How Should Communities Plan and Implement Green Infrastructure Projects?

Published aug. 11, 2015
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Robert Goo works as an Environmental Protection Specialist in the Office of Water at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  His areas of concentration include integrated water resource management, water sensitive urban design, voluntary building and site development codes and standards, decentralized stormwater and wastewater treatment systems, and green infrastructure/low impact development practices. His current projects include the Sacred Grounds Program—a partnership with the National Wildlife Federation and the National Park Service whose mission is to educate and assist the faith community in their efforts to improve wildlife habitat and stormwater management on their properties—and a partnership with the National Parks and Recreation Association and the Trust for Public Land to promote park designs and enhancements that benefit park users and provide essential stormwater management and flood protection services.

Cities around the United States are now utilizing green infrastructure and low impact development (GI/LID) approaches to enhance their communities and more effectively manage their water resources. Green infrastructure/LID designs use plants and soil to take advantage of natural processes such as infiltration and evaporation to cleanse and manage runoff.

In my role at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I have seen a groundswell of municipal activity that is helping to transform our landscapes and make our communities more livable, economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable, and resilient to climate change. Although many communities have fully embraced the use of GI/LID approaches and practices, numerous cities—motivated by the potential for reduced infrastructure costs, better environmental outcomes, or social and economic reasons such as job creation and community development—are just beginning to consider why and how they might begin the process of integrating GI/LID practices into their programs.

Some of my observations, which may be helpful to communities that already utilize GI/LID, those contemplating the use of GI/LID, and those that may be planning their first projects, include:

  1. Green infrastructure/LID is not a panacea, and in many cases GI/LID practices must be used in conjunction with conventional infrastructure such as pipes and channels.
  2. Water resource management is just one of many benefits that GI/LID can provide, and the full suite of potential benefits should be evaluated when considering the use of GI/LID practices. For example, GI/LID practices can be used to make our streets safer, beautify thoroughfares, and stimulate investments.
  3. Community engagement is critical to gain acceptance for GI/LID designs.
  4. Partnerships increase the probability of success—whether they include nongovernmental, interdepartmental, and/or interagency organizations, i.e., parks and recreation departments, departments of transportation, and departments of natural resources.
  5. Artful design is a plus. Successful GI/LID projects often have a public education benefit and make a visible difference to the aesthetics of a community.
  6. Operation and management of the GI/LID practices must be considered during the selection process, a maintenance plan and budget must be established before construction begins, and someone needs to be assigned responsibility for maintaining the practices.
  7. In general, the simpler the design, the better it performs and the less maintenance it requires.
  8. Budget contingency funds to alter designs or provide for extra maintenance are necessary. Green infrastructure/LID systems are typically living systems, and designs evolve based on local conditions, the skill of the program staff, and evaluation of maintenance practices. Unforeseen events may necessitate modifying the design or replanting vegetation.
  9. Geotechnical site assessments, such as soil tests and groundwater assessments, are critical to success.
  10. The use of GI/LID practices can create jobs, but requires skilled engineers, landscape architects, horticulturists, planners, and landscape maintenance staff trained to design, construct and maintain them.
  11. The performance of the GI/LID projects will diminish over time like any engineered system (such as your car). This should be factored into the program’s goals, operation, and maintenance plans.
  12. Successful GI/LID programs incorporate monitoring and evaluation components to assess how practices perform individually and collectively over time so designs can be modified, practices can be eliminated from use and operation, and maintenance regimes can be adjusted based on performance.
  13. Green infrastructure/LID practices are not necessarily cheaper than gray infrastructure such as pipes and engineered treatment systems. Costs will depend on the level of expertise in the community; whether the design is part of a new project, a redevelopment project, or a retrofit project; and the availability of materials such as permeable pavements and rain garden or green roof plants. In general, as the volume of GI/LID projects increases, costs for project design and some materials may decrease.
  14. Pick your first projects carefully. Capital improvement and right-of-way projects are good ways to start incorporating GI/LID practices into the landscape, To promote public acceptance, select demonstration projects that are in highly visible locations.

In conclusion, the development of GI/LID programs offers opportunities for communities to develop jobs and skillsets for a diverse group of skilled and less skilled practitioners to design, construct, maintain, and evaluate GI/LID programs and practices. In addition, trained communication specialists or “ambassadors” who can engage the public about the benefits of GI/LID are critical. Communities can develop partnerships with nonprofits and organizations such as AmeriCorps to develop the skills needed to both raise public awareness about the benefits of GI/LID and ensure that individuals can acquire job-related technical skills. The development of training and certification programs at the state and local levels can also increase the marketability of applicants seeking jobs in this field and help ensure that GI/LID programs are successful.

More detailed information GI/LID practices and systems can be found on following EPA web pages:

  • GI/LID Performance: This page provides links to EPA’s research on GI/ LID performance as well as other relevant scientific literature.
  • GI/LID case studies: This page allows you to view GI/ LID projects either regionally or nationally. 
  • Fact sheets: These sheets are intended for local decision makers; they highlight the benefits of GI/ LID and address common misconceptions and concerns about using these practices.