Episode 2: The Mighty Green Street

When I was a little kid growing up in New York City, the Hudson River was NOT a body of water that was considered for recreation.

It was to be avoided.

By the time I was in high school, though — thanks to the efforts of dedicated people in the city government and non-profit groups – that had changed. The Hudson was safe; I and thousands of other people were able to go kayaking (so much fun), and every summer, my brother swims across it as part of a fundraiser.

Today’s podcast guest, Robert Goo, has devoted his professional life to improving water quality so that it can be enjoyed and valued by people, creatures, and entire communities. He focuses on methods to reduce the amount of pollutants that get discharged into our waterways by altering our design and construction practices, all in order to protect this invaluable resource. 

Listen to the episode by clicking the player above (or subscribe in iTunesSoundCloud, or Google Play).

His passion is infectious and deeply-felt.

Thanks for listening.


PS: Does your city or town have green streets? Tell us where you live and send us a photo on Twitter by tagging us (@remarkableshow) or using the hashtag #remarkableobject!

TRANSCRIPT: The mighty green street
GUEST: Robert Goo, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Interacting with water is sort of like becoming weightless… I engage in a kind of kayaking called squirt boating, which uses a very low, custom-designed kayak. I find two currents that are coming together and you drop down into the seam and you actually go underwater, often 10 or 15 feet below the surface and hover… you feel currents that come from all different directions, you see seams of bubbles rising and falling, sometimes see leaves floating in the water and spinning, oftentimes you see fish. What’s wonderful is that you feel the water, you understand the dynamics of the water, you’re in a dance, you’re in a dance and the river is your partner, you’re never going to move it; you’re going to move and interact with it. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

I’m Leda Marritz, and this is Remarkable Objects, a podcast from DeepRoot about the intersection of nature and urban design. Each episode, we speak to someone in this space to learn about their work and experience, and to talk about what it means for the future of cities.

The person you just heard is Robert Goo. He works in the Office of Water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency… and if you couldn’t tell, water is his passion. So much so that he’s spent nearly 30 years working on solutions for improving the health of our water resources. He focuses on how we develop and design our cities and infrastructure to preserve water quality. How do we reduce the amount of pollutants that get discharged into our waterways? And how can we alter our design and construction methods to create more nature-based development patterns that protect this invaluable resource?

These are some of the questions Robert is trying to answer. One solution he’s spent a lot of time on – and the main one we’ll be talking about today — is green streets. I spoke with Robert about the evolution of the EPA’s approach to protecting water quality, how that change in thinking has affected nature-driven urban design, and one major challenge – but maybe not the one you’d expect – to implementing green streets more widely.

When I came to EPA, we were just developing stormwater rulemaking that pertained to both construction activities, which we regulated as industrial activities under the Clean Water Act, and also management of municipal stormwater discharges for the major cities which had stormwater systems that were separate from their waste water systems. We were just evolving in terms of how we were thinking about development and redevelopment activities as they may pertain and affect water quality. And so, during those 25 years that I’ve been working on this issue, the thought process has evolved from not just “how do we reduce the number of pollutants?” but how do we change the development process so that it manages the hydrology of the site in a way that is more natural.

Over that period we introduced this idea that you need to manage flow, and so the change in thought was to get people to recognize that if you could manage flow (that is, get the rain to soak in or evaporate on the site as much as possible, instead of increasing its volume and running off into receiving streams) then you are both recharging groundwater and you’re reducing the potential impacts from those erosive flows.

Green streets – or green complete streets, which is Robert’s preferred term – are becoming increasingly accepted as a multifunctional design solution. Streets are a natural place to focus this effort in part because they’re are a major contributor to water quality and volume problems.

Streets – and we’re using this term generally, to mean any paved, impervious surface like a plaza or parking lot – cause water to collect on the surface rather than infiltrating back into the ground, the way it would in a natural setting. Because these impervious surfaces cover such a huge percentage of our urban land area, even a small amount of rain can result in a significant amount of runoff. As rain falls and travels across paving, it also picks up pollutants from normal human activity like driving and deicing. It carries these pollutants into the sewer system, where they’re eventually conveyed to a treatment facility or an adjacent waterbody.

Polluted water negatively impacts the health of humans and wildlife, can close recreational areas, and increases drinking water treatment costs. So by taking a more nature-based approach to the way we design streets, roads, and parking lots, we have an opportunity to make a huge impact on our environment. 

A green street is one aspect of a landscape that could be managed and designed differently. A green street promotes bicycling, walking, automobile transportation, et cetera, as well as protecting or helping restore the environment. In my mind, a green street is one that incorporates plants, soils, vegetation, permeable materials, in its design, so that less carbon-debt oriented materials into its design so that the green street has a net benefit to the environment while maintaining its design goals, that is, fulfilling the transportation needs of the community.

So my focus has been, how do we convince both the design community (engineers, architects, landscape architects) and the policy makers that an alternative paradigm can reduce the infrastructure needed to manage water, reduce flooding, recharge their aquifers, reduce pollution, and help them restore the water bodies that are negatively affected by development pressure.

What are some of the green complete streets design solutions you’re seeing in your work? And what impact do they have at the pedestrian level?

You can use sidewalk planters to route runoff from the street into the sidewalk, and what you have is a basin that’s planted with vegetation and it can have benches around it and serve as a little pocket park on the sidewalk to promote pedestrian interaction with the environment and give people a respite from whatever they’re doing in the downtown corridor.

You can also put curb bump outs in inner city areas where you have traffic crossings. So these would typically be irregular-shaped bulges that are planted and have a soil mix that’s designed to filter and infiltrate water, but it also has plants to maintain the infiltrative capacity of the soil. It also provides a visual barrier and a protective island so that it slows traffic and gives the pedestrian protection as they cross the street.

In the inner city a practice that’s becoming more prevalent are expanded tree boxes. In many cities, urban trees are hard pressed to be viable in that context due to small amounts of soil for their root systems, urban heat island impacts, lack of water, urban air pollutants. And so what cities are now doing is expanding the box the tree is planted in to give it sufficient root space so that it can become a mature tree. Those boxes also contain soil, which filters the runoff and therefore reduces the volume that runs off when you have large storms.

According to Smart Growth America, a national organization dedicated to researching, advocating for, and leading coalitions to bring smart growth practices to communities, there are dozens or hundreds of regional and local policies that are already implemented or underway.

So while there is a great deal of momentum, the default way of designing streets – the way most of them are drawn and constructed — does not include meaningful green elements like the ones Robert described. It’s tough to change perceptions and behavior.

Robert sees two primary challenges to changing the way we design streets. One is educating people about what green streets can do. The other, which is a bit trickier, is breaking down silos between design disciplines and building trust.

I think the impediments are lack of knowledge, some feeling of risk, and that’s basically educational. So, what’s so interesting about this change in the way we think about design is that it requires an integrated approach. And more importantly, it’s about establishing trust. Trust between the design community, the public works officials, the local elected officials. It really requires interdisciplinary collaboration. So when you have an integrated design team, you have less uncertainty about the potential success of the project.

Does that collaboration reflect the increasingly multi-use nature of urban spaces? Is that what you’re saying?

We have limited space in urban areas particularly in urban areas, so everything needs to be multi-functional. That is, it needs to provide the public access and transportation needs that the community wants; it also needs to help them meet their statutory obligations in terms of air pollution, and water pollution, abatement and control. The community in many cases is driving this change, and you have a motivated community that wants to make these kinds of changes in the way their infrastructure is designed, and green infrastructure helps them meet these objectives.

And so, having multiple drivers will accelerate the adoption of these kinds of practices.

You mentioned that communities are driving a lot of the changes you’re seeing. What are some of the places where green complete streets are being adopted – and, if you know, how do local conditions determine different design solutions?

One of the things about green streets is that these kinds of designs and practices are applicable in almost any environment to varying degrees based on geographic conditions of the street, or the parking lot, or the sidewalk. That is, you can use these practices in the arid southwest, you can use it in the north, the icy north where you have a lot of snow and ice, you can use it in the southeast where it’s hot and muggy, and in Florida.

