Green infrastructure: Best practices for cities | U.S. Green Building Council

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See a breakdown of the best practices for cities in implementing green infrastructure.

Next time you take a walk around your city, look around. Is there green infrastructure near you? If not, there might be soon! Green infrastructure is becoming a more widely adopted strategy for addressing city challenges and goals.

In addition to taking root in climate action planning, cities are weaving green infrastructure into sustainability efforts and throughout myriad other initiatives. Recent articles on city climate action planning and fostering equity highlighted trends and best practices.

Some leading U.S. cities have already taken steps to invest in green infrastructure in a way that ensures benefits across the triple bottom line:

  • Chicago, Illinois: The city’s climate action plan calls for 500 new green roofs each year, leading up to 2020, to help manage stormwater and the urban heat island. Chicago is well on its way already, with over 500, and it continues to be among the national leaders in green roof development. The city led by example, installing a green roof on its City Hall building in 2000. Since, green infrastructure has been further promoted through city ordinances and programs such as the Green Alley program, the Sustainable Development Policy and a stormwater ordinance.
  • Baltimore, Maryland: Since 2010, the city has been focused on reversing urban blight using green infrastructure and community spaces through the Vacants to Value program. Since the program launched, 700 new community-managed spaces have been created from previously vacant properties. Complementary city-run initiatives, such as urban agriculture and arts programs, are expanding more equitable access to land and green spaces while harnessing the benefits of a greener city.
  • Portland, Oregon: The city’s climate action plan prioritizes urban forest development in underserved areas, helping to grow the urban canopy with a more equitable distribution. Unlike most plans, Portland’s sets a minimum canopy coverage target, which prioritizes underserved neighborhoods. Portland’s plan includes an initiative to revisit canopy targets in the future to ensure they better capture resiliency outcomes, equitable distribution, and biodiversity.

Guiding principles for cities

These and other city-led initiatives have some important similarities. A city’s green infrastructure initiative is most likely to be effective when it is

  • Data-driven. Cities use GIS mapping, census data and visualization tools to drive planning. This can include mapping current green infrastructure together with demographic information, as well as using models to understand future climate scenarios. Strategies are strongest when they consider cross-disciplinary information, both qualitative and quantitative.
  • Place-based. Green infrastructure projects are site-specific and community-based. Implementation involves community and stakeholder engagement to ensure the planning process recognizes distinctions within a city across ecological, social and cultural dimensions. Green infrastructure projects are best if they follow the local community's vision and meet its specific needs.
  • Integrated with other initiatives.The myriad benefits of green infrastructure make it an excellent tool for addressing a number of challenges. Cities that break down silos and create cross-cutting green infrastructure projects are better able to garner public support, thus improving their attractiveness to diverse sources of funding. Urban farming is an excellent example; urban farms combat food deserts, provide STEM learning opportunities and contribute to ecological health.
  • Aligned with structural adjustments. Cities can update their policies to align with green infrastructure initiatives. This can include creating new ordinances, rewriting codes, and facilitating green infrastructure through interagency alignment. Cities committed to unpacking the historical and political background of policies will be more prepared to implement projects that deliver equitable results.

When green infrastructure initiatives have these characteristics, they have the potential to create more resilient communities by strengthening climate adaptation and social equity at the same time. USGBC and GBCI can assist these efforts with impact-driven tools like SITESLEED, and Parksmart