What's green infrastructure, and why should you care?

Natural wetland at Sunken Meadow State Park, Kings Park, (Long Island) N.Y. Credit: Erica Cirino, January 2016

Natural wetland at Sunken Meadow State Park, Kings Park, (Long Island) N.Y. Credit: Erica Cirino, January 2016

Recently, I pursued an environmental story for a Long Island paper that was refreshingly unlike most environmental news news today: hopeful and positive. 

In short, the story details the approval of grant money awarded by various pro-environmental groups and environmental management agencies to the Town of Huntington to install and implement a "green infrastructure" project. While reviewing the official documents and doing my interviews, I started thinking hard about green infrastructure and its place in today's overly polluted world.

If you're unfamiliar with infrastructure, much less green infrastructure, here are two basic things you should know:

  1. Infrastructure, in the physical sense, is defined as the basic structures and equipment needed for everyday life to function in a given place or region. For instance, roads and bridges are an example of infrastructure. Since they are made of manmade materials, they are considered “gray” infrastructure.
  2. Green infrastructure then, is infrastructure made of natural materials and is engineered in a way that closely mimics that which is natural. Green infrastructure projects include preserving wetlands, which naturally filter water, instead of building wastewater treatment plants, and restoring floodplains instead building levees in flood-prone areas.

So why should you care about green infrastructure? Green infrastructure takes advantage of the environment’s natural abilities to preserve ecosystems, as well as provide a sustainable supply of natural resources, especially clean water. The key word there is “sustainable.” Think of how often wastewater treatment plants need to be repaired, replaced or overhauled. 

Wetlands are extremely productive ecosystems chock full of microbes, wildlife—importantly, insects, shellfish and fish—that help cycle water, nitrogen and sulfur. Many of these organisms are “bioremediators," meaning they’re able to naturally remediate polluted environments by breaking down toxic materials into less or non-toxic materials. For example, "phytoremediators" include cattails and other reedy plants that can pull heavy metals out of water and soil, leaving behind a much less toxic environment. Thick sandy soils are bioremediators because they naturally filter hydrocarbons out of water contaminated by gasoline or oil.

In suburban and urban areas (usually more so than rural areas), pollution is a persistent environmental problem. Gray infrastructure like roads and bridges and pipes easily transport pollutants—from petroleum to manufacturing chemicals to fertilizers—into groundwater and surface waters such as lakes, bays and rivers. Shoring up green infrastructure and replacing some gray infrastructure with green infrastructure can go a long way in making for a less toxic environment. 

Rain garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rain gardens--gardens filled with native plants in permeable soils--can go a long way in filtering pollutants out of stormwater runoff before it enters the water table. Credit: Brian Ash (Wikimedia)

Rain garden in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rain gardens--gardens filled with native plants in permeable soils--can go a long way in filtering pollutants out of stormwater runoff before it enters the water table. Credit: Brian Ash (Wikimedia)

Green infrastructure can be implemented on virtually any scale—from private households to public buildings to sprawling municipal zones. Examples include:

So this brings me back to my local news story. As a lifelong Long Island resident, over my 23 years I’ve become well-versed in my home region’s contamination and environmental problems. I’ve seen and experienced the pollution firsthand. That’s why I’m especially excited to report on a new project slated for Centerport Beach, meant to help improve water quality in Northport Bay (currently home to a lot of dirty stormwater runoff, wastewater effluent and other unpleasant-sounding substances). Northport Bay routinely has beach closures after heavy rains because so much pollution runs off into it—causing dangerous algal blooms and other toxic water problems, and harming the health of people, wildlife and pets. This problem is widespread among communities on and around the Long Island Sound—and elsewhere in the nation (check out the water situation unfolding in Flint, Michigan).

This year the Long Island Sound Futures Fund extended 22 grants to various communities along the Long Island Sound so that these communities can implement water-remediation projects, many of which incorporate green infrastructure….

Well I don’t want to spoil the story, so I ask you pick up a copy of this week’s Northport Observer and look for my byline. :)

From an environmental/journalistic perspective, I have a balanced view: Projects like these are positive progress, but there is much, much more left for us to do. Clean water shouldn’t be a luxury. People shouldn’t have to worry about getting sick from drinking or swimming in contaminated water. Green infrastructure has a lot of potential as an affordable, sustainable way to help remediate, preserve and protect the environment, and should be seriously considered as a fundamental part of building policy in communities across the nation, and world.


Lingering thoughts:

  • What are your ideas about green infrastructure?
  • Which green infrastructure project grants awarded by the Long Island Sound Futures Fund do you think will be most beneficial to Long Island Sound communities?
  • What green infrastructure projects do you want to see in your community?