Green Infrastructure Is Cheaper, So Let’s Remove The Hurdles

By Nancy Stoner
Washington, DC (December 10, 2009)- The EPA is gathering information to support new rules that will help prevent dirty stormwater from ending up in our rivers and beaches. While they might sound like obscure regulations, they could in fact help change our built landscape, our waterways- and our checkbooks- for the better.

When developers build new communities, they don’t just build houses. They also install the infrastructure that will carry stormwater off driveways and streets. It won’t surprise you that I think green infrastructure- things like pocket parks, green roofs, street trees, and other features that absorb rainwater- is the best way to prevent dirty stormwater from getting dumped into our rivers and beaches.
But it might surprise you to learn that many developers think green infrastructure accomplishes something else as well: it keeps costs down. I routinely hear developers say that using measures like pervious pavement and urban forestry save them money during construction and increase profits at the point of sale.
I was just at a conference in Buffalo, for instance, where one of the speakers talked about his brother, a developer. His brother’s rule of thumb is that using green infrastructure in new neighborhoods costs 20 percent less than conventional techniques and generates 20 percent more in revenue.
These perceptions were confirmed in a groundbreaking EPA study called, Reducing Stormwater Costs through Low Impact Development Strategies and Practices. It looked at seventeen case studies and found that in most cases, upfront costs were lower for LID projects than for conventional ones, and the savings in the LID cases ranged from 15 to 80 percent.
If you don’t put in curbs, gutters, and underground storm drains in a new development, but instead grassy swales with the landscaping designed to drain into them, it’s cheaper.
So if LID costs less than conventional ways of managing stormwater, why isn’t it more mainstream? If green infrastructure comes with a host of additional benefits- from making subdivisions more attractive to increasing property values- why isn’t it routine? Because hurdles remain in the way, even if cost is rarely one of them.
The status quo is one of them. Some people believe the development industry is slow to change. As I said, I see plenty of developers touting the benefits of green infrastructure, including the National Association of Homebuilders, whose builders’ guide to LID asks: Ever wish you could simultaneously lower your site infrastructure costs, protect the environment, and increase your project’s marketability? Using Low Impact Development (LID) techniques you can.
But it is a large industry accustomed to doing things a certain way. And many developers believe buyers want what is familiar to them. Gutters and curbs are familiar. Open streets and rain gardens less so. Yet even more daunting than design norms is the thicket of ordinances that govern development. In some communities, builders are required to install gutters and curbs, and don’t have the leeway to explore alternatives. Sometimes they must meet a specific engineering standard, and it may be hard to prove to regulators accustomed to pipes that a swale will meet it just as well.
Almost always, these regulations were designed without the broader watershed in mind. The EPA’s new rule making will not only remove some of those local hurdles but it will also prompt the development industry to embrace more green practices. Right now, the EPA is in the information gathering stage. If you have experience with green infrastructure- as a developer, designer, buyer, or stormwater manager- I urge you to share your knowledge with the agency.
This is our chance to inform the direction of the rules so that they encourage a practice that is good for watersheds, good for communities, and good for the bottom line.
About Nancy Stoner
Nancy Stoner is a co-director of The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program in Washington, D.C. NRDC is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environment, people and animals. NRDC was founded in 1970 and is comprised of more than 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts, with more than one million members and e-activists.
Related Resources:
Green Infrastructure Is Cheaper, So Let’s Remove The Hurdles
EPA Factsheet on Stormwater
New EPA Rulemaking