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Green infrastructure is now big time, given the head of water for the Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) is now promoting its benefits. At the E.P.A’s Brownfields conference in Atlanta, Nancy Stoner, assistant administrator for water, said she tells people who don’t know what green infrastructure is that it’s about “spreading water out, slowing it down, and soaking it in.” Stoner; Joe Dufficy, land revitalization manager, E.P.A.; and Walt Ray, a registered landscape architect and director of visioning, Park Pride, then moved through a set of projects to illustrate how green infrastructure works, how the E.P.A. can help, and how one group in Atlanta is addressing some challenging flooding problems.

Why Green Infrastructure Now?

Stoner said increasingly powerful “wet weather events are impairing our water quality.” Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) now hit 700 municipalities in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Together, these CSOs lead to 850 billion gallons of discharge into streams, lakes, and oceans annually. All of that polluted stormwater caused nearly 11,000 beach closings and advisory days in 2011. With so many problems, clearly just adding more grey systems (pipes) isn’t the answer.

Green infrastructure is “one solution for many objectives.” It can be defined as an interconnected network of green systems that “reduce flooding risks, create habitat, improve water quality, and manage stormwater.” Unlike single-use infrastructure like those concrete underground water conveyance pipes, green infrastructure uses “soil, vegetation to deal with stormwater and improve our quality of life.”

She further described green infrastructure as “systems and practices that mimic natural processes.” It’s about “adapting, renaturalizing the built landscape, introducing trees and vegetation into the built environment.” These systems can include bioretention technologies (planter boxes, bioswales, rain gardens), green roofs, and permeable pavements. She said increasingly these systems are being added into our public spaces, including our streets and alleys.

To note, though, Stoner took issue with the idea of Complete Streets as they are currently defined — streets with space for all types of users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars — arguing that “a street can’t be complete unless you have room for the water, too.” Complete streets then need to also be green.

There’s a lot of overlap between green infrastructure and brownfield redevelopment. “These things all mesh because it’s about revitalizing communities, improving aesthetics, creating a better quality of life, while boosting economic development.” Green infrastructure is about making “eyesores” like brownfields beautiful. In fact, one E.P.A. program started by former administrator Lisa Jackson, Urban Waters, seeks to connect brownfield redevelopment with improved access to waterfronts.

Green Infrastructure Works

Stoner pointed to the Solaire building rooftop garden in Battery Park, which was designed by Diana Balmori, FASLA, Balmori Associates, as a great example of how a building can use green infrastructure to “achieve zero water footprint” (see image above). The additional benefits of green roofs like these are they “reduce heat, improve air quality, create wildlife habitat, improve energy efficiency, and boost property values.” The E.P.A. is now conducting community-scale studies to quantify these benefits.

At the broader scale, Stoner pointed to Nashville’s Cumberland Park as a great example of a park that is using green infrastructure to deal with water. There, a 4-acre parking lot was transformed into a park with a 100,000 gallon cistern underground that stores rainwater for future irrigation use.

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In Cleveland, one community even demonstrated that green infrastructure can work in very polluted areas. With the Slavic Village Union Avenue green street, liners were used to separate contaminated soils in a green street median from the new soils and vegetation added on top. “There are significant stormwater management benefits even with the liners.” A 33-acre site near the Willamette River in Portland scaled-up this approach, putting a cap on top of polluted soils and green infrastructure on top.

For these types of project, Stoner said “resources are tight, so communities have to look at all possible revenue streams, including tax credits or stormwater utility fees.” There can be funding from multiple sources. But she said spending the initial money on “cleaning water and greening communities” is truly worth it, given that “every $1 spent yields a $7 dollar boost in housing wealth.” (To help communities communities figure out where to spend their money on green infrastructure in contaminated sites, the E.P.A. will also soon release a “Brownfield and Vacant Parcel Stormwater Infiltration Decision Making” tool.)

The E.P.A. Will Help If You Turn Your Vacant Properties into Green Infrastructure

Joe Dufficy, who works on land revitalization programs at the E.P.A., said the E.P.A. can offer communities “technical support, brownfield grants, and partnerships.” Technical assistance shows “communities how to safely demolish vacant properties.” If this work is done improperly, the land become contaminated and remediation becomes even more expensive to clean up for green infrastructure. The E.P.A. has actually done “test demolitions to see what works best.”

The E.P.A. also offers brownfield area-wide planning grants. For example, Cleveland has taken advantage of this program to create a plan for an “opportunity corridor” that will transform 500-600 vacant properties into a green infrastructure system. The E.P.A. helped “assemble the environmental information, do the cost comparisons.” The city decided to merge together hundreds of smaller parcels together into larger parcels for redevelopment. Now, the sewage district is using some areas for stormwater management, while another 27-acre zone has just become a massive urban farm.

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As described in an earlier session, Cincinnati’s sewage district also unearthed the 2,700 Lick Run watershed, daylighting a stream that had been covered by development. Hundreds of acres will now be used for green infrastructure for stormwater management. With this project, the E.P.A. helped produce a “strategic implementation plan.” Everyone was “assigned goals, responsibilities.”

Again, Dufficy said this was all worth it, given green infrastructure does so much, including boosting property values. One recent University of Wisconsin study showed new green infrastructure yielded a $1.7 million bump in nearby property values. Who doesn’t want to live next to clean water and parks?

Vine City’s Bottom-up Fix for Flooding

Walt Ray, Park Pride’s head of park visioning, said at Park Pride, an Atlanta non-profit that helps communities create new parks, “we don’t want to inflict a park on anyone.” The idea is to let communities figure out their own solutions and then help them make it happen. In the case of the Proctor Creek North Avenue (PNA) Watershed Vision project, Ray is working with communities in Vine City and English Avenue, two poor inner-city Atlanta neighborhoods, to deal with the atrocious flooding problems. The area used to be “the headwaters of the Proctor Creek.” More than 100 years ago, it was all paved over. Now, the water is coming back.

Ray showed how flooding is a systemic issue. The nearby World Congress center, where the Brownfields conference was held, is a source of 30 million gallons of runoff. Water moves from the World Congress Center and other huge buildings, like hotels, office buildings, and the stadium, down towards the bowl at the center of Atlanta, where Vine City and English Avenue lie. “They are downsteam, downpipe.”

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Interestingly, many of the vacant properties in Vine City are right on top where streams used to be, so there’s really a reason why people didn’t want to live there. Ray said when it rains a little, it floods a lot in those houses. One family just opens their door to let the water move through their house faster.

The big watershed vision project had a small start. The PNA Coalition wanted to turn a block filled with vacant properties into a park. While this project got started, Ray asked, “Why not look at other blocks, the whole neighborhood?” Park Pride ended up doing a whole watershed analysis and then involving the community in formulating a new green infrastructure approach to solving the flooding problems. “We’ve held 12 meetings, 6 public hearings, and 9 briefings.”

Through this process, Ray said the “community had to educate itself about what green infrastructure can and should do.” Local directed the design team. They wanted to eliminate the flooding but not totally bulldoze the neighborhood. They wanted to keep the historic character while also creating new green jobs training programs. “Can we do the green infrastructure work in our own neighborhood?,” they asked.

The conceptual plan that resulted called for a new green street project along with parks that will have detention ponds to store water. Green infrastructure can then also help deal with flooding. “We are going to save the water here. We’re going to become a big sponge.”

Image credits: (1) The Solaire / Hydrotech USA, (2) Nashville Cumberland Park / Nurture Valley blog, (3) Cleveland Urban Farm / The Huffington Post, (4) Vine City, Atlanta / Atlanta History Center.