More Bang for the Green Buck: Using Green Infrastructure to Revitalize Water Systems and the Community

By Mike Shapiro
Originally posted on blog.epa.gov

Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s small but historic Crystal Park is located in a racially diverse and economically distressed neighborhood rich in history.   The neighborhood once served as a welcome gate to the southwest corner of the city but suffered neglect.  The park was no different, and long had been underutilized by local residents.  When Lancaster implemented its Green Infrastructure Plan, neighbors of the park considered it an important focus for the city’s redevelopment efforts.  Nearly one year later, neighbors love the space.  Use of the park, which had been non-existent before this revitalization effort, has outpaced all expectations.

Revitalization of the park is just a part of Lancaster’s efforts to recreate itself into a sustainable city.  In fact, Lancaster was the first community to receive the Sustainable Pennsylvania Community Certification under the Pennsylvania Municipal League’s new statewide program.  The certification acknowledges Lancaster for its progress in addressing areas of community design and land use, energy efficiency, health and wellness, mitigating blight, intergovernmental cooperation, recycling and waste reduction, fiscal controls, and internal management and operations.

Lancaster, a diverse city of 60,000 in southern Pennsylvania faces many of the infrastructure challenges prevalent in older communities across the country.  Located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the city operates a combined sewer system, which manages both wastewater and stormwater, as well as a separate storm sewer system.  As with many urban centers, the city is largely paved—nearly half of the city is covered by impervious surfaces such as parking lots, buildings, and roadways.  Stormwater runoff from these paved areas overflows the city’s combined sewers during heavy rainstorms, becoming a major source of pollution in local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay.

On August 18, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, Lancaster’s Director of Public Works, visited EPA headquarters to discuss the series of innovative, green approaches the city has adopted to improve its water infrastructure and enhance the community for the benefit of all residents.  For Crystal Park, enhancements include a porous asphalt basketball court, a plaza and picnic area constructed of permeable pavers, and rain gardens that help capture stormwater runoff. The porous plaza doubles as an amphitheater where local theaters have brought plays to this underserved community this past summer for the first time in the city’s history.

Lancaster has built over 100 green infrastructure projects designed to reduce stormwater runoff.  Green infrastructureuses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage stormwater runoff at its source, protecting water quality and benefiting communities through improved air quality, enhanced recreational opportunities, revitalized neighborhoods, and even enhanced climate resiliency.  Increasingly, it is being used to complement and enhance gray infrastructure investments such as pipes and ponds.

The city has creatively integrated green infrastructure into other public works improvements, actively engaging community groups in selecting and developing these projects.  The city worked to ensure that residents from around the city were represented and engaged in the process, convening an advisory committee, with representatives from the city’s civic and community groups, to provide input into its green infrastructure plan and throughout project selection and development. In addition, the city has used demonstration projects and outreach efforts to seek out community input and educate community members on the benefits of green infrastructure.

The public works department has used this approach to cost-effectively improve the city’s overall infrastructure and neighborhoods and improve a range of amenities for local residents—incorporating plants and infiltration trenches into “green” alleys and parking lots; building community rain gardens; and creating basketball courts with permeable surfaces through which stormwater can drain.  Lancaster estimates that its green infrastructure projects will capture about 45 million gallons of stormwater runoff annually.  In addition to managing stormwater runoff and helping enhance neighborhoods and residential amenities, Lancaster has found that green infrastructure approaches can cost significantly less than gray infrastructure investments—enlarging the city’s wastewater treatment plant and building holding tanks to adequately store stormwater overflows would cost the city an estimated $300 million, compared with $140 million to manage the same volume of stormwater using green infrastructure approaches.

Building green infrastructure has been instrumental in allowing Lancaster to improve its infrastructure with the least possible impact to wastewater utility rates, a concern for the city’s many economically distressed ratepayers. In addition, to further pay for these stormwater improvements equitably, the city adopted a stormwater utility fee in February based on each parcel’s impervious cover, meaning those properties that generate proportionally more stormwater pay a higher utility fee. This also provides relief for individual ratepayers, whose properties generally have lower levels of impervious cover.

Importantly, Lancaster has looked to optimize the many community benefits that green infrastructure can provide. Increasing green space in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities, enhancing tree canopy, and improving recreational facilities have provided public health benefits and improved the overall livability of Lancaster. We were grateful to have Charlotte share many of Lancaster’s successes and to see how communities are making green infrastructure work for their residents, providing both environmental and social benefits.

About the Author: Mike Shapiro is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water and leads the office’s efforts with regard to Environmental Justice.