What's the City of Peoria’s key to achieving a green solution to an expensive sewer overflow problem? Its people.

Cities across the nation and around the world are recognizing the value of embedding innovation into the course of doing business. In this effort, many cities have begun to employ Innovation Teams (i-teams) to facilitate a culture change that addresses major challenges from a holistic viewpoint and employs data and measurement in its decision making process.

The cities in the Bloomberg Philanthropies' i-team program are increasingly becoming experts in both the approach and how it is applied to some of the most pressing issues facing our urban centers today.

On the cutting edge of this field sits Peoria, Illinois. A city of 115,000 situated on the banks of the Illinois River in Central Illinois, Peoria is home to a major Fortune 100 company, a rich history of performing arts and entertainment, top-notch health and research facilities and, unfortunately, a $250 million sewer problem.

Peoria’s Combined Sewer system collects and conveys both sewage and stormwater. The system is frequently overloaded during wet weather events, resulting in discharges of sewage (Combined Sewer Overflows or CSOs) in many areas, including the Illinois River at a rate of 20 to 30 times a year. These events present potential health hazards to surrounding populations and cause the Illinois River to be unusable for recreation due to high levels of bacteria in the water.

The City of Peoria is committed to being the first city in the country to develop a 100% green infrastructure solution to the CSO problem, an issue nearly 800 American cities are grappling with. A 100% green solution would direct stormwater runoff towards landscaped drainage systems – typically using native and adapted plants and engineered soils – and porous pavements to absorb the water directly into the ground and cost a third of a gray solution that uses pipes and tanks. While the advantages seem many, a green solution requires changes to the regulatory structure, as well as changes to the culture of the city and its relationship to water.

Green infrastructure might not only solve the city’s CSO issues, but also helps to address pervasive socioeconomic declines that many older cities face. Green infrastructure can improve public health and wellness, create opportunities for jobs and workforce training, and even mitigate crime as maintained landscapes open sightlines and encourage public use of the streets and other spaces.

One of the principal benefits of an i-team is that they bring a rigor to the government processes that helps cities realize ambitious agendas to solve major problems such as CSO in their city. Peoria’s i-team has gone through an extensive investigation and idea generation process culminating with the recently held Global City Network conference.

The goal of the Global City Network event in Peoria was to bring a number of stormwater, sewer and green infrastructure experts together with City employees and members of the public for a day to learn about the specific problems facing Peoria, explore the opportunities this creates, and identify some possible solutions that could be implemented. Experts included engineers from the public and private sectors, landscape architects, transportation officials, ecologists and outreach specialists from innovative programs and cities.

One of the most interesting things about the conference was the way the community was woven into the agenda. From having citizen guides discuss the history, challenges and opportunities of their neighborhoods during a bus tour of the Combined Sewer Area, to opening the doors to the public for the keynote speakers and guest panel conversation, to carving out a breakout session dedicated to exploring education and outreach, the public was top of mind throughout the conference.

Likewise, recommendations from experts at the event focused almost exclusively on community engagement. The true challenge of building green infrastructure is not about deciding where to site planter boxes or which roads will have permeable pavement, but in getting the community to understand and buy into a plan that will ultimately change the landscape of their neighborhood.

Getting government and the public out of a mindset that focuses on incident response and into a mode where they work together to understand and address issues systematically is a big step that cities across the i-team program are taking. From Tel Aviv to Long Beach, cities across the i-teams cohort have been reaching outside of government to find the ideas and strategies that achieve measurable results in their communities.

“We have the big benefit of being able to come in and take a look at the whole issue- all of the facts and data, as well as best practices from around the country,” said Peoria i-team Director Anthony Corso. “Coming in with a fresh approach to an issue that’s not based on past practices or past relationships creates some space, not only for us, but for internal and external partners to step back and look at a more comprehensive strategy in how we can work together to solve problems.”

In addition to accessing an entirely new market of possibilities that is often left untapped, engaging the public in a meaningful way also develops organic support for initiatives that would otherwise be impossible. Long before the recent Global City Network Event, Peoria created an “Ideas Committee,” paying special attention to include residents from low-income communities that might not have otherwise had a voice in this work.

The ultimate success of initiatives addressing core urban problems is ultimately going to be the result of each city’s ability to get citizens engaged in helping develop solutions and supporting them throughout implementation process.

“You can be successful with short term efforts without a whole lot of community engagement, if it’s pitched right. But when you look at a long-term project, you need public engagement for the medium-term, long-term and ultimate sustainability,” said Corso. “There will be hiccups, down budget cycles, and cost cutting over the years. If the public doesn’t understand the benefit of an approach they are less likely to support and defend what it is we are trying to do in neighborhoods and for city overall.”

As for Peoria’s chances of solving its $250 million problem? Thanks to the groundwork they have laid in understanding the problem, there was a palpable excitement at the close of the summit. As Kären Haley, the Executive Director of the Indianapolis Cultural Trail put it to the crowd, “You have all of us experts here in Peoria now looking for some wisdom on how you can do this, but in 30 years, everyone will asking Peoria to come visit them to find out how you did what you are going to do.”