One Man's Swamp is Another's Green Infrastructure

Going green will require a different skill set for most utility folks. And also a different mindset. But as cities across the country are beginning to demonstrate, green infrastructure can help combat stormwater pollution and system overflows, while also being a pleasing addition to neighborhoods.

Apr 1st, 2013
James Laughlin

I once received a phone call from a woman who was very upset by a “nasty swamp” that she passed every day on her way to work. The swamp collected all sorts of trash and garbage every time it rained. While the city made some effort to clean up the trash periodically, she couldn’t understand why they didn’t just drain the swamp, fill it in and turn the land into a park or something useful.

Viewing this as a teaching moment, I tried to explain that the swamp was most likely a wetland protected by Federal law under the Clean Water Act and performed a very useful function capturing floating trash and helping break down nutrients in the water. It also served as a habitat for a wide variety of wildlife great and small and should be viewed as a beautiful thing.

She didn't buy it. "It's a swamp! It's a habitat for snakes and mosquitoes!" I learned long ago not to argue with such people, and we quickly agreed I could offer no help on this issue. ("You're no help!" "I agree. Bye!")

That was back in the '90s before the idea of green infrastructure gained traction. According to Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge in this modern age, green infrastructure as a concept originated in the United States in the mid-1990s. EPA later extended the concept to apply to the management of stormwater runoff at the local level through the use of natural systems, or engineered systems that mimic natural systems, to treat polluted runoff.

Needless to say I didn't tell my caller that her swamp was a form of green infrastructure, but it certainly would qualify in the right setting. The fact that it collected trash and was unattractive doesn't detract from the role it played. But it could highlight at least one challenge I see for municipalities considering green infrastructure: keeping green infrastructure pleasing to the eye. and not an eyesore, could be a maintenance headache.

I'm a hobby gardener and I'm familiar with the joys of planting things and watching them grow. Of course, I'm also very familiar with how "green" can turn "brown" in the blink of an eye. You never understand plants until you've killed a few. Still, I see beauty in my caller's swamp, no matter how noxious, and my garden continues to grow. And I truly believe that green infrastructure has a viable place in the modern world of stormwater management.

Going green will require a different skill set for most utility folks. And also a different mindset. But as cities across the country are beginning to demonstrate, green infrastructure can help combat stormwater pollution and system overflows, while also being a pleasing addition to neighborhoods. By weaving natural processes into the built environment, green infrastructure provides not only stormwater management, but also flood mitigation, air quality management, and much more.

This issue of WaterWorld includes a focus on green infrastructure. I had the pleasure of talking with the folks at Kansas City, MO, about their Middle Blue River Basin project, and Steve Trinkaus writes about a stormwater park in the heart of Norfolk, CT. These are just two of many examples of the growing green infrastructure movement.

If you would like to learn more, the USEPA maintains a very comprehensive web page devoted to green infrastructure at http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/greeninfrastructure/index.cfm. The page includes basic information, case studies and useful tools such as policy guides, funding opportunities and design and implementation resources. The site also offers a comprehensive library of resources for anyone considering green infrastructure, with featured topics ranging from urban stormwater impacts to the economics of green infrastructure.

James Laughlin, Managing Editor

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