Clean Water and Livable Communities: New Report Shows How Communities Support Clean Water and Redevelopment

Where would you rather live – community A in vibrant, thriving area but one that is hot and floods every time it rains, or community B in a vibrant, thriving area that is cooled by trees and green roofs where pocket gardens and green streets soak up water to help reduce local floods and sewer overflows?

I know my choice, but really the true answer is that there doesn’t have to be such a choice. Places like High Point in Seattle are already showing that compact, mixed-income redevelopments in urban areas can benefit from incorporating natural systems and open space that provide amenities to residents while also providing cleaner water and air. Philadelphia has similarly adopted a city-wide green plan to reduce sewer overflows while also creating additional recreational, health and aesthetic benefits at an economic advantage to the City.

These communities are classified as “smart growth,” meaning they provide access to jobs, shopping and public transportation near where people live, are usually more dense than other areas. Because smart growth focuses on redevelopment of existing areas, if done as part of comprehensive planning effort, this should result in a net positive for water and air by reducing sprawling new development that paves over natural areas and increases polluted stormwater runoff, and reducing transportation-related air quality problems.

So far so good – clean water and smart growth go hand in hand.

But, with the increase of performance-based stormwater requirements and green infrastructure techniques like permeable pavement and green roofs as a cost-effective method to achieve cleaner water, some have called into question whether such stormwater standards in urban areas might inadvertently increase sprawl by making redevelopment projects more difficult. More often than not, though, this specter has been used by those who were opposing any new regulations to scare away those truly concerned for smart growth and urban redevelopment.

Although we had seen no compelling data to support the idea that strong stormwater standards slowed down redevelopment, the argument is being used repeatedly to try to justify allowing dirtier water in urban areas  at a time when EPA is considering how to best update their stormwater regulations. And, as perception can become reality, this question needed to be addressed head-on. This is why we teamed up with Smart Growth America, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, River Network and NRDC to commission some research. The resulting report by ECONorthwest, Managing Stormwater in Redevelopment and Greenfield Development Projects Using Green Infrastructure, highlights several communities and finds that clean water and urban redevelopment are compatible.

Some of the findings include:

  • Developers are successfully incorporating stronger stormwater controls to meet strict volume-reduction and water-quality standards in both redevelopment and greenfield projects;
  • Complying with stormwater regulations is one factor among many that influences a project’s costs. It is rarely the driving factor;
  • Developers are supportive of incentives that offset costs and ease the transition to stronger stormwater standards. Jurisdictions can use them to increase the level of social benefits derived from green infrastructure practices.

Redevelopment is a complex process and integrating cost-effective, smart approaches to clean water is one of many factors that must be considered – it’s not always simple, but it can be done. Many smart growth advocates already see the benefit of incorporating green infrastructure and design into neighborhoods, and a Gallup poll reported that people who are more satisfied with their cities are those with access to clean and safe water. Combine that with this new report finding that green infrastructure is feasible in our urban communities, and green infrastructure and clean water should feature as central drivers of urban redevelopment – then we’ll all have more good places to live.

To read the full report: