Putting the Infrastructure in Green Infrastructure - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Putting the Infrastructure in Green Infrastructure

Being green is nice, but green infrastructure can be planned and built to perform core functions of an integrated infrastructure system.

The term "green infrastructure" troubles me a bit. I think it's because it often seems to me that the "green" part gets a lot more attention than the "infrastructure" part, when in reality it's that latter half of the term that is probably more important.

I think most people working in stormwater management would more or less agree that the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency's definition of green infrastructure is an accurate reflection of that field of practice today: "Green Infrastructure means any stormwater management technique or practice employed with the primary goal of preserving, restoring, mimicking, or enhancing natural hydrology. Green infrastructure includes, but is not limited to, methods of using soil and vegetation to promote soil percolation, evapotranspiration, and filtering or the harvesting and reuse of precipitation."  There is nothing wrong with that definition, as it describes the general suite of practices including bioswales, green roofs, and the like. 

The problem that troubles me is that there is a big difference between infrastructure and a toolbox full of good ideas. "Infrastructure" connotes a designed, purposeful system of integrated parts that each perform some function critical to the success of a larger system delivering some public benefit. Unfortunately, I see lots of green infrastructure applications not meeting those criteria. The term we used to use for green infrastructure was "best management practices," and I think that's more appropriate, as it more readily implies good ideas employed on a discrete, case-by-case basis.  I look around and see more and more permeable paving, rain barrels, and so on, and while they are effective and beneficial, they are typically not the result of a systemic plan for solving stormwater problems.  

Don't get me wrong—I want these best management practices to become infrastructure. I want permeable paving to be used where prudent as a means of achieving articulated sewershed and watershed management goals. I want bioswales, green roofs, cisterns and the like to be installed where there will be a demonstrable, cost-effective and positive outcome for society. I want these practices used where a goal-driven plan for managing stormwater indicates they are the right choice... and the same plan should dictate where pipes, pumps and other tools of that bent are the preferred options.  

Planning. Prioritization. Purposeful investment. Performance in integrated systems. If we can't talk about green infrastructure in relation to those issues, then we're just doing landscaping projects, not building infrastructure.  

That dilemma was core to MPC and Openlands' Nov. 27 roundtable, "Neighborhood Solutions to Wetter Weather," which brought an audience of 60 to Elgin for a discussion of green infrastructure planning and implementation case studies. Each project in question, from the Lord Street Basin in Elgin to the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor in Chicago's Logan Square (which MPC manages), was a neighborhood-scale investment in green infrastructure, with varying levels of purposeful integration with existing gray infrastructure.   

Amy Walkenbach, Watershed Management Director at the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency, started things off with an examination of the agency's role in promoting new practices in stormwater management through both its regulatory capability and its variety of funding programs. Regulation is a work in progress, and Walkenbach encouraged all attendees to review and comment on the current draft Post Development Stormwater Runoff Standards.  As for funding, the State Revolving Fund, Ill. Green Infrastructure Grant, Section 319 funding, and now the new Clean Water Initiative all provide the agency with opportunities to influence decisions and practices among the applicant community.  However, Walkenbach stressed that they are seeking examples of integrated stormwater planning, and that lessons gleaned from those examples might shape future reforms to those funding programs. For the Ill. Green Infrastructure Grant in particular (2012 application deadline is December 14!), they rely heavily on the applicant's ability to justify the project for which they are seeking funding, and the rigor of that justification is one of the major determinants of a successful application.   

Ryan Griffin-Stegink

The next two speakers—the City of Elgin's Aaron Cosentino and yours truly—examined Ill. Green Infrastructure Grant-funded projects intended to invest in green infrastructure within a defined neighborhood geography and for the expressed purpose of relieving stress on the area's local sewer system.  In Elgin's case, the Lord Street Basin retrofit project is designed to reduce runoff into the local combined sewer as a means of delaying (or perhaps even eliminating) an eventual sewer separation project, which would be a costly endeavor.  The project is in fact a system of rain gardens and other green infrastructure installations designed for a clear purpose.  It is truly an infrastructure investment. Much of that infrastructure is being installed in parkways along residential streets, and the city is working with homeowners to be part of installing and then maintaining rain gardens, while also encouraging those same homeowners to consider retrofitting their own properties as well. 

The emphasis is almost exactly reversed in the Milwaukee Avenue Green Development Corridor, which MPC manages.  In that program, grants are available to property owners to retrofit their own private spaces, while MPC and the 35th Ward Office work to coordinate public property stromwater investments in the same area.  It's a work in progress, but our experience has been telling.  The idea of providing a public benefit by placing some element of a larger green infrastructure system on your private property is daunting to say the least, while the idea of getting a grant to beautify your home and garden is a lot more accessible to most people. A year into our program we have funded one retrofit project, but we have almost a dozen pending applications, most of which are partially the result of shifting some of marketing and messaging away from stormwater management and toward home improvement.  In theory, the stormwater management results should be the same, but it is interesting challenge as we start to think more and more about distributed infrastructure systems that are partially located on private property.

The final speaker, Jeff Wickenkamp of Hey & Associates, examined several new modeling tools his firm has developed to assist the Chicago Dept. of Housing and Economic Development with stormwater-focused neighborhood improvement projects. The modeling tools account for existing land uses, sewer system constraints, and other variables, and then indicate appropriate locations within a given geography for different green infrastructure practices.  It's these kinds of tools we need in order to start developing infrastructure plans and capital investment programs that fully integrate gray and green technologies together in purposeful, cost-effective ways.

The infrastructure potential for green stormwater practices is real, but uncertain, and it seems to me largely driven by how much we can stop thinking about how cool it is to be green, and instead start thinking about how responsible it is to plan, invest and build according to established public priorities and performance criteria. Yep, that will sound pretty boring to a lot of people, but that's OK. Functional. Practical. Purposeful. Planned. Those things describe our roads, gas lines, and water mains pretty well, and maybe some day they'll describe our system of parkways, bioswale grids, cistern fields, and other robust green infrastructure too.

Presentations from the day's speakers - Aaron Cosentino, Josh Ellis, and Jeff  Wickenkamp - can be viewed here.


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