Recently, I had the opportunity, on behalf of Living Cities, to sit in on the quarterly call of the Stormwater Funders Group. This group of funders, hosted by the Funders Network, shares a common interest in supporting and advancing stormwater management and green infrastructure initiatives. This was my first call with the group, so I'm not familiar with its history, but I found the discussion extremely helpful and relevant to the planning process that Living Cities is engaged in relative to infrastructure in general, and stormwater management in particular.
Stormwater runoff is a significant contributor to pollution in urban waterways. It causes flooding, impacts water quality and aquatic systems and poses serious risks to public health. Traditional stormwater management systems are designed to collect stormwater and transport it to another location for treatment. It is expensive and inefficient. Green stormwater management captures and recycles stormwater onsite through the deployment of green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens, permeable surfaces and other mechanisms. It is a cheaper and more sustainable approach to stormwater management.
There is much to get excited about when it comes to green stormwater infrastructure (GSI). The potential for managing sewer overflows and flooding is just the beginning of what makes it so appealing. As one studies it further, it becomes clear that GSI impacts the environment in a myriad of ways, from reducing heat island effects to replenishing the water table, cleaning the air, beautifying neighborhoods, and according to one study, even reducing crime. It also creates economic benefits (job creation and improved property values) and social benefits (enhanced recreational opportunities, improved public health and greater equity). Find more on the challenges of stormwater management and the benefits of a GSI approach here.
A number of cities around the country are experimenting with GSI as a way to address their obligations under the Clean Water Act. Some, like the City of Philadelphia, are being particularly innovative and ambitious in their approach to planning, implementing, and financing GSI. Most of the localities engaged in these programs are still at the planning and early implementation stages. But in a report presented by Diane Schrauth, a good case is made for the need to think beyond implementation and plan ahead for ongoing operation and maintenance of this infrastructure. As Diane noted, when the infrastructure is below ground, no one notices when it begins to deteriorate. When it's above ground, everyone notices. Beyond not serving its intended purpose, poorly maintained GSIs become fodder for naysayers and those who advocate "gray" solutions over "green". Unfortunately, this raises questions that aren't easily answered--Who should be in charge of ongoing operation and maintenance? and What must be done to prepare skilled workers to take on these responsibilities? Some early adapters expect to rely on water associations and community volunteers. However, this does not seem like a reasonable approach for large scale initiatives. This is an extremely important issue for those who are interested in GSI. It's not something that folks are talking about very much, and yet it is critical for long term success. Clearly this is a planning consideration that funders and other stakeholders in GSI should expect from those who are planning and implementing GSI in local communities. It's a big responsibility and an essential ingredient for effective, long term solutions. I'm eager to learn more about how cities that are taking the lead in GSI implementation are addressing this issue.
Mary Reilly is working with Living Cities in its effort to investigate the community development implications of infrastructure and how Living Cities might engage in infrastructure to advance the community development agenda.