s, Philadelphia is now a city of 1.5 million. Of the 40,000 vacant lots, 10,000 are owned by the City. For a long time, Knapp says, the problem was figuring out “how to organize all the land to put it back into productive use.” With several city entities where land could potentially be held, it was difficult to figure out which to talk to when interested in purchasing a property. However, recent changes in legislation in the State of Pennsylvania have opened up the ability for Philadelphia to establish a land bank. A land bank would also allow the grouping of vacant parcels for large-scale green infrastructure projects.

“The biggest opportunity for us is that we are most interested in the land that other people are least interested in,” Knapp says, “in that if we’re going to take over a lot to do a stormwater project, we want to be confident that no one is going to come and take the land to develop on it because we’ve already put in the investment. In areas of North Philadelphia, where a lot of our vacant lands are, we can bring value to the least valuable land by capturing and managing stormwater in a green way.”

Another change Philadelphia has made in how it manages stormwater is in policy. “We have stormwater regulations that go into effect for any project that’s more than 15,000 square feet,” Knapp says. Knapp says the City also recently changed the way stormwater fees are collected. Rather than relying on the water meter, which has no correlation to a property’s stormwater impact, surface area is used. This way, Knapp says, a parking lot — which is a “stormwater nightmare” — will pay more than a Laundromat, which, while a heavy water user, has less water entering the underground system.

“We have to make sure that it’s not just the City that’s managing [stormwater], but that all the private property is also participating,” Knapp says.

Kathy Risko is the Executive Director of the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) in Pittsburgh. CONNECT serves as a bridge between the City of Pittsburgh and its 37 surrounding municipalities in Allegheny County that make up the area’s urban core. The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) recently drafted a wet weather plan, but Risko says the timing of when the municipalities must submit their plans to the EPA is much later. “This has created a huge disconnect,” she says. “Green Infrastructure is not addressed to any extent in ALCOSAN’s wet weather plan. Their argument is that since green infrastructure can be put into place in the municipalities, they don’t control it and therefore, can’t tell them what to do. What they can do is build a whole bunch of pipes.”

The ALCOSAN project will cost over 2.5 billion dollars, but to eliminate the overflow in the region to meet what the EPA is asking would cost closer to 8 billion, Risko says. ALCOSAN is asking for time past the set date of 2026, so that the cost of building new tunnels would be over a longer period of time and not so burdensome. To ignore the benefits of green infrastructure would be a missed opportunity, but while the municipalities are interested in green infrastructure, Risko says they need to be incentivized, especially when it comes to maintenance.

Risko is working with groups such as 3 Rivers Wet Weather (3RWW) and the Clean Rivers Campaign. “Together, we’re proposing an outreach strategy to our governments to make sure they understand what green infrastructure is and how it could be utilized,” Risko says.

A great tool for this type of advocacy is RainWays, developed by 3RWW. RainWays allows the user to look at a map of Pittsburgh and choose where to add green infrastructure and see how much water would be prevented from entering the system, as well as how much it would cost to implement the new infrastructure. Risko is also investigating other communities with green infrastructure and plans to have a report ready by the end of the year.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) encourages Pittsburgh communities to use vacant land in a green way via the Open Space Project. A partnership including the Open Space Neighborhood Advisory Panel (OSNAP), the Mayor’s Office, the Department of City Planning, City Real Estate and the URA, the Open Space Project looks to help groups develop vacant projects in the possession of the URA and the City into open space green projects, including green infrastructure endeavors. Urban agriculture, while not strictly a green infrastructure practice, achieves the same results by absorbing stormwater with the additional benefits that farming provides to a community.

GTECH, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that revives vacant property through green redevelopment, is one such organization that can incentivize a neighborhood to use green infrastructure. The Millvale Rain Garden on Butler Street can divert 113,000 gallons of rain each year from the system. Using Heinz Endowment funding, 15 residents were also trained on how to maintain the rain garden. Since its completion in November 2011, another rain garden has been constructed in the community.

In 2002, West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) launched with the intention of teaching the public how to make their own rain gardens. This low impact stormwater strategy involves creating a shallow depression in the soil that is planted with native perennial plants. Because this is the type of infrastructure that can be both created and maintained by residents, those with big enough yards or those who choose to purchase or are gifted vacant sidelots can easily contribute to green infrastructure and practice good stewardship. This is something Knapp refers to when she talks about a number of rain gardens planted in a Philadelphia park across from a school. The children there are taught how to maintain a rain garden and do so during the school year. “[Stewardship] is something we always look for when we do infrastructure projects,” Knapp says.

One of the most valuable outcomes of this early implementation will come from the study of green infrastructure’s effectiveness, sustainability and externals benefits. With cities documenting in real time the positives of green and blue infrastructure, a new model is being constructed for how to rebuild and reform urban areas, potentially providing a beautiful triple bottom line solution. Using vacant properties for these purposes not only transforms blight into a useful resource, but also offers an aesthetically pleasing means to add value to underutilized space and improve the quality of life in a community.


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