Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Nov-Dec 2017 issue

Urban Parks: One Piece of the Infrastructure Puzzle

Urban Parks
PUZZLEBy Deryck Freudeman

With budgets stretched and infrastructure aging, cities are searching for cost-effective ways to reduce strain on their stormwater and combined sewer systems. A solution may be closer than you think and one that may have been overlooked—local parks.

Parks are the perfect way to take advantage of your community’s natural resources in a practice called green infrastructure. Green infrastructure integrates new and existing natural ecosystems into urban environments to redirect rainwater and snow melt, according to a recent National League of Cities Center for Research and Innovation report.

An article on Governing.com championed parks as a tie-in to green infrastructure efforts, noting nearly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and “a new focus on environmental resilience to flooding … [is] driving city planners to more strongly consider ‘mixed-use’ infrastructure.” It made a compelling argument for the important role parks play, adding, “urban parks are not luxuries, they are essential infrastructure for 21st-century cities.”

Value of green infrastructure
Many cities already recognize the value of parks. They improve quality of life and increase property values, which in turn, leads to increased investment in the community. The University of Washington’s College of the Environment reports, “Homes that are adjacent to naturalistic parks and open spaces are valued at 8 percent to 20 percent higher than comparable properties.”

The savings cities realize through green infrastructure can be staggering. Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management saved $16 million with its Fourth Ward Park and Reservoir project by creating a water-retention pond to mitigate flooding instead of installing a single-use network of pipes. The project was so successful that the city announced in September another retention pond will be added, according to WSB-TV.

While parks are a resource already in place, cities can easily expand their green infrastructure, even where space is at a premium in areas that might appear unsuited at first glance, such as parking lots, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Resident involvement
Even residents can participate by disconnecting their downspouts from storm sewers and collecting water in a rain barrel or cistern. Harvesting rainwater can both reduce the demand on water systems, especially in hot, dry areas, and the amount of rainwater that enters sewer systems. Some cities distribute free rain barrels. New York distributed more than 5,000 in 2016, according to that city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Residents and city officials can also improve green infrastructure simply by planting trees. Trees reduce the urban heat effect—buildings and streets absorb heat during the day and hold onto it longer at night, meaning cities can be up to 10 degrees hotter than rural areas. Trees also reduce air pollution, increase property values, lower heating and cooling costs and, most importantly for green infrastructure, intercept rainfall, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Choosing a green roof
Ambitious home and business owners may want to invest in a green roof, also known as a living roof. It’s great as long as the building’s roof has been waterproofed and reinforced to handle the weight.

Traditional roofs absorb heat and redirect stormwater into sewer systems. Adding vegetation to your roof offers benefits in addition to removing water that would otherwise flow into municipal drains. Green roofs reduce the urban heat effect and air pollution, last two to three times longer than traditional roofs, and provide natural insulation.

Rain gardenRain gardens
Cities and residents can also create rain gardens, shallow vegetated basins designed to collect rainwater and later release it through evaporation. Better Homes and Gardens recommends using native plants that thrive along ponds, along with cannas, rose mallow, irises, cardinal flowers, and obedients.

Rain gardens are the basic building block in green infrastructure. A rain garden can be small enough to fit in a planter box or large enough to border a roadway or parking lot. A visually appealing alternative to storm sewers, rain gardens also provide butterfly and bird habitats.

Streets, parking areas, and sidewalks can also “go green” with permeable pavement. By using pervious asphalt and concrete and interlocking or grid pavers, cities can reduce water runoff and the urban heat effect—and also lower initial installation costs by as much as 50 percent over streets with traditional water drainage systems.

Combining all these elements allows cities to design green streets, but green infrastructure can be as small or expansive as a city’s budget and resources allow—and it all starts with your local park.

Deryck Freudeman is regional account director with NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners (www. utilitysp.net). Utility Service Partners is a member of the League’s Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the Nov-Dec 2017 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

* By posting you are agreeing to the LMC Comment Policy.