At a packed briefing on Capitol Hill, an official from a regional wastewater management authority, a New York-based landscape designer, and the head of a niche-yet-growing green infrastructure engineering firm made the case that green infrastructure means more jobs for skilled designers and engineers as well as less-skilled maintenance crews. The meeting, which was organized by American Rivers, the American Society of Landscape Architects, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, and the Water Environment Federation, was set up to show how green infrastructure can create more “permanent” local jobs while improving water quality and the environment.
Jeff Egar, Executive Director, Water Environment Federation, said the E.P.A.’s latest report to Congress on the country’s water quality clearly states that stormwater runoff is a “major source of water pollution.” As an example, the Chesapeake Bay is “still impaired because of runoff.” Also, the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico continue to grow due to unabated runoff and overflow problems coming from delta communities upstream. Within cities, the issue is runoff that taxes systems and leads to overflow: older, combined sewage and stormwater infrastructure can be easily overcome by storms, which leads to flooding, with raw sewage pouring into rivers. This is one reason Washington, D.C. is investing billions in a new “large water storage tunnel.” Unfortunately, D.C.’s solution is “not holistic,” and doesn’t take into consideration the capacity of green infrastructure, which includes green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, and bioretention systems, to catch rainwater where it falls.
Still, there are signs some local governments and wastewater utility authorities get it: “the enforcement community is slowly showing signs of acceptance.” He also pointed to his own projects when he was at a wastewater authority, which involved rebuilding a stream and creating “constructed wetlands” to deal with excess runoff, which ended up saving his district huge amounts of money.
Regulations Can Be Opportunities If You Are Creative
Ted Scott, Executive Vice President and Founder, Stormwater Maintenance, said there’s been a paradigm shift towards green infrastructure. Oils, greases, chemicals, and actual bits of old bottles and trash transform street stormwater runoff into a toxic stew. “Urbanization really equals pollution.” In the past, engineers have used “efficiency engineering,” which creates grey infrastructure that is “out of sight, out of mind.” That approach will no longer work considering a “plastic bottle you throw on the street in New York City now ends up in a huge garbage patch in the middle of the ocean,” said Scott (see an earlier post on the massive garbage patches.) Not only does runoff and trash spoil the maritime environment, they’re also now a public health issue for those in these urban communities.
Thirty years of research on green infrastructure systems has led to new knowledge. “Retention basins aren’t effective; they just push pollution downstream,” argued Scott. Permeable pavements, green roofs, bioswales — “distributed small-scale practices” — are far more effective than large ponds. To embed green infrastructure, then, there also needs to be a shift in land-use, with denser areas for development and lots of open space and dedicated areas for natural stormwater mitigation systems. These can now be “amenities, instead of hidden out of sight.”
Scott says while these systems have been in use since the early 90s, but it was really just in 2000 that he started to see green infrastructure projects take root. And even then, “many developers have resisted the changes.” In Maryland, when the state simply recommended these practices, few were doing it. Now, with the 2009 requirements mandating green infrastructure use on every site, we are seeing “urban micro-habitats” taking shape.
With the new rules, labor has shifted as well. In the face of more regulation, “cookie-cutter” solutions don’t work. “It takes creativity to get cost savings.” As a result, “landscape architects and more creative-minded engineers who don’t think linearly” are becoming more prominent. Maintenance has also changed. With more landscape design work, there’s more people and less equipment. “There’s been a move to landscape-based contractors, which provides more opportunities for unskilled labor.” Overall, Scott says his business has boomed as a result of new green infrastructure regulations. In an economic downturn, his employees are up 417 percent, revenue is up 540 percent, and profits have increased nearly 400 percent.
Demand Grows for Green Infrastructure
Tricia Martin, ASLA, WE Design, and president of the New York chapter of ASLA, sees growing demand for green infrastructure solutions. As a result, this has led to a shift within the landscape architecture community. Her small design business, which she owns with her husband, now integrates green infrastructure into most urban sites she works on. For Phoenix House, a program that educates youth in the city, rain barrels combined with comprehensive site system helped the non-profit save on water irrigation costs. The site itself was also built by the students in the program as part of a “green jobs training program.”
New York City is “plagued by polluted runoff” and overrun from combined sewer systems, which ends up in the local rivers. In fact, she said right now “80 percent of rain events result in sewage entering the rivers. This is totally unacceptable.” However, Martin likes that NYC is thinking big on stormwater management, with its new green infrastructure plan modeled on Philadelphia’s innovative program. The goal of NYC’s plan is to cut 12 billion gallons of stormwater runoff by 2030, a 40 percent reduction. Part of the plan involves converting 10 percent of the city’s impervious surfaces into permeable ones.
One project Martin is working on is the Brooklyn Greenway, a 14 mile bike and pedestrian path that is a “template for future green streets” in the city, and a “top priority” of the city government. Her firm is adding in “infiltration basins” around street trees. “These are basically bathtubs with plants.” The greenway is expected to the “spine of the system,” and provide a “methodology for the city” to follow for other green streets. Her work on the broader greenway neighborhood plan has involved “mapping steets and sidewalk widths,” figuring out where the opportunities are for green roofs on large institutional buildings, and identifying nearby schools, which can be used for educational green infrastructure. She wants to leverage capital improvement projects coming up and use those opportunities to retrofit existing streets.
Martin argued that because of their interdisciplinary nature, green infrastructure projects are “challenging and fun.” These projects “mean more jobs for landscape architects, which means more jobs for engineers, horticulturalists, scientists, and maintenance crews.” She added that it’s not “about just doing good, but making good economic sense. We can’t afford big wastewater treatment plants anymore.”
Cleveland Creates a Green Infrastructure Index
While Philadelphia and New York City have gotten all the press on their big green infrastructure plans, Cleveland has been quietly moving forward with its own innovative program. Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, Manager of Watershed Programs, Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and Chair, NACWA Stormwater Management Committee, said Cleveland’s approach represents “regionalism in action” because they’ve taken a broader view of the watershed. She pointed to examples of flooding and erosion, and how some homeowners have even tried to solve the problems on their own by devising railings to hold back collapsing soils. She said those homeowners were facing a losing battle because the source of flooding and erosion is “upstream, it’s from all those impervious surfaces” across the region.
For Dreyfuss-Wells, grey and green have to go together. With $3 billion in investments planned over 25 years and an annual stormwater management budget of just $38 million, every piece of green infrastructure “must add value.” So, the city mapped out and targeted all the overflow zones, creating a “green infrastructure index.” Some of these green zones are vacant lots, which have been “repurposed” through the addition of bioretention basins. Other more urban sites still in use get new bioswales and rain gardens. In one example, the Collonwood Recreation area, which was a vacant big-box store lot, was redeveloped as a community center, with “bioretention islands” that reduce off-site runoff to zero. She joked that “when you visit Cleveland, you’ll want to camp on some of these beautiful sites.”
Dreyfuss-Wells concluded that these types of projects are responsible and “solve the problem, instead of moving it to another community.” Green infrastructure “supports local experts,” who can “ensure correct design and construction practices.” She urged water authorities to “partner with developers on redevelopment opportunities” from the get-go, integrate green infrastructure into current parks and large common areas, and find site-specific solutions.
Image credit: (1) 2011 Green Infrastructure Grant Project, NYC / WE Design (2) Brooklyn Greenway Map / WE Design