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Water: Green Infrastructure

What is Green Infrastructure?

Stormwater runoff is a major cause of water pollution in urban areas.  When rain falls in undeveloped areas, the water is absorbed and filtered by soil and plants.  When rain falls on our roofs, streets, and parking lots, however, the water cannot soak into the ground.  In most urban areas, stormwater is drained through engineered collection systems and discharged into nearby waterbodies.  The stormwater carries trash, bacteria, heavy metals, and other pollutants from the urban landscape, degrading the quality of the receiving waters.  Higher flows can also cause erosion and flooding in urban streams, damaging habitat, property, and infrastructure.    

Green infrastructure uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier urban environments.  At the scale of a city or county, green infrastructure refers to the patchwork of natural areas that provides habitat, flood protection, cleaner air, and cleaner water. At the scale of a neighborhood or site, green infrastructure refers to stormwater management systems that mimic nature by soaking up and storing water.

Here we review the range of green infrastructure elements that can be woven throughout a watershed, from the smaller scale elements that can be integrated into sites to the larger scale elements that span entire watersheds.

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Downspout Disconnection
Downspout Disconnection
Downspout disconnection refers to the rerouting of rooftop drainage pipes to drain rainwater to rain barrels, cisterns, or permeable areas instead of the storm sewer.  Downspout disconnection stores stormwater and/or allows stormwater to infiltrate into the soil.  This simple practice may have particularly great benefits in cities with combined sewer systems.
Rainwater Cistern
Rainwater Harvesting
Rainwater harvesting systems collect and store rainfall for later use. When designed appropriately, rainwater harvesting systems slow and reduce runoff and provide a source of water. These systems may be particularly attractive in arid regions, where they can reduce demands on increasingly limited water supplies.
Rain Garden
Rain Gardens
Rain gardens (also known as bioretention or bioinfiltration cells) are shallow, vegetated basins that collect and absorb runoff from rooftops, sidewalks, and streets.  Rain gardens mimic natural hydrology by infiltrating and evapotranspiring runoff.  Rain gardens are versatile features that can be installed in almost any unpaved space.
Stormwater Planter
Planter Boxes
Planter boxes are urban rain gardens with vertical walls and open or closed bottoms that collect and absorb runoff from sidewalks, parking lots, and streets. Planter boxes are ideal for space-limited sites in dense urban areas and as a streetscaping element.
Bioswales are vegetated, mulched, or xeriscaped channels that provide treatment and retention as they move stormwater from one place to another.  Vegetated swales slow, infiltrate, and filter stormwater flows. As linear features, vegetated swales are particularly suitable along streets and parking lots.
Permeable Pavements
Permeable pavements are paved surfaces that infiltrate, treat, and/or store rainwater where it falls.  Permeable pavements may be constructed from pervious concrete, porous asphalt, permeable interlocking pavers, and several other materials.  These pavements are particularly cost effective where land values are high and where flooding or icing is a problem.
Green Streets and Alleys
Green streets and alleys integrate green infrastructure elements into the street and/or alley design design to store, infiltrate, and evapotranspire stormwater.  Permeable pavement, bioswales, planter boxes, and trees are among the many green infrastructure features that may be woven into street or alley design. 
Green Parking
Many of the green infrastructure elements described above can be seamlessly integrated into parking lot designs. Permeable pavements can be installed in sections of a lot and rain gardens and bioswales can be included in medians and along a parking lot perimeter. Benefits include urban heat island mitigation and a more walkable built environment.
Green Roofs
Green roofs are covered with growing media and vegetation that enable rainfall infiltration and evapotranspiration of stored water. Green roofs are particularly cost effective in dense urban areas where land values are high and on large industrial or office buildings where stormwater management costs may be high.
urban tree canopy
Urban Tree Canopy
Many cities set tree canopy goals to restore some of the benefits provided by trees.   Trees reduce and slow stormwater by intercepting precipitation in their leaves and branches.  Homeowners, businesses, and cities can all participate in the planting and maintenance of trees throughout the urban environment.
land conservation
Land Conservation
Protecting open spaces and sensitive natural areas  within and adjacent to cities can mitigate the water quality and flooding impacts of urban stormwater while providing recreational opportunities for city residents.   Natural areas that are particularly important in addressing water quality and flooding include riparian areas, wetlands, and steep hillsides. 

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