Green infrastructure as a means to enhance sustainability: Insights from the experts
Friday, September 6, 2013 - 15:32
"Green infrastructure" and “ecological design” hold great potential for our cities because they employ an array of approaches to designing and building structures and landscapes that are not only functional but also aesthetically appealing.
Green infrastructure is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (here) as “an approach that communities can choose to maintain healthy waters, provide multiple environmental benefits and support sustainable communities.” As shown on the EPA website, this form of ecological design uses strategies such as rain gardens, green roofs, urban forestry, and conservation initiatives to help mitigate environmental change.
Two recent lectures at the University of Georgia by College of Environment and Design Associate Professor Alfie Vick and CED Assistant Professor Dr. Jon Calabria — both landscape architects — focused on the importance of innovative green approaches to design, including rainwater harvesting, energy efficiency, porous pavement, and stormwater management, that take environmental sustainability into account and aim to improve water quality, among other things. What follows are insights gained from these speakers’ dynamic lectures.
It is widely understood that the vast expanses of asphalt, concrete, and impermeable surfaces in our cities contribute to flooding; the conventional solution to stormwater management has been to engineer for the purpose of piping excess water away, according to Calabria. The professors discussed a more ecological approach now being implemented by landscape architects that handles runoff more naturally through the use of vegetated swales, rain gardens, wetlands with native plants, and surfaces that allow water to seep into the ground in order to reduce flooding and improve water quality.
While some green infrastructure and ecological design concepts and programs are recognizable – green roofs and buildings certified by achieving design standards such as those set forth by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program – others may be less familiar but are no less intriguing. Vick talked about the Living Building Challenge, a certification scheme with rigorous standards for buildings, such as a requirement that all energy and water be produced onsite. The speakers discussed New York’s High Line, and Vick also cited Atlanta’s BeltLine, both progressive urban redevelopment projects that include the construction of parks and green spaces on previously derelict railroad lines. These projects are remarkable not only for their positive environmental impact but also for their recreational benefits and are examples of smart growth, according to Vick.
Techniques like “regenerative design” and “low impact development” produce more sustainable structures and developments than standard approaches and are at the forefront of the green infrastructure movement, said Vick. Fundamental to this is, first, determining the ecological interconnections that exist within a landscape and ecosystem and the many ways that humans impact the local ecology, and then implementing appropriate site- and project-specific strategies that take these interconnections and impacts into account, according to Vick.
Vick cited the Mannahatta/Welikia Project, a fascinating and unique example of how environmental changes over time can be documented for a specific area to inform present and future conservation and design decisions. The project, which began in 1999 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of European colonization of Manhattan, presents the ecological changes in New York City that have and are expected to occur over an 800-year period (1609-2409) as shown on the project’s website. Practical as well as educational, the detailed reconstruction can be used to assist in projecting how Manhattan will be affected by future environmental changes and determining how best to plan for those changes, said Vick.
The creative and ingenious solutions that are sparked by an understanding of ecological interconnections and environmental challenges will go far towards benefiting our cities and our environment, now and in the future, as the lectures conveyed.
For more information on green infrastructure and other new design strategies, the American Society of Landscape Architects offers an excellent overview and informative resources in its “Sustainable Design Resource Guides and Toolkit,” found here.
Related on MNN: Structures so green they give back to the environment
You might also like: