Global infrastructure challenges present opportunities to improve our cities. To ensure that these investments result in communities that are productive, livable and sustainable, we must change how we build, manage, and use our cities.
Securing clean water is becoming increasingly difficult in the United States. Infrastructure like dams and treatment plants are aging, water demand is increasing, and more frequent extreme weather events like wildfires and flooding are driving up the cost of water management.
It’s a complex problem, but one of the potential solutions is decidedly low-tech: Invest in nature.
Water is a scarce resource in India, especially in the state of Maharashtra, where most rainfall is limited to the monsoon season from June through September. The Government of India has long promoted a Participatory Watershed Development (PWD) approach to deal with this scarcity.
This post was co-written with James Mulligan, Executive Director at Green Community Ventures.
Natural ecosystems provide essential services for our communities. Forests and wetlands, for example, filter the water we drink, protect neighborhoods from floods and droughts, and shade aquatic habitat for fish populations.
While nature provides this “green infrastructure,” water utilities and other decision-makers often attempt to replicate these services with concrete-and-steel “gray infrastructure”—usually at a much greater cost. Particularly where the equivalent natural ecosystems are degraded, we build filtration plants to clean water, reservoirs to regulate water flow, and mechanical chillers to protect fish from increasing stream temperatures. And even though healthy ecosystems can reduce the operational costs of these structures, investing in restoring or enhancing various types of green infrastructure is rarely pursued—either as a substitute for or complement to gray infrastructure.
Despite America’s history of reliance on gray infrastructure, now is a critical time to tip the scales in favor of a green infrastructure approach to water-resource management. Investing in the conservation and improved management of natural ecosystems to secure and protect water systems can keep costs down and create jobs. Green infrastructure can also provide a suite of co-benefits for the air we breathe, the places we play, the wildlife we share our landscapes with, and the climate we live in.
With half of all Americans living near the ocean, Hurricane Sandy provides a wake-up call for state and municipal authorities in coastal areas nationwide. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo is leading the way, pledging a new generation of storm-resistant infrastructure and forming three commissions to explore how the state can better prepare for climate change’s coming impacts.
Sandy wrought a 1,000-mile trail of damage in towns and cities along the East Coast shoreline. As climate change intensifies, more severe storms (and storm surges), rising seas, extreme heat, and other destructive impacts loom on the horizon. How can New York City; Newark, N.J.; and other cities hit by Sandy rebuild in ways that avoid a repeat of the devastation that deprived millions of the basic essentials of modern life? How can other coastal cities adapt to become more resilient to a warming climate?
Put simply, they need to “build back better,” a phrase first coined by President Clinton following the 2004 Asian tsunami. In practice, this means coupling short-term efforts to get communities back on their feet with longer-term urban development that adapts to expected climate change impacts.
As they seek to make our coastal cities and towns more climate resilient, urban leaders should adopt three key approaches that we believe will be critical to success:
Infrastructure is essential for economic growth. But as governments debate the future of sustainable development at the Rio+20 conference, there is one infrastructure solution that can provide a good return on investment: nature.
People often don’t think of forests, wetlands, coral reefs, and other natural ecosystems as forms of infrastructure. But they are. Forests, for instance, can prevent silt and pollutants from entering streams that supply freshwater to downstream cities and businesses. They can act as natural water filtration plants. As such, they are a form of “green infrastructure” that can serve the same function as “gray infrastructure,” the human-engineered solutions that often involve concrete and steel. This example is not alone (see Table 1).
Green Power Projects (January 2005 – December 2005)
Since January 2005, the Green Power Market Development Group has implemented or signed contracts for 185 megawatts (MW) of new green power projects and purchases – enough to power approximately 55,000 homes.