Green Flows to Green

COVID-19 and the climate is accelerating use of natural infrastructure in urban areas

By Erik J. Meyers and Mark Cason

COVID-19 has brought life in the United States to a sudden and sustained pause. Months after the initial wave of closings—which affected businesses, schools and other enclosed environments—public health officials continue to advise the general public to avoid crowds and close contact, wear face masks and monitor personal health daily.

Yet, COVID-19 is not the only challenge nature has thrown down: the effects of climate change are becoming more noticeable and severe with each passing day. Communities and municipalities are experiencing 100-year storm events that occur every other year. Prolonged periods of high temperatures are no longer seen as rare but the new normal. Just a few examples will illustrate:

  • Temperatures in Phoenix now exceed 110 degrees with some frequency, while in the greater Washington, D.C. region nightly temperatures have not dropped below 70 degrees since June 27—a new record.
  •  Ocean temperatures near Miami set a record in June, and the 2020 Atlantic tropical storm season recorded over 9 named storms before August 1 for the first time.
  • During May, Chicago and the entire state of Illinois marked their highest monthly rainfall totals on record.
    These climate effects—and the impact of coping with the physical distancing mandated to reduce the spread of COVID-19—are particularly acute in urban areas. Over 80% of Americans live in urban areas, many without access to greenspace. During the pandemic, urban residents with access to greenspace—gardens, urban tree planters, greenways, parks—were able to find welcome physical and psychological relief from the stress of indoor confinement. Similarly, cities such as Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are finding that natural green infrastructure provides effective mitigation of urban stormwater flooding and reduces the “heat island” effect of cities’ massed buildings and pavement.

Articles in American Infrastructure have detailed the many forms that natural and nature-based green infrastructure can take. For example, restored floodplains and wetlands near urban rivers and bayous provide green recreation space and cool the adjacent city, while also providing floodwater storage and conveyance when heavy rains come. Smaller features like tree and storm water planters, bioswales and neighborhood trails, and parks incorporating these features capture, filter and slow the flow of storm water to streams and overwhelmed city storm sewers, while helping cool and clean city air.

Nature based elements, such as rainwater cisterns, rain barrels and pervious paving can help restore the hydrological balance, especially in increasingly arid Western cities. City planners, landscape architects, engineers, managers and elected officials increasingly recognize the added benefits of natural green infrastructure, whether as part of system upgrades and retrofits or new development.

And fortunately for cities, newly emerging sources of funding and financing support natural green infrastructure projects:

  •  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently unveiled its new Building Resilient Infrastructure in Communities (BRIC) program—a $500 million funding source to help states, local communities, tribal communities and U.S. territories implement pre-disaster mitigation activities. The new grant program incentivizes the use of natural and nature-based features to advance community-based efforts, like floodplain management and wetland protection projects to reduce risk from natural hazards. These cost-effective activities also have a proven track record of strengthening community preparedness and resilience, yielding environmental benefits such as green open space and riparian areas, and fostering community resilience and smart growth.
  • The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago recently modified Cook County’s watershed management ordinance to allow a pilot program in two of the County’s seven watershed planning areas. Seeing regional economic decline due to the pandemic and record rains, developers view this new StormStore program, a partnership of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and The Nature Conservancy, as a welcome opportunity. Developers with capacity to build more stormwater management volume into their projects can receive financial “credits” from other sites where stormwater cannot be easily managed.
  •  Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management issued a $14 million environmental impact bond with proceeds dedicated to five new green stormwater infrastructure projects in underserved neighborhoods of the city. With help from non-profit partners like The Conservation Fund, these projects are being developed with community amenities that provide new greenspace for exercise, gathering and simple enjoyment.

Bottom-line: Despite the daunting challenges posed to our cities by COVID-19 and climate change, green infrastructure and green financing now offer a suite of new, workable responses.

Erik J. Meyers is vice president with The Conservation Fund. Meyers helps cities and other partners tackle complex water and climate challenges.

Mark Cason is a senior government relations representative with The Conservation Fund. Cason advances conservation policy and Congressional appropriations to protect land, water and wildlife.