Some of the practices need to be adjusted based on where they’ll be put in, but we’re seeing effective use in places such as Toronto, and in cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago, Boston, as well as in more rainy climates such as Seattle and Portland. So, location will determine what practices and what plants and what soils are best suited for use in this context, but these practices can be used in large cities, in small cities, in new development, that is where you have greenfield development, they can be used in redevelopment projects, they can be used in the city core.

Can you talk a little bit about the economics of green complete streets? How does this approach compare to, you know, the default way of designing a street?

In general the costs aren’t that significant; it depends on whether you’re retrofitting an existing street system or whether you’re building a new development or new transportation corridor. Obviously retrofit is often more expensive, but we think it’s affordable especially when you have a capital improvement project that is already going to revitalize the street, that is replace the pavement, replace curbs and gutters, et cetera. Or if you have major utility work, those are all opportunities where you can incorporate green street elements into the landscape.

There are strong economic reasons for green streets in that we have millions if not billions of dollars of deficit in terms of infrastructure rehabilitation, replacement, and repair. And by using green streets we may be able to reduce some of those costs – that is, make those streets more sustainable and cheaper to operate and manage over time because you’re using less hard infrastructure, you can manage the water onsite instead of piping it and transporting it to treatment systems that require energy to treat and manage and convey that water.

What do you think the future of the green streets movement is?

I think the green streets movement is on a very fast trajectory. I think that communities are going to start demanding that these elements be incorporated into the public right of way because they see the benefits in other communities.

A very positive way to approach this is to look at capital improvement projects and determine whether green infrastructure can be incorporated into any given project. If you use that filter, use that lens, and you ask the right questions, then in many cases green infrastructure is appropriate and cost effective for use in those kinds of projects, and will be received well by the community.

I’ve gone out and talked to the mayors and city councils of various communities and the idea is to get them to envision an alternative landscape, a way of doing things, a way of designing streets so that they do provide all kinds of amenities – whether shade for street side cafes, or it’s bike paths that lead to their town cores… Once they see that there are different ways to design malls and strip malls and streets and sidewalks, they’re often more willing to try to change the way they do things because of the potential benefits to the community.

Is what you’re saying is that this should become… Is what you’re saying that green complete street should become the new design paradigm?

Yeah, I think what you’re saying is that the default method for thinking about landscape design should be a greener path. And green streets for me are just one facet of how we design our landscapes. Ideally we want sustainable landscapes for whatever activity that we’re doing, so whether you’re building a residential house, if you’re building a commercial facility, corporate campus, a university, hospital… Every aspect of the landscape could be greener. When I think of green streets, I’d like them to be part of that fabric of sustainable landscape design that we try to achieve for the future.

What’s something people don’t think of, but should, when considering the impact of green complete streets?

One of the things I like about green streets is that it’s an opportunity to engage in place making. If you think about the great cities of the world and the communities that you love best, they draw you into them. And I think you can use the practices and the models that we’re discussing today as a way to create those kinds of communities. And that can drive reinvestment in the community, it can make the community more vibrant, and more sustainable in the long run.

In the future I think the spaces that we have to recreate that allow us to interact with nature become smaller and smaller and fewer and fewer. And by greening our streets it’s a way to return that space to more natural-like settings and get more people outside interacting with one another and their environment.

Remarkable Objects is produced and edited by me, Leda Marritz, with editorial assistance from Aylara Odekova. You can find us online at remarkableobjects.com, and on Twitter @remarkableshow. This podcast is a production of DeepRoot Green Infrastructure. DeepRoot provides landscape solutions and technical support services to promote mature tree growth and sustainable stormwater management in the built environment. Find out more at deeproot.com.

And if you like this show, please consider going to the iTunes store and rating and reviewing us. It helps us reach more listeners, plus – it makes us feel good! Thanks.


Music: “Springtime” and “Dramamine” (Podington Bear)

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