“While governments are mired in negotiations, cities are leaping forward,” Stuart Gaffin, a professor and researcher at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University in New York, told the Guardian. “City populations recognize the threats from climate change.”
In Copenhagen, Denmark, which like many low-lying metropolises faces serious dangers as sea levels rise and destructive storms grow stronger and more frequent, an ambitious long-term project is underway in which convex streets will collect excess water, pocket parks will absorb water and heat and the level of a local lake will be lowered. This last move will create a park, playgrounds and jogging paths. But more importantly, the reclaimed land will be used for water storage in the event of a superstorm.
Danes, often more progressive with green-tech than other countries, have realized that building and expanding green infrastructure is beneficial to both the environment and the economy.
“Both from a financial and a sustainability perspective, it makes sense to do as much as possible as early as possible,” Brian Vad Mathiesen, a professor of development and planning at Aalborg University, told the Guardian.
In that spirit, cities all over the world have launched green infrastructure projects in earnest. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $19.5 billion climate change adaption plan in 2013 in the wake of superstorm Sandy, which opened many eyes to the realities of climate change and the need for immediate action.
Even developing nations are getting in on the act. In China, new sustainable cities are rising out of nowhere. Dense, vertical suburbs served efficiently by public transportation are reviving the early 20th century concept of ‘garden cities.’ With the help of international green infrastructure consultants, Chinese cities are applying cutting edge tactics and technologies to drastically reduce waste and dramatically increase efficiency and sustainability.
It’s not just the big cities that are taking significant action to implement meaningful green infrastructure plans. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, has launched an innovative ‘wet weather plan,’ run by the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority (PWSA). Early on, the agency recognized the need for a well-informed public possessed of a sense of urgency.
“We wanted to raise public awareness of green infrastructure and have incorporated public input into our planning efforts,” said Jim Good, Interim Executive Director at PWSA. From there, PWSA “started to design and construct rain gardens and bioswales to control stormwater at the source, and we’ve established partnerships with organizations who share our goals of improving water quality and the environment.”
The PWSA understood the need to link arms with environmentally knowledgeable firms, and they recently renewed a three-year partnership with Veolia, the world’s leading provider of environmental solutions.
“Through teamwork and innovative thinking, we are on our way to achieving ambitious goals and making significant water quality and environmental improvements,” he added.
The relationship with Veolia has been fruitful: Since the beginning of the partnership, Veolia has brought to PWSA around $5.5 million annually in recurring revenue and efficiencies, a press release states.
Good stressed the importance of including green infrastructure in plans to control storm water. Whereas green infrastructure projects, like those underway in Copenhagen and Pittsburgh, stress resilience, gray infrastructure projects — think sea walls and barriers — are more reactionary, and likely temporary, approaches to a permanent problem.
“Gray infrastructure investments to manage wet weather made today will not be revisited for 100 years,” said Good. “Cities have to get them right with the right balance of investment in gray and green infrastructure.
Not only can green infrastructure contribute to the management of wet weather flows, but because of its nature, it can provide flexibility to future planners and administrators in addressing the known challenges we face today and the unknown ones that will face us tomorrow,” Good continued.
People often conflate resilience with sustainability. But while the two are inextricably linked and often overlap, they are not the same. Resilient planning, design and initiatives are not only about being able to quickly and effectively recover from climate disasters, but also about how cities learn and adapt from them.
“The current, more ecological concept of resilience is not only about bouncing back and recovery but also about the ability to adapt, often discussed as adaptive capacity,” explained Timon McPhearson of the Sustainable Cities Collective. “In this context resilience is the capacity of a system to experience shocks while retaining function, structure, feedbacks and, therefore, identity.”
PWSA’s Good concurs.
“We don’t have a choice, and our approach to water resource management has to evolve in order to keep up with the changing landscape,” Good stressed. “We’re all facing the same budgetary challenges and, as we do more with green infrastructure, we learn more. Cities are now sharing that knowledge and are looking at creative ways to finance and build these innovations into their planning efforts.”
“Our water challenges aren’t going to go away, but the approach we take now, and the effort we put into this today will pay off well into the future,” he added.