Online Templates Facilitate Green Infrastructure

By Matt Baker

Flooding is a persistent problem in the Midwest, one that is only intensifying with climate change. Some studies suggest that 100-year flood events could occur as frequently as every 20 years and a study from Washington University in St. Louis last year claimed that federal estimates of these historic events could be short by as much as five feet. A new online toolkit hopes to address these challenges, providing communities across the region with a free solution to their flooding problems.

The toolkit, Green Infrastructure Designs: Scalable Solutions to Local Challenges, was developed in partnership by Delta Institute, the Metropolitan Planning Council, Guidon Design, Inc. and the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative—which is itself a consortium of municipalities, nonprofits, regulators and other stakeholders.

One neighborhood in suburban Hinsdale contains curb cuts that allow stormwater to easily drain into rain gardens and bioswales. With dense vegetation, absorbent soils and underground storage capacity, these installations help treat the stormwater and prevent flooding of homes and streets. Photo: Center for Neighborhood Technology

One neighborhood in suburban Hinsdale contains curb cuts that allow stormwater to easily drain into rain gardens and bioswales. With dense vegetation, absorbent soils and underground storage capacity, these installations help treat the stormwater and prevent flooding of homes and streets. Photo: Center for Neighborhood Technology

Green infrastructure projects—things like bioswales, rain gardens, stormwater planters and permeable pavers—have become a much more viable option over the years. These alternatives to asphalt and concrete can have a tremendous effect on stormwater retention and in the prevention of flooding.

Organizations like the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources have made grant money for these projects available. While the newly available funds have piqued municipalities’ interest, there have been some growing pains. “[The funding agencies] were receiving requests from communities for green infrastructure projects and seeing a very wide variation in the sophistication of the designs,” said Josh Ellis, Director at Metropolitan Planning Council. “Largely that was because they felt that people were starting from scratch on every project.”

Some of these communities would reach out to groups like Delta Institute for guidance. “We found ourselves downloading different tools from other parts of the country,” said Eve Pytel, Director of Strategic Priorities at Delta. “They had plans, and cross sections and handy tools for estimating material costs, and we found ourselves back-of-the-enveloping this for our partners.”

These communities were engaged, but one of the hurdles to building more green stormwater infrastructure is simply the lack of consistent design standards. And it was hitting the poorer communities the hardest. “It’s just another thing you have to pay a design firm or engineer firm to do for any given project,” said Ellis, “and you end up with different designs and thus different performance between projects.”

The toolkit provides different levels of information about green infrastructure that align with the needs of three important members of local governments and civic organizations. First is the overall decision maker or elected official who is going to need to know what exactly they are talking about. It’s tough to sell constituents on a bioswale, for example, without knowing what one looks like or what it does. Second, a municipal manager needs to know what materials or installation costs must be budgeted for. Finally, the public works department, whether they have an engineer or landscape designer on staff. The actual plans and cross sections are going to be most important to them as they oversee installation.

The templates in the Green Infrastructure Designs toolkit were designed and vetted by experts at Guidon Design. They have been available since last summer, but they were released late in the planting season, so this is the first time they will truly have an impact. The templates contain technical drawings, construction notes and cost and maintenance information for five different types of green infrastructure: rain gardens, stormwater planters, permeable pavement, underground storage and bioswales.

The design templates are part of a toolkit that also includes a decision-making rubric to help municipalities implement green infrastructure. The hope is that the toolkit can expedite the process of installing green infrastructure while also giving communities steering over the process. “The community can have a greater degree of control over what gets built because it can hand these off to an engineering or construction firm and say, ‘This is what we want built,’” Ellis said.

With more consistent design standards, municipalities can fast-track the design process and get to construction sooner, while also ensuring that more money goes into the ground. “We saw that creating the templates would meet both the community needs, the municipal needs and the needs of the funding agencies to have a more consistent infrastructure product being built,” said Ellis.

The final templates were chosen based on the input of the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative members and what they felt would be the most applicable and impactful. Bioswales and permeable pavers, for example, are a great application for parking lots. Communities that remove blighted properties and suddenly have big corner lots available now have a great opportunity for a rain garden. Municipalities that are doing roadway construction can integrate stormwater planters into the design.

To Pytel, those templates addressed the needs of the municipalities in terms of design assistance and would provide the greatest performance returns. “Typical participants will be urban planners, engineers and folks who would take these and the open source files themselves and contextualize it to their space,” she said.

A challenge for green infrastructure in general is that for many types of traditional infrastructure, the specific ways you might fund something—floating a general obligation bond or receiving a grant from IDOT—are readily identified and municipalities are well-versed in acquiring that money. “Whereas for green infrastructure, municipalities tend to be cobbling the funding together from different sources,” said Pytel. “That’s a very complicated process for them.”

Delta and the Metropolitan Planning Council are now exploring what it would take to create education sessions on how to use the templates. But in the meantime, should a municipality attain the fortitude and funds to install green infrastructure, the toolkit already makes starting the process far easier.

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