Municipal Green Infrastructure in the 21st Century: The Three Keys

Three keys that can help to transform modern infrastructure systems

By Lara Kurtz

Two of the biggest challenges facing public works personnel are the needs to upgrade and replace stormwater infrastructure and promote sustainability, while tackling both as cost-efficiently as possible. This is not as insurmountable as it may seem.

Leveraging lessons learned from years of hands-on experience, one recognizes three overarching keys to making systems as “green” as possible – all while maximizing their capital budgets.

Most importantly, these three operating principles are most successful when interconnected and inseparable with a long-term view of program success.

1. Scalability

Municipalities and agencies must implement scalable strategies that accomplish the goal of managing stormwater on a water or sewer-shed basis in a manner that solves larger drainage issues and localized problems, thereby decreasing costs.

Early green infrastructure programs often focused on highly visible projects distributed throughout the city, known as decentralized stormwater management. These types of projects boomed in popularity as they effectively capture runoff at the source and can be aesthetically incorporated into the community. Their cost and long-term maintenance, however, proved challenging.

In comparison, regional (or centralized) stormwater projects, while often less expensive, may be tucked away in neighborhoods or buried underground where they lose many of the ancillary benefits that green infrastructure provides.

A scalable approach looks to a system’s centralized projects to serve as the municipality’s strategically positioned “workhorses,” capturing and treating a large amount of stormwater runoff in a single location.

To effectively develop green infrastructure programs that leverage economies of scale, managers must adopt data-driven approaches in their decision-making.They should continuously devise and refresh these approaches, always factoring in lifecycle costs and weighing cost-benefit ratios.

In short, managers should plan their green infrastructure strategically and manage them as they would any other stormwater or sewer asset.

2. Smart asset management

Today’s green infrastructure program managers are grappling with unanticipated long-term operation and maintenance requirements. From day one, projects must be planned with long- term operation and maintenance in mind. This lifecycle mindset

optimizes performance over the long run, and improves cost- effectiveness through data analytics, assessments of cradle-to-grave costs, and routine inspection schedules. It also guide future green infrastructure program implementation, allowing for better site and technology selection though an increased understanding of how well assets are performing — and just how much effort and expense various technologies or site conditions require.

Municipal managers must implement tracking systems, train their workforce, track employee needs, and develop effective work-order management systems just as they would for their other assets.

3. Alternative financing and project delivery

Jurisdictions should maximize opportunities available for alternative financing and delivery to meet green infrastructure program needs.

Various alternative funding and delivery mechanisms are being implemented in green infrastructure programs across the country. These lessen a municipality’s design and construction cost burdens, as well as reduce long-term operation and maintenance costs. They also include grant or incentive programs, public/private partnerships, and even aggregators that identify the most cost-effective projects, locations and administrative programs for municipalities.

Such financing models reduce the upfront cost for green infrastructure and free-up short-term capital budgets for other infrastructure needs.They can also result in more cost-effective projects overall, since the private sector is bearing responsibility for designing and maintaining a project.

Another valuable strategy is the alternative delivery of projects. In this case, municipalities retain control of their program but contract with design, construction and maintenance providers. While the overall fiscal burden lies with the municipality, the contractor is responsible for a project’s long-term performance. This compels them to select more efficient technologies with lower lifecycle costs.

Integrating all three strategies

Public works planning and management requires strategic and full life-cycle thinking. By uniting scalability, asset management, and alternative financing and delivery, municipalities will maximize infrastructure performance and sustainability while minimizing operating costs.

Lara Kurtz is a Senior Technical Director and the Green Infrastructure and Wet Weather Practice Lead for the Midwest Region of AKRF, Inc. She has worked in both the private and public sectors helping municipalities implement progressive, cost- effective approaches to stormwater and combined sewer overflow program compliance.

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