RAINscaping Small Businesses for Healthy Rivers & Communities

Cities are increasingly turning to green infrastructure solutions to adapt to the needs of growing populations and a changing climate.

Rain gardens run along the sidewalk. | Marcela Gara, Resource Media

Healthy cities require healthy rivers to provide clean water for drinking, manufacturing, agriculture, recreation…for living. To protect and restore our freshwater resources, cities are increasingly turning to green infrastructure solutions to adapt to the needs of growing populations and a changing climate. This type of water infrastructure is specifically designed to capture rain where it falls to reduce the number of harmful pollutants flowing into rivers.  Green infrastructure installations provide a variety of benefits to communities, increasing its appeal for residents and stormwater managers.

Across urban landscapes, green infrastructure practices are implemented in parks, along the riverbanks, downtown sidewalks, shopping center parking lots, rooftops, walls, and residential backyards. Rain gardens, green roofs and other nature-based solutions improve water quality for rivers and foster climate-resilient communities by reducing localized flooding, improving air quality, reducing energy use, providing shade, promoting walkability, and fostering biodiversity.

Although a variety of resources on the multiple benefits of green infrastructure are widely available; many business owners and community advocates lack the time to explore options. Often, investments in green infrastructure are not a priority.  The technical instructions that are available can also create distorted perception of costs, maintenance and value, discouraging property owners from adopting green infrastructure. Yet, the practice is actually simple in concept; plant trees, plants and flowers near paved areas and rooftops to keep pollutants from flowing into rivers.

American Rivers’ Clean Water Supply Team is reframing ‘green infrastructure’ solutions that foster healthy communities by illustrating the value of nature-based solutions. We aim to share perspectives from local advocates and business owners on the challenges and highlights of protecting hometown rivers through their “Green Story”.

 Green Story #1: Increase Visibility with Rain Gardens

Property Type: Retail/Commercial

Green Infrastructure Practice: Rain gardens (curb-cuts)

Located near the most polluted stream in Grand Rapids, MI, a business owner demonstrates the significance of reimaging nature into urban spaces. La Casa de la Cobija (House of Blankets) is a central spot for community information and shopping within the neighborhood. Although the property is located on a busy corridor connecting to the downtown district, the business has failed to attract commuter traffic. Similarly, many business owners face expensive refurbishing costs in areas challenged by a historical lack of investment and socio-economical inequalities that proliferated environmental hazards, neglected neighborhoods and redlining policies. As a case study, La Casa de la Cobija demonstrates the value of implementing green infrastructure solutions of even limited size by simultaneously improving community health and water quality in the Grand River watershed. The COVID pandemic heightened the need for the attractive open spaces created by green infrastructure; green infrastructure can help meet the needs of business owners who are desperate to serve customers safely and organizations that need space to provide food and other assistance. The owner of La Casa de la Cobija shares perspectives for small businesses implementing nature-based solutions in this Green Story.

Q: In the height of a COVID pandemic, what motivated you, as a business owner, to implement green infrastructure on your property?

A: Visibility! Even though the traffic if heavy through the corridor, my business seems to go unnoticed to commuters. Bright flowers near the main street feel inviting and welcoming to new and current customers.

Q: Were you aware of green infrastructure as a solution for your business?

A: Not immediately but a local connection introduced me to Plaster Creek Stewards which provided education and assistance for funding to implement a rain garden feature.

Q: The building and parking lot take up the majority of the property, was this an obstacle?  How did you address the challenge?

A: To take on by myself, yes it could have been challenging. The only green space is located in the right-of-way area on the residential street connected to my property. I was concerned about permitting and the potential expense of contractors. Plaster Creek Stewards works with city departments to implement gardens for right-of-way spaces known as curb-cut rain gardens.  (As the name suggest; a small cut is made in a street curb to allow excess water during heavy rains to flow out of the garden)

Q: Were there other specific design elements to consider for your property?

A: I wanted the property to have bright color flowers that reflect the Hispanic/LatinX culture shared in this community. The gardens contain 8-10 different native plants and flowers suited for Michigan’s climate, but the colors are bright red and pink in the summer.

Q: What did you learn about green infrastructure through this project?

A: Last year was extremely difficult for business, but the project demonstrated how we can re-imagine our neighborhood. Once the flowers grew, the vibrant colors drew in neighbors, customers and advocates who were able to utilize the parking lot to distribute food to the community. The rain gardens were highlighted during Southtown’s Caravan Parade celebrating the “Revitalization without Displacement” neighborhood plan.

La Casa de la Cojiba’s rain gardens also inspired community members and with additional support from the City, residential neighbors are planting to promote river health and improve food security.  The property is an example of the multiple benefits green infrastructure provides to communities and a model of collaboration between city agencies, businesses, and watershed partners working together to improve community livability and water quality. Reintroducing nature into urban landscapes is significant to restoring the Grand River and fostering a resilient city in the face of climate change.

The Lower Grand River Organization of Watersheds (LGROW) recently launched a program that aims to bridge the gap for small business owners by assessing properties’ feasibility for green infrastructure, providing planning and design support, and connecting owners to local design experts. With the help of employees and neighbors, some business owners are lowering their cost significantly using LGROW’s Rainscaping for Business templates and recommendations to install these river protectors. Some municipalities offer financial incentives to private property owners to encourage the implementation of nature-based practices in urban areas. American Rivers’ Stormwater Currency partnership with Corona Environmental Consultants is working closely with the City of Grand Rapids to launch a credit trading program that will allow property owners and developers to buy and sell rainfall retained on their property though green infrastructure practices. In a region surrounded by freshwater resources, improving water quality with green infrastructure is a priority for many cities in the Great Lakes.

Look for the next “Green Story” in a city near you…

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