Green Infrastructure

At ioby, we love it when communities come together to make their neighborhoods a little greener. So far, we've supported more than 1,000 neighborhood greening projects, including many that fall under the umbrella of "green infrastructure."

This page is intended to be a resource for communities that are taking steps to address issues like problem flooding, water quality, and soil erosion, while making their neighborhoods a little greener in the process!

 

What is green infrastructure?

Not every neighborhood gardening or greening project is a green infrastructure project. Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management practices that mimic what happens in nature during and after heavy rainfalls—as opposed to the “gray infrastructure” more prominent in cities (the concrete and metal pipes, tanks, pumps, tunnels, and treatment plants people have built to deal with heavy rain in urban areas).
 
Elements of green infrastructure work to either capture stormwater so it can be reused, or offer it a place to seep into the ground gradually and feed plants instead of leaving it to flow over impermeable paved surfaces like roads and sidewalks and cause flooding or overwhelm sewer systems. Neighborhoods and municipalities do well to employ both green and gray infrastructure in their stormwater management plans, as an overflowing wastewater treatment plant is not a pretty picture—and neither is the urban pollution (litter, dog waste, gasoline) that often gets washed from city streets directly into nearby waterways during heavy storms.
 
The good news: many green infrastructure projects are small-scale and simple enough that individuals and groups of neighbors can initiate, maintain, and enjoy them, often with little or no help from professional landscapers or city officials. See the next section for six great project ideas.
 
Neighbor-led green infrastructure projects stand to not only benefit the local environment and help take the pressure off city governments, they’re also fantastic opportunities to meet, work alongside, and bond with your neighbors. Nonprofit organizations, schools, business improvement districts, faith groups, half a dozen friendly neighbors… you name it! Any kind of group can get in on the fun and benefits.
 
Green InfrastructureGreen InfrastructureGreen InfrastructureGreen Infrastructure

 

What kinds of green infrastructure projects can I build in my neighborhood?

There are lots to choose from! Here are basic descriptions of seven popular options:

ROW bioswale NYC DEP

Right-of-way (ROW) bioswale

Bioswales are areas of low-lying land that have been planted with vegetation and designed specifically to collect excess stormwater so it can water plants and trees rather than flow into an overwhelmed sewer system. The right of way is the distance between property lines on either side of a street, which encompasses the two sidewalks and the roadway. ROW bioswales typically look similar to street tree beds, and are similarly low-maintenance, usually requiring only occasional weeding, watering, and litter removal—while adding great natural beauty to a streetscape.

Rain barrels

Rain barrels are to water what batteries are to electricity: when it rains, they allow you to collect and store water that can then be used on drier days to water street trees, community gardens, or other plantings. Rain barrels reduce the volume of stormwater runoff entering the drain system, provide an alternative to using municipal or well water for gardening, and protect nearby buildings by diverting water away from foundations and basements. (Plants also prefer drinking rainwater, which is free of the chemicals and minerals found in tap water.) Some cities offer incentives for using rain barrels, or even give them away for free to interested individuals and groups. Watch our How to Build a Rain Barrel video. 

rain barrel

parking lot depaving

Parking lot depaving

Impermeable, hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete are one of urban stormwater management’s biggest challenges. Removing the pavement from areas like unused parking lots and driveways and replacing it with fresh soil and plants is a great way to help a neighborhood ease flooding issues—plus it can bring tremendous beautification benefits. But depaving even a small amount of land can be a big job, often necessitating the rental of heavy equipment like walk-behind power saws and jackhammers. You may also want to check in with city government to see if you need a permit before getting started.

Planter box

Planter boxes come in many shapes and sizes, and offer countless opportunities for creativity: tall ones can double as dividers between spaces in a garden or be built into the backs of benches; smaller ones can be affixed to fences, windowsills, or the side of your toolshed. Planter box construction is relatively simple and cheap and makes a great group project. Plantings can be easily swapped in and out according to the seasons or your mood. And planter boxes provide nearly instant gratification—just add soil and plants—while keeping rainwater in the dirt and off the pavement.

planter box

filter strip

Vegetated filter strip

Akin to ROW bioswales, vegetated filter strips are gently sloping sections of vegetated land located between a potential pollution source and a body of water that receives stormwater runoff. The strips serve to filter the pollution before it hits the open water, and to slow the flow of rain to reduce flooding. They’re often situated near roads and highways, roof downspouts, and parking lots, and can be planted with grasses, trees, or both.

Green roof

Green roofs are roofs that are covered, fully or partially, with vegetation. Besides helping put stormwater to good use, green roofs can insulate buildings against heat gain or loss, improve species diversity (if designed with the right mix of plants), and in some cases provide space for recreation. Designing, planting, and maintaining a successful green roof requires significant research, and likely the help of an architect and contractor, but when carefully planned, it can provide years of significant environmental and aesthetic benefits.

green roof

rain garden

Rain garden

Another manifestation of the ROW bioswale and vegetated filter strip concept, rain gardens are planted depressions that allow rainwater runoff from impervious areas (non-green roofs, driveways, parking lots) to be absorbed into the ground and feed plants. The most effective rain gardens mix soil with sand, gravel, or rocks to aid filtration; are built on low-lying land with good drainage capabilities; and offer different depth zones for plants that prefer wetter (deeper) or drier (shallower) conditions. Rain gardens can be built in many shapes and sizes, and are ideal spaces to showcase a selection of pretty native plants.

Browse Green Infrastructure ioby projects

Robyn Mace

5 green infrastructure questions for veteran ioby Leader Robyn Mace

Three-time ioby Leader Robyn Mace raised the money, buy-in, and helping hands needed to convert a neglected lot adjacent to her family’s Memphis home into the stormwater-thirsty Evergreen Rain Garden.

 

Q: Why did you want to use green infrastructure in your neighborhood?

A: I’d seen flooding at the site and knew it was a problem. I wanted to do something to help, but didn’t want to have to water or maintain the area like you would a lawn. I also thought it would be a great place to propagate some native plants, and that it could serve as a demonstration site to show other homeowners that they can do something to reduce runaway stormwater runoff, too.

 

Q: How did you get the word out and gain support for the rain garden?

A: I relied on two pretty strong neighborhood associations: the Evergreen Historic District Association and the Evergreen Garden Association. Both were great for building awareness and helping to raise funds. I had also been petitioning to get the sidewalks around the lot fixed, which put me in touch with some good people. Lastly, I actually went door to door and talked to my neighbors. I am not a social media maven, but I’m sure the process would have gone even faster if I were!

 

Q: Can you share any tips for working with decision makers?

A: Develop an “elevator pitch” for your idea [a quick summary you can relate quickly and casually—like during an elevator ride], and practice it. Also have a written summary ready—with illustrations if possible—that you can immediately send to anyone. Both of these efforts demonstrate that you’ve thought things through and come prepared. Try to figure out who might get involved as early as possible and reach out to them: an area gardening organization, your local representatives, the city’s environmental or sanitation department, etc. Make yourself available to answer questions. And ask questions! Everybody I spoke with got on board with this idea pretty quickly, even if they didn’t have money to support it. That kept us going during moments when we thought it might not happen.

 

Q: What were the benefits of the garden? Did they go beyond environmental ones?

A: Absolutely. In terms of community, we got to know neighbors from blocks away—sometimes even ten or twelve blocks away! In all we had close to 20 people come out to help build it. Some donors gave money to one of the local associations to help; some just slipped a $10 or $20 bill into a volunteer’s pocket! The area now looks healthy and maintained, which gives people a positive impression of open space, rather than thinking, “Why is there that unkempt empty space here?” Parents come by with their kids and check out the flowers. That’s always fun to see.

Environmentally, I have seen the garden fill with rain and still pull rainwater off the concrete pad it sits next to—which was the point! Does it make a big impact on our greater water management system by itself? No; it holds maybe 200 or 300 gallons in a big storm. But for what it was supposed to be, it’s absolutely worked. And I have heard from other people and groups in the city that they’re trying out their own green infrastructure projects after seeing this one, so I’m glad to see it working on the demonstration level, too.

 

Q: What should residents/nonprofits/community groups know or do before embarking on their own green infrastructure project?

A: Find out everything you can about the location you’re selecting. Learn who owns the property and its previous uses; do a search for news stories about it; see if there’s any infrastructure like gas lines under it. If you see city crews working on it, go ask them what they’re doing! Research some good precedents for the kind of project you want to do so you can be confident it will work—and you can illustrate that to other people. Go into it with the mindset that you’re willing to put elbow grease into a crummy place and make it better: why wouldn’t people want to help you do that?! But also be flexible and open to new ideas. Don’t assume that anyone, including you, has all the answers. Remember that advocates can come from unlikely places. Be prepared to regroup and persevere after the inevitable setbacks. Think long-term about your project’s maintenance needs and do your best to prepare for them to be met. Never hesitate to share your good ideas: the goal is to spread the positive impacts, not get an award for best idea. Lastly, keep at it! When your project starts to work, it’s really awesome.

 

Action Corps: Green Infrastructure

Action Corps is our awesome network of experts want to help ioby Leaders be successful in making positive change in their neighborhoods. They're here to offer advice, support, and resources to help you implement your project. They're ready for action and they want to help!

Here are a list of Green Infrastructure Experts. Visit ioby.org/actioncorps to view over 70 experts in a wide variety of fields from collaborating with city agencies, to grantwriting, to communications and PR, to painting and welding. 

Adam Ortiz

Prince George’s County, MD

Director, Prince George's County Department of Environment

Alisa Valderrama

San Francisco, CA

Senior Policy Analyst, Water Program, Natural Resources Defense Council

Dean Hay

Detroit, MI

Director of Green Infrastructure, The Greening of Detroit

Diana Sette

Cleveland, OH

Arborist Educator, Holden Forests & Gardens

Eric Rosewall

Portland, OR

Executive Director, Depave

Ilan Kutok

New York, NY

Citywide Team Leader, NYC Parks

Karyn Williams

New York, NY

Senior Project Planner, NYC Parks

Katherine Camp

Pittsburgh, PA 

Green Infrastructure Program Management Consultant

Lisa Kunst Vavro

Pittsburgh, PA

Sustainable Environments Manager/Engaged Scholarship Manager for Penn State Center Pittsburgh

Megan Zeigler

Pittsburgh, PA

Associate GI Project Manager, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority

Paula Conolly

Philadelphia, PA

Director, Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange

Rebecca Zeyzus

Pittsburgh, PA

Executive Director Allegheny Watershed Alliance

Stevie Lewis

New Orleans, LA

Outreach Director, Public Lab

 

 

 
       

 

Have questions about this topic but not sure who to speak with? 

 


This guide includes:

- What green infrastructure is 
- How to start a rain garden
- How to build a rain barrel catchment system 
- How to depave anything
- How to build a bioswale​
- Taking care of street trees 
- Where to start
- and more! 

Download the FREE guide

 

Other resources

  • GrowNYC’s Green Infrastructure Toolkit. GrowNYC, which provides New Yorkers with free sustainability tools and services, offers this collection of downloadable guides, plans, maps, and more all about green infrastructure in the Big Apple.

  • The National Association of City Transportation Officials explains how elements of green infrastructure like bioswales are a natural complement to the design of bicycle boulevards (streets with low volumes and speeds of motorized traffic that prioritize bike travel).

  • Beautiful, Hardworking Rain Gardens. Resource Media, a nonprofit communications firm, published this “outreach & communications how-to guide” for anyone interested in building a rain garden in a residential yard, school site, or public park.

  • Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas. The University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center produced this award-winning manual illustrating the purposes, designs, and impacts of many green infrastructure projects at the neighborhood, municipal, and regional scales. (Robyn Mace says: “This is a really really great book. I wish I had a hundred of them in the back of my car! I would give it to everyone.