April 22, 2024

Green Infrastructure and Designing for Water

Earth Day is the perfect time to reflect on current trends in sustainable design and highlight the challenges our firm is addressing on behalf of municipal clients. One issue that’s come to the forefront is the need for better stormwater management and updated green infrastructure.  

In a recent article for Crain’s Grand Rapids Business, author John Gallagher writes that in many cities and municipalities throughout the nation, large rain events are occurring with more frequency and regularity than past decades—and aging stormwater systems weren’t designed to handle them. The lack of appropriate “gray infrastructure” (which usually refers to underground pipes and pumps) leads to flooding which can be catastrophic—especially for economically vulnerable communities.

So, how can green infrastructure help?

Spongy Cities

According to water resources practice leader Paul Hausler, making a city “spongy” refers to decreasing the amount of nonpermeable surface like roads and parking lots, and adding green roofs and raingardens with a focus on soil health as a key strategy to optimize rainwater absorption. Many of these “sponge cities” also embrace their natural hydrology, using tools like wetland restoration and stream daylighting to divert and absorb excess water.

Rain gardens and bioswales have become popular in recent years for this purpose, but it’s important to remember that just like any landscape, these habitats require management to sustain both usefulness and aesthetics. From an economic perspective, there is opportunity for landscaping companies to start providing specialization in this area. Besides managing/filtering water and adding to a site’s visual appeal, rain gardens provide habitat for birds, bees, and other animals while sequestering carbon.  

Biogenic carbon capture is the process by which living organisms, primarily plants, capture carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and store it in their tissues and the surrounding soil. Incorporating biogenic carbon capture into landscape design is crucial for helping municipalities limit their emissions while enhancing their ability to effectively manage the increased rain events cost-effectively. As such, it's essential for professionals in design and planning to integrate these practices into their projects, aligning with global sustainability goals and bolstering urban ecological health.

City trails and parks can also play a part in water management. In Florida, director of engineering Jeff Roman worked on a 24,000 square foot trail project that utilized Flexi-Pave--a low-maintenance, porous material made up of 50% recycled tires, which allows rain to filter through to the water table and even treats runoff.  

Investment in Green Infrastructure

Municipalities are investing in green infrastructure more and more, as senior landscape architect Nolan Miller can attest. The City of Grand Rapids, MI organized a Green Infrastructure Certification program that he and around 20 city staff participated in, learning how to implement green strategies. Two other Grand Rapids organizations, the Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) and Plaster Creek Stewards, provide homeowner assessments on how to rainscape yards and gardens.

We’re also seeing investment from private owners. At Steelcase, a global design company and thought leader in the world of work, we helped remove the trucking lanes at their global headquarters to make way for new rainwater filtering bioswales and native species landscaping. Another corporate client removed 15 acres of nonpermeable pavement in favor of rain gardens and implemented a management plan for the site’s new ecosystem.  

Federal funding and grants are also available for green infrastructure. The City of Kalamazoo, MI recently received $38 million towards improvements focused around the downtown and Arcadia Creek, which the city plans to daylight and reroute. Benton Harbor, MI also received a grant from the NOAA for their planned Ox Creek Restoration Project.

Environment of Change

Our Earth is changing, whether we’re ready for it or not. The good news is, you don’t have to face the future alone. Our team of civil engineers, landscape architects, water resources specialists, urban designers, and planners are ready to help.  

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