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Uncovering Hidden Infrastructure for a Brighter Future

Saint Paul, Minn., positions stormwater as a resource.

saint paul skyline
There are 450 miles of storm sewers and tunnels in Saint Paul. They form the traditional infrastructure response to managing stormwater. The goal of these underground pipe systems is to move the water away from land as quickly and efficiently as possible, making the systems and the process invisible. The all-too-common result of hidden infrastructure is that is easily forgotten and not maintained.

In Saint Paul, we aspire towards a greener future for stormwater infrastructure: hold the water and use it as a visible resource. Along our light rail transit system, we already have stormwater infrastructure nourishing trees via permeable pavers and layers of engineered soil. At our minor league baseball stadium, it irrigates the field and flushes the toilets. These projects prove that rain can be harvested to gain more value and benefits from infrastructure investments.

As part of our evolving approach to green infrastructure, Saint Paul hopes to spearhead maximizing public benefit by managing stormwater in innovative, eco-friendly ways at major urban brownfield sites.

In a built-up city like Saint Paul, the remaining infill development opportunities are mostly on brownfields. Municipal financial assistance can be pursued for clean-up and reuse. Together with upfront green infrastructure investments, the city can elevate property value, catalyze neighborhood revitalization, and attract strategic investment along transit corridors -- as well as bring increasingly scarce land back onto the tax rolls.

Our focus on key major urban brownfield sites creates a tipping point for infrastructure delivery. We are cultivating a pipeline of potential capital projects for comprehensive stormwater systems and must find ways to embed this process institutionally.

Through the City Accelerator, an inter-departmental leadership committee has become mobilized to develop key solutions, both technical and organizational, that can be institutionalized. Most significantly, the City Accelerator process has illuminated our emerging green infrastructure program as an opportunity to create wins for both the public and private sectors. The program approach will reduce overall stormwater infrastructure cost for each sector, increase property value, stimulate revitalization and provide a host of environmental benefits.

We seek to emulate green infrastructure programs like Portland and Seattle’s that have embraced and showcased stormwater in ways that make an impression, creates a destination, and most importantly, sparks curiosity and discussion about water as a resource.

We want to take our green infrastructure to an unprecedented scale in our city. Our vision is for a “shared district” approach to stormwater management at our redevelopment sites. It refers to situations where green infrastructure is intended to service more than one parcel (public or private) on a redevelopment site, and the entire facility functions to provide additional benefits beyond stormwater management. To do this will require us to rethink our typical processes of funding infrastructure, assessing fees, recovering costs, conducting operations and maintenance, and more. This approach doesn’t fit neatly within our existing city structures or processes, and so, despite the strategic long-term benefits, change feels daunting.

Existing residents near brownfields, including low-income populations, will benefit from stormwater infrastructure that creates vibrant new open space that is publicly accessible, mending the urban fabric in these disrupted areas. Large-scale green infrastructure systems help address climate change impacts on local populations by reducing urban heat stress and improving air quality.

Often green infrastructure programs are the result of federal requirements. But for Saint Paul, where our sewer systems already meet federal code and are not mandated to change, shifting to using stormwater as a resource is completely voluntary.  It is an act of departing from past practice to leave a better legacy that invests in our future. 

Water resources coordinator for the City of Saint Paul, Minn.
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