New York City has just embarked on a new $4.6 million program to clean up its stormwater, and it could serve as a national model for other cities. To serve the goal of replacing pavement with rain-absorbing green spaces, green roofs and other porous surfaces, the program enlists 11 mainly non-commercial facilities and organizations that are common to many urban areas including schools, a church, a social service organizations, an advocacy group, a labor union and even a zoo.
Shifting stormwater from gray to green
The initiative is just part of an 18-year, $2.4 billion public-private plan to reduce storm runoff from the city’s streets. The general problem is that sewers and other conventional “gray” infrastructure in older cities were originally designed simply to shunt storm runoff directly into waterways.
Over the years, New York and other cities have deployed intercepting sewers, holding tanks and other strategies to steer more runoff into treatment plants, but in many cities it is difficult if not impossible to find enough space to build this type of infrastructure up to a sufficient scale. In addition, massive infrastructure projects of this type are incredibly expensive and often involve significant community disruption while construction is in progress.
Green infrastructure has been emerging as a solution for a number of years, and the movement is now gathering full steam. The basic idea is to create more absorbent green spaces within the urban landscape not only by preserving and expanding parks, but also by exploiting rooftops and paved surfaces.
New York City expects to save billions by investing in green infrastructure over gray, and with this particular group of projects it also aims to demonstrate that the investment can result in additional benefits to individual facilities and communities that gray infrastructure simply cannot provide.
The Bronx Zoo and green infrastructure
On top of accomplishing the standalone goal of reducing polluted runoff into local rivers, green infrastructure can be deployed strategically to help advocacy organizations improve their ability to deliver on their mission. The Bronx Zoo provides a good illustration.
A major water feature of the zoo is the Bronx River, which runs for about a mile through the center of the grounds. However, runoff from the zoo’s large parking lots have contributed to poor water quality in the waterway.
Under the auspices of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the zoo will get nearly $1 million to redesign its Asia parking lot with permeable pavement and an educational exhibit, which will result not only in better water quality downstream but also an improved public profile for the zoo’s conservation mission.
Green infrastructure for better public housing
Another illustration is provided by a green infrastructure makeover for a housing project in the Bronx. The site is located within the East River watershed and it also happens to be officially rated as one of the 200 worst buildings in the city.
The redesign will include green roofs, new porous pavings and a community green space, which will benefit the river while helping to create a healthier living space for residents.
Plumbers and green infrastructure
Just one more more example will round out the concept. The Local 1 Plumbers Union building, which is another site in the East River watershed, will get a new green roof that includes a rainwater harvesting system.
In addition to reducing stormwater runoff, the new roof will help reduce the “heat island” effect in the neighborhood. More to the point, the new system will also serve as an important best practices educational tool for Local 1, which happens to be the largest local in the U.S.
All in all, it looks like this sustainable “twofer” strategy is the wave of the future for urban areas. New York City is not alone in its endeavors, as Philadelphia has just embarked on a major new green infrastructure partnership with the U.S. EPA.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.