As municipal officials look to improve infrastructure, rehabilitate distressed neighborhoods and make communities more livable, many are turning to green infrastructure, which uses existing infrastructure, such as parks, to contain and filter water and direct it away from storm sewers.
Green infrastructure improves water quality, reduces flood risk and manages storm water. It also provides outdoor recreation, educational programming and entertainment space.
Sound too good to be true? Establishing green infrastructure requires planning, innovation and collaboration. Many cities are implementing creative green infrastructure programs. In this article we discuss examples from the cities of Baltimore, Maryland and Kansas City, Missouri, both NLC members and participants in the NLC Service Line Warranty Program.
While green infrastructure is more affordable than man-made infrastructure such as storm water sewers, it does require funding and initial maintenance. However, grant funding is available through federal sources including:
- S. Department of Agriculture
- S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Federal Highway Administration
- S. Environmental Protection Agency
- National Park Service
- S. Fish and Wildlife Service
- S. Housing and Urban Development
- S. Forest Service
Funding also can be sourced locally, through utility, development, impact and usage fees and carbon credits. Private grant and funding programs are available.
When considering areas where initial resources and funding should be focused, it may be difficult to decide what should be a priority. Analyzing data – including going beyond environmental data – will provide a snapshot of not only the environmental needs of your community, but the needs of your residents. Consider the amount of greenspaces versus impervious surfaces that create storm water runoff; the amount of tree cover, which can prevent heat islands and provide urban wildlife habitats; and air and water quality.
While developing your green infrastructure action plan, get input from local planning committees, solicitors and engineers. Local ordinances and regulations and can benefit – or hinder – green infrastructure, so work with other local municipalities to address how local laws impact efforts.
Don’t think small: Kansas City’s MetroGreen includes 1,444 miles of interconnected greenspaces passing through two states and several counties. Working as team with other local stakeholders opens up additional funding, resources and ideas.
While green infrastructure is a powerful environmental tool, it also can improve quality of life and promote development by turning unattractive properties into greenspaces, green parking, community parks and gardens or urban farms.
In addition to environmental factors, consider population density, median age and income, and access to public parks. It will not only give a broader, clearer picture of your community’s needs, but identify the boots-on-the-ground stakeholders who will make your green infrastructure projects successful.
Baltimore City’s goal is to have a community greenspace within walking distance of all residents. Baltimore officials found younger, less affluent and higher population density neighborhoods also had the least amount of greenspace. Information on blighted areas, from dilapidated houses to blocks of vacant lots, can provide a map of areas that can be restored and transformed.
Baltimore’s Vacants to Value program helps transform lots into community greenspaces, including parks, athletic fields and gardens, depending on that neighborhood’s needs. The Growing Green Initiative encourages repurposing vacant lots, including encouraging homeowners to purchase and rehabilitate adjacent lots, residents to adopt lots in their neighborhoods and residents, city departments and community groups to plant trees.
In Kansas City, the Heartland Conservation Alliance, a grassroots organization dedicated to conserving, restoring and protecting natural lands, partnered with the Mid-America Regional Council, which oversees the MetroGreen, to launch the Vacant Lots to Greenways program. The program is an effort to create a greenway, utilizing vacant lots, to provide community access to the Blue River.
That’s not the only way Kansas Citians are repurposing vacant lots. In October, the EPA awarded $30,000 to Kansas City Community Gardens to establish 15 to 20 community orchards through the Giving Grove project. The Giving Grove helps establish community gardens for those at risk for food insecurity.
Collaboration is a constant in green infrastructure success. Community collaborators can include schools, service organizations and neighborhood and environmental groups.
Collaboration thrives on communication and community ownership of projects. Promote engagement through regularly updated websites and apps. For example, Baltimore has the Green Pattern Book, a guidebook on its green infrastructure programs available online, and the Park Finder app, which gives directions to the nearest park and filters parks by their amenities, including playgrounds, swimming pools and athletic fields.
The Mid-America Regional Council offers a free printed map of MetroGreen hiking and biking trails – or residents can download the free app, which includes a digital version. The agency also provides an online resource guide, including maps, videos and PowerPoint presentations, for speaking about MetroGreen’s benefits to the community.
Additional outreach and education efforts in Kansas City include the Blue River Watershed Association which leads several educational programs, including:
- R.U.E. (Teaching Rivers in an Urban Environment) Blue, science curriculum for middle- and high-schoolers
- Macro Critter Count, science curriculum for middle- and high-schoolers
- KC Clean Streams, a student-led trash pickup
- educational festivals for elementary-aged pupils
The Baltimore Office of Sustainability also incorporates youth education and leadership in outreach efforts. The office’s Youth Environmental Internship Program launched Baltimore Beyond Plastic, a Brower Youth Award-winning program, and GreenScape, an annual celebration of youth environmental leadership.
Green infrastructure requires cultural change, but your community will realize environmental, economic and social benefits through increased flood and storm water resiliency, increased greenspace and lower infrastructure costs.
The NLC Service Line Warranty Program is proud to partner with more than 500 municipalities to offer important protection to residents. Contact us to learn more about how program can benefit your community!