Green Infrastructure Moves Toward the Center

Fall is always a busy season which, for me, generally includes a disorienting amount of travel and meetings, all of which is intensified by the exciting conversations and insightful people I meet along the way. Fall 2012 is no exception, with this year’s season kicking off in late September with a White House convening entitled “Municipal Stormwater Infrastructure: Going from Grey to Green.” The all-day meeting of about 80-100 people focused on the recurring question of how to get broader implementation of green stormwater infrastructure adopted in America’s municipalities. Getting true discussion with that big of a group is always challenging, but the organizing team and the facilitator did what I thought was an admirable job by incorporating a balance of commentators and panelists with intense table discussions. The official meeting summary will be issued shortly, but in the meantime I’ll put out my personal version of the meeting highlights:

• We’re seeing a real evolution in the way cities view green infrastructure. At the end of the meeting Nancy Stoner, EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water noted with satisfaction that she was no longer hearing “green infrastructure doesn’t work in my city” or “we’ll only do it if the federal government pays for it,” but instead the chatter was much more about how to do more of it, how to work through the stumbling blocks. Of course, the audience was full of choir members, but none-the-less it really did feel like there has been a shift toward acceptance of green infrastructure. It is moving from the fringes toward becoming a centrist concept.

• The day’s conversation about green infrastructure also went well beyond “integrated framework,” consent decrees, and other enforcement and permit-based perspectives. The regulatory framework was clearly a component, but there was a lot of talk about how to make green infrastructure a mindset, and to get it integrated into the work of those who are not necessarily bound by Clean Water Act permits. Along with this were many statements about needs for communicating co-benefits, for quantifying cumulative impact, recognizing that “it takes a village, not just a utility,” etc. Again, green infrastructure was viewed as the new normal.

• Related to this, there were some back-of-the-envelope numbers thrown around indicating that at first blush, green infrastructure can be more expensive than grey infrastructure. However, if you look at co-benefits (aka “triple bottom line”) or if infrastructure installation is coordinated with other municipal activities, the financial picture shifts significantly. Howard Neukrug (Philadelphia) did a quick calculation and stated that it costs him roughly $2 million to provide enough green infrastructure to capture stormwater from one mile of road. However, if the road is already ripped up and the green infrastructure becomes ancillary to another project, it only costs him 0.2 million, or 10% of what it would have cost on its own.

Together, these three pieces speak to a new future, a place where many of us have been trying to get for a long time. Where natural systems or human-created and maintained green infrastructure is the new norm and where we don’t have to spend as much time trying to convince engineers and planners that it makes sense.

On a related note, one speaker remarked that many of our most innovative water utilities are headed by people whose roots are in the conservation movement: Howard Neukrug (Philadelphia), Carter Strickland (New York City), George Hawkins (Washington DC) were in the crowd that day and were specifically mentioned, but I’m guessing that Ray Hoffman (Seattle) would fall in that category as well. I have no idea whether a deeper analysis would prove the hypothesis to be true, but I am certain that Howard, Carter, and George are all happily surprised to find themselves moving toward the center. Or rather that the center is moving toward them.

If you’d like to see another personal perspective on the meeting I’d encourage you to see Ben Grumbles’ blog on “Hippie Infrastructure”.

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