Better Green Infrastructure Starts with Benefits-Driven Design
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“Peoria should be proud today. We’re standing on a piece of property that was vacant for a lot of years, and we’re seeing crops grow… and we’re talking about them growing from stormwater.”
Everyone gathered at today’s Well Farm at Voris Field Ribbon Cutting ceremony knows the stakes. Peoria is one of nearly 800 U.S. cities whose infrastructure spills raw sewage to its waterways and must yield to regulations under the Clean Water Act or risk federal judicial action. Collectively we’re risking our precious water resources, but everyone is smiling and applauding today. Why? Because we know we’re looking at a prototype of the solution.
Urban watersheds: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
When it comes to urban watersheds, climate change can transform our most precious resource into a destructive force. And while hurricane season gets most of the press, there’s a year-round battle inland, where states in America’s heartland face historic flooding from increasingly frequent and intense storms. Urban flooding impacts everyone, but we know it hits low income communities hardest because they are more likely to:
- Be located in areas prone to flooding
- Lack the resources to invest in flood preparation
- Lack the resources to respond when floods do occur
The ugly truth is that lower income communities are unable to invest in climate resilience and are rarely included in the funded solutions. The result? These communities are reliant on the public sector, which currently faces a crippling water infrastructure funding gap (according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we face a $105 billion funding shortfall between committed public funds and those needed to make critical water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades by 2025).
Compounding this issue is that fact that America’s water management infrastructure is outdated and centralized, which concentrates risk and makes systems easier to overwhelm, even during minor storms. How widespread is this issue? Today in the United States, 772 cities have obsolete combined sewer systems that collectively discharge an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year (that’s more than 1.3 million Olympic sized swimming pools, or–put another way–it’s how much water everyone in the U.S. will collectively drink over the next 50 years). And there are ripple effects: the ASCE estimates that unless this water and wastewater infrastructure funding gap is closed, America will lose $896 billion in business sales, $508 billion in GDP, and 489,000 jobs by 2025. Resource-constrained communities must prioritize critical water infrastructure updates, but they need a smarter solution.
A Better Infrastructure Solution
Green stormwater infrastructure is the use of vibrant natural systems to manage water where it falls. Today, many professionals view it as the best tool for addressing stormwater, flooding, and water pollution problems because:
- It is cost effective (studies show an average of 60 percent cost savings compared to traditional “grey” infrastructure) making it a more viable option for resource-constrained cities
- It creates stable jobs due to its long-term maintenance requirements
- It drives community health, safety, and prosperity, giving communities more value for every dollar invested
However, in order to realize its potential, green infrastructure must be designed holistically in partnership with the community, delivered at scale, and maintained for the long-term.
And that’s where mission-driven organizations like Greenprint Partners can define and play a new role, helping cities achieve high-impact, community-driven stormwater solutions, by leveraging private capital to accelerate and scale green infrastructure development in low-to-middle income communities. Several forward-thinking U.S. cities have realized the potential for green infrastructure to not only solve regulatory challenges, but also transform communities faced with urban blight, vacant properties, and economic decline, and I’m standing in one of them. Peoria isn’t the largest city investing in green infrastructure by a long shot (others include: Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle) so why is it garnering so much attention? At The Well Farm Ribbon Cutting, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis’ reflections shed some light… “we’ve actually developed a 100% green solution for our [combined sewer overflow] issue…and it’s the first one in the country.”
If it Plays in Peoria…
Kari Cohen, Director of the Conservation Innovation Team at USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), flew in from Washington D.C. to witness today’s ribbon cutting that wouldn’t have been possible without his Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG, is a federal program that stimulates the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies for conservation on agricultural lands). In 2016, NRCS awarded Greenprint Partners $1 million in CIG funds to install an urban agriculture and stormwater management project in Peoria. Stepping up to the mic, Kari’s eyes sweep the crowd, and he says with pride, “there are many people around the country watching this project who are interested in using it as a model…no one’s doing it quite like this.”
Scanning the site, the City leaders and community members gathered see what he means. The Well Farm features surprisingly few of the more common green infrastructure installations like tree trenches, rain gardens, and subsurface storage and infiltration. Here, stormwater water management features include:
- A ‘stormwater forest’ with 126 hybrid poplar trees,
- 100 agricultural raised beds tended by urban agriculture apprentices, and
- A 3,000 square foot bioswale that grows flowers for sale at local farmers markets.
Together, these features capture runoff from a 1.55 acre area, preventing an estimated 1.3 million gallons of stormwater from entering Peoria’s combined sewer system each year.
But the differences go even deeper. As the ribbon cutting speeches continue, the attendees are struck by the sheer number of private sector experts, nonprofits, community volunteers, and government agencies that rallied resources to turn the vision into a reality. It includes everyone from the Mayor and members of City Council, to local urban agriculture nonprofit, The gitm Foundation, to the 20-member stakeholder advisory group representing residents of Peoria’s First District. At the center of the web of activity is April Mendez, Greenprint Partners’ co-founder and VP of programs. Recently asked what gets her up in the morning for a Delta Institute profile, April quipped, “coffee…and an inherent respect for the human spirit, not necessarily in that order.” It’s her authentic drive to help diverse communities blossom that led April to spearhead Greenprint Partners’ innovative “benefits-driven design” approach to green stormwater infrastructure.
Greenprint Partners may be one of many organizations tackling stormwater challenges, but we do things a little bit differently. A certified B-Corporation and a women-owned business, Greenprint Partners is a mission-driven green stormwater infrastructure delivery partner dedicated to making it easy for cities to build high-impact green infrastructure at scale and in partnership with their communities.
At the heart of our approach to green infrastructure developments is a process we call ‘benefits-driven design’, and it’s based on a firm belief that green infrastructure must be designed holistically in partnership with the community. The goal? Approach every green infrastructure project with the goal to maximize social, economic, and environmental benefits during the design phase. This involves identifying the local community’s priorities, whether they be better health, a greater sense of safety, beautification, or other assets, and integrating them into green infrastructure designs. This requires deep upfront engagement with the local community (e.g., leading stakeholder working and advisory groups, deploying surveys, and hosting community workshops). And not only does it result in goodwill for the projects, but it’s also an investment in the long-term success of green infrastructure projects. We find that community-driven designs are more likely to be protected by local neighbors who feel pride of authorship. The Well Farm is the perfect embodiment of benefits-driven design.
A Stormwater Farm is Born
The idea to pursue an urban farm concept began with the goal to pioneer green stormwater infrastructure solutions that maximize benefits to the local community, and engage residents in design, construction, and maintenance to ensure the long-term success of installations. Through our community engagement process, our team identified the First District community’s deep desire to increase access to fresh produce and create new jobs. This made the urban farm concept an ideal fit for the community.
The working urban farm, which produces locally grown flowers, food and timber, and provides youth internships and adult apprenticeships, offers a lush backdrop to the Ribbon Cutting ceremony. Raised beds are overflowing with thriving crops of kale, collard greens, and okra. When The gitm Foundation’s Dwayne Harris takes the mic, he explains that their Urban Agriculture Apprenticeship Program hosted here will take up to 20 participants each year to cultivate produce, cut flowers, and learn how to sell their products at local farmers markets. With a smile, he proudly states that his apprentices sold out of Well Farm-grown produce this morning at the Riverfront Farmers Market.
The activity and excitement of the ribbon cutting draw to a close, but the impact on the local community and environment is just beginning; the stormwater forest, the raised beds, and bioswale together will manage 1.3M gallons of stormwater each year and energize the next phases of community-driven green infrastructure development.
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In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.