Integrated Approaches to Greener Cities

"Typically, the current administrative structure of municipal government and its relationship to the private sector and civil society can pose significant barriers to developing integrated...
by | March 14, 2010

"Typically, the current administrative structure of municipal government and its relationship to the private sector and civil society can pose significant barriers to developing integrated approaches to sustainable infrastructure and community services." --Canada's Centre for Sustainable Community Development

Though the Centre's focus was on Canadian municipalities, its conclusions apply to many U.S. cities and their greening initiatives as well.

Many cities are taking steps to embrace green buildings and other sustainable environmental initiatives, and these efforts are laudable and extensive. But as I explored in a recent report for the Environmental Defense Fund called "Green, Clean and Dollar Smart," there are many untapped opportunities to enhance these greening efforts by focusing on a more integrated approach.

Several strategies can produce greater bang for the buck--more green for less green, if you will. These integrated approaches include:

o Combining demand-side management of resource use with improvements in efficiency and reductions in environmental impacts of existing buildings, infrastructure, and energy systems;

o Integrating various greening infrastructure components; and

o Integrating green building initiatives with green infrastructure initiatives that expand tree canopy, create more permeable surfacing, and return urban streams to more natural forms.

The Whole Is Bigger than the Sum of the Parts: Integrating Benefits

Several U.S. cities are pushing the integration envelope, but expanding these efforts may require new governing tools and innovative use of existing tools. Several factors contribute to difficulties in urban integration of greening efforts. These include:

o Agency "silos" that inhibit coordination across air, water, wastewater, stormwater, climate, energy, open space, and other infrastructure and services.

In Albany, New York, for example, the city owns the wastewater plants but does not own the piping leading to the plants. This ownership segregation inhibits opportunities to rethink wastewater infrastructure and use wastewater fee revenue to revise pipe infrastructure. At the state level, similarly fractured responsibilities are common. In the state of Virginia, for example, the Department of Environmental Quality permits wastewater while the Department of Conservation and Recreation handles stormwater permits.

o Federal and state permitting structures that segregate planning and actions into discrete activities and issue areas that make integrated ecosystem planning difficult.

Consider Philadelphia. Requirements for managing combined sewage overflow (CSO) under provisions of the Clean Water Act lie behind efforts to broadly integrate urban greening in the City of Philadelphia. CSO requirements provide the "enforcement teeth" to prompt action. At the same time, the high costs of traditional tools, such as investing in more tunnel capacity to handle flows, have triggered a search for better approaches premised on pollution prevention.

In its long-term plan update for EPA, Philadelphia took a novel urban greening approach to the challenges of CSO management, with benefits intended to meet sewage overflow requirements while also producing cleaner air; cleaner water; and more GHG reductions relative to alternative, traditional investments. The greening plan also provided other environmental, social, and economic benefits. Fundamentally, the plan would re-align the city's infrastructure, moving it from "gray" to "green" infrastructure, with conversion of 34 percent of the city to permeable surfaces as a central foundation of the plan. Using "triple bottom line" calculations that include full life-cycle environmental and other costs, the city concluded that every million dollars spent on "gray" infrastructure such as CSO tunnels generates $1.1 million in environmental and other costs that result from materials usage, land transformation, and other impacts. Tunnel expansion would reduce combined sewage overflow, but total net environmental effects, according to the city, would be negative.

City managers believe a green infrastructure approach would be more cost-effective and yield more benefits while still meeting CSO requirements. A complete tunnel system, with an estimated price tag of $6-$8 billion, would require 80 years to build at $100 million per year, estimated by the city as a realistic spend rate. By contrast, over 20-30 years the city could spend a total of $1 billion and transform the city's landscapes, dramatically enhancing the sustainability profile of Philadelphia and producing multiple environmental, health, social, energy, and economic benefits.

While Philadelphia has a holistic, integrated vision for its greening efforts, the federal policy tools to accomplish this kind of vision are lacking. Several challenges stand out. First, the currently required EPA timeline for building CSO tunnels has negative cost and environmental performance implications. Second, the absence of clear EPA policies regarding green infrastructure limits city opportunities. Third, EPA's uncertainty about how green infrastructure will perform raises concerns about how to define violations of EPA combined sewage overflow standards and enforce those standards.

EPA generally assumes a 20-year timeframe to build CSO tunnels. At least implicitly, the agency also appears to recognize that, even with more tunnel capacity, combined sewage overflows will still occur. Nonetheless, EPA typically will deem a city to be compliant with standards if the commitments are made to build tunnels within a certain timeframe to specified performance parameters.

A "green infrastructure" approach, by contrast, involves an evolution of urban landscapes over time as part of ongoing infrastructure maintenance and renewal processes as streets, energy and electricity infrastructure redevelopment, and new development occur. Through these processes, old "gray" infrastructure is replaced with new "green" infrastructure. Over a 30-year timeframe, replacement and renewal goals are met. Costs are incremental, incurred during natural replacement or new development cycles rather than requiring displacement of existing infrastructure with entirely new investments. The challenge for the city (and for EPA) is that current compliance tools and procedures are not well configured to evaluate and give compliance "credit" for this gradual urban greening, even when incremental pollution reduction begins right away with the first greening investments, while results from new tunnels loom 15 years or more into the future.

o Jurisdictional structures that limit budgets and authorities for working across governing boundaries and at scales commensurate with ecosystems and natural landscape dynamics.

City government budgets and operations are divided among specific services that include stormwater management, wastewater treatment, parks and recreation programs, drinking water, public building management, and so on. In many areas, municipal residents are served primarily by private power companies. The benefits of green infrastructure are, thus, dispersed across these different services, making them difficult to perceive. In addition, the beneficiaries of these ecosystem services have little or no authority, incentives, or responsibility to pay for them. One study of Washington, DC, found that trees provided annual benefits of some $5.55 million per year in reducing energy costs in buildings, removing air pollution, and other ecosystem services. Yet budget structures consider trees largely as a "cost" with no corresponding way to charge for their benefits, such as the avoided energy costs they provide to building managers.

o Governing jurisdictions and political boundaries seldom align with watersheds or other ecosystem landscapes.

As human settlements emerged, largely around hubs of economic activities, city boundaries were established to encompass these hubs. State boundaries resulted from historic circumstances and land ownership patterns largely unrelated to ecosystems, their components, and their functions. As a consequence of these historic political processes, many city boundaries do not fully encompass the watersheds on which they are dependent. A few cities, such as Seattle, acquired lands a century ago that supplied the city's source water, but such acquisitions were infrequent. In some cases, such as the Chesapeake Bay, a single watershed includes a jumble of city and state boundaries. In other cases, such as Milwaukee, the city is situated amid multiple watersheds.

Integration is one critical theme in efforts to enhance the effectiveness of environmental expenditures. Future articles will look at other strategies for improving state and municipal strategies in environmental areas.

Lynn Scarlett is the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior and now an independent environmental consultant. She can be reached at lynnscarlett@comcast.net . This column is adapted from " Green, Clean and Dollar Smart."

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