Blog  /  May 2017  /  Green Infrastructure: The Future of Stormwater Management in Urban Areas

Blog Post Teaser

In response to rising awareness of the importance of managing the planet’s limited water resources, there has been a growing trend in urban areas towards the development of green infrastructure projects designed to capture stormwater for reuse on both public and private properties.  Incorporating water projects such as green infrastructure and stormwater reuse into our existing infrastructure framework can strengthen the dependability and flexibility of our water systems.   Furthermore, according to the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization, the implementation of these water management practices is likely to generate value in the real estate industry.  Across the US, a number of forward-looking cities are already adopting green infrastructure practices, including Boston, Tampa, Washington DC, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco. 

In undeveloped areas, stormwater in the form of rainwater or melted snow is absorbed and filtered by soil and plants, resulting in cleaner runoff that flows into rivers and streams and replenishes aquifers.  However, in urban areas, precipitation is not as readily absorbed into the soil due to the presence of streets, parking lots, roofs, and other impermeable surfaces.   Instead, stormwater runoff pours through gutters, storm drains, sewer systems, drainage ditches, and other engineered collection systems, which can lead to a variety of problems.  For example, higher flows following heavy rain or snowpack melt can cause flooding and erosion in urban areas, thereby damaging local infrastructure, property, and habitat.  In addition, stormwater runoff from urban landscapes can carry bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals, trash, and other pollutants into nearby bodies of water, resulting in reduced water quality, increased turbidity, and contaminated rivers, streams, and coastal waters. 

One option for mitigating these issues is the use of green infrastructure for stormwater management applications.  Green infrastructure is a cost-effective approach to water management that comprises a broad range of practices designed to protect and restore or mimic the natural water cycle.  These practices include the use of such technologies and systems as permeable pavements, green roofs, cisterns, infiltration planters, rain gardens, and rainwater harvesting systems.  Green infrastructure systems provide many benefits to communities and wildlife, including increased public health and safety; improved erosion control and flood protection; and continued preservation and restoration of wetlands, forests, floodplains, and other natural habitats.  Additionally, investment in green infrastructure stimulates urban economies by supporting related material manufacturing and supply chains; creating jobs in numerous sectors, including engineering, landscaping, and plumbing; and enhancing property values.   

In particular, the real estate industry has been increasingly involved in helping municipalities address the challenge of stormwater management via the use of green infrastructure projects engineered to conserve water while also increasing operating efficiency and environmental performance.  Examples of developers integrating green infrastructure into their projects can be seen throughout the US.  For instance, the Atlantic Wharf office, retail, and residential development in Boston, Massachusetts incorporates an advanced rainwater harvesting system that collects stormwater runoff from the roof in a 40,000-gallon, basement-level retention tank for reuse around the property.  Similarly, cities such as Tampa and Washington DC house mixed-use developments that feature stormwater management systems that have been integrated into public park and courtyard areas, respectively.

A major obstacle to implementing green infrastructure developments has been locating the funding needed to complete these crucial but expensive projects.  One possible solution to this issue involves utilizing more unconventional means of financing, including green bonds, environmental impact bonds, stormwater retrofit grants, financial incentive/rebate programs, and stormwater retention credit trading programs.  To aid in this process, researchers at Stanford have created a “Living Map” that illustrates successful innovative water funding endeavors across the US and provides an example of how bonds, grants, rebates, and other government programs are being used to support atypical water infrastructure projects.

We have reached a pivotal point in how we manage the planet’s limited water resources.  Going forward, we have an opportunity to transform the water infrastructure landscape from older methods to more sustainable options that will better serve advancing urban communities.  As additional alternative funding options become available, the use of green infrastructure for stormwater management applications will continue to be an attractive solution as we face ongoing water quality and scarcity issues, the effects of climate change, and increased rates of urbanization and population growth.