by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM
A week ago I had a long wait in a hospital room at Massachusetts Eye and Ear at Mass General Hospital in Boston while my nine-year old son was having a big operation. I am pleased to say that this first of several operations went extraordinarily well and they truly have some of the best surgeons in the world at Mass Eye and Ear. While I was waiting, I was able to take in the view from the 10th floor of the hospital and see Boston in all its glory — the Golden Dome of the state house, the tall buildings of downtown, and Beacon Hill. When we went up to the cafeteria, we could see a significant length of the Charles River, extending as far as the eye could see from the Museum of Science up to Harvard. As I took in the impressive urban vista, I noticed that something important had changed since I last lived in Boston in the 1990’s as Master’s student studying International Environmental Resource Management at Boston University and later as a professional working on environmental and health issues in the city.
I am sure that Boston has not changed its pace of living, its congestion, its noise, or its race for knowledge and invention, but Boston sure has changed in terms of its color. While Boston has always been known for its environmentalists and its innovation, Boston is much greener these days — not just in attitude but in actual color. Bursting with green roofs, river restoration projects, buffers, tree box planters and more, it was a pleasure to observe what an amazing transformation has occurred in Boston since the late 1990s. As I looked out the hospital window onto Mass General’s primary buildings, both were covered with green roofs. One was lush with green vegetation and the other with red plants, presumably a species that changes color with the seasons.
When I last lived in Boston, solutions like this were mostly still on the drawing board. There were little pilot projects here and there, with “green groups” touting their benefits. They were largely untested, hugely expensive, and surely not the norm. Boston has always had a commitment to green open space. The Boston Common remains a glorious green centerpiece for the city, but now greening of the city is represented by so much more than isolated parks. Investments in restoring areas along the Charles River, reducing impervious surface and finding creative ways to address runoff are all paying off. The city has green roofs on several city-owned buildings, including on the 8th and 9th floors of City Hall and on city schools.
Today, in many American cities, natural infrastructure is being used to purify water, control water temperature, minimize sedimentation, regulate urban stormwater runoff and more. According to the Water Environment Federation (2013), “at least $1.32 trillion a year in water infrastructure investments are needed to keep up with business-as-usual, it has become increasingly important to consider how nature can substitute, safeguard, or complement engineered infrastructure projects in ways that are proven to be effective and cost-competitive.”
One of the major contributors to the “Greening of Boston” has been the Charles River Watershed Association’s Blue Cities Initiative. The Blue Cities Initiative focuses on restoring urban greenscapes and natural hydrologic function. The initiative builds plans for natural infrastructure using historic maps. CWRA analyzes opportunities for restoration by looking at how rainwater once functioned on the land before it became urbanized. They evaluate soil types, historic groundwater flow and historic versus constructed drainage patterns. With this knowledge, they help the city and private developers retrofit buildings, streets and parking lots to “capture and treat runoff, connect isolated greenspace, and create greenways.” The Blue Cities Initiative is helping people understand and capitalize on a variety of closely-related approaches, including Low Impact Development (LID), Green Buildings, Green Infrastructure, Green Corridors, and stormwater management. Tools range from targeted stream and river restoration, buffers and swales the incorporation of rain gardens, constructed wetlands, planted green roofs and the reintroduction of meanders, among many others.
Across the U.S. and internationally, natural infrastructure is being increasingly used to address water management issues arising from a combination of development, continuing population pressures and climate change that results in more extreme precipitation events. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), important factors in building momentum for natural infrastructure solutions, not surprisingly, have been found to include the ability to capitalize on key windows of opportunity for natural infrastructure investments, presence of champions and effective advocates, public-private partnerships and partnership investments, and effective public outreach and communication. Well-crafted assessments and sustainable funding mechanisms are critical factors of success during the design phase. Clear responsibilities among partners, adequate capacity to complete assigned tasks and sustainable financial mechanisms are all critical to implementation. Finally, monitoring and reporting on outcomes, the ability to leverage funding to expand investments to the landscape level, and the capacity to continue planning into the future are all found to be factors of success for natural infrastructure development during the maintenance stage.
It is exciting to see Boston and other cities embrace innovative solutions that marry water and land management, integrating gray-green infrastructure solutions and, as a result, creating new benefits socially, economically AND environmentally. Looking out across Boston’s CityScape, I was reminded how comprehensive approaches and partnerships can link together individual projects that promote natural infrastructure even in the face of extensive urbanization. Allowing the land to return to a more natural pattern of water flow and treatment can allow urban areas to manage many of their water challenges more effectively. It was quite a sight to take in from that 10th floor. Although my world has been focused on my son’s healing over the last couple weeks, the green view from our hospital room was memorable — and immensely promising.
 Designing for exceedance in urban drainage – good practice (C635) Downloadable here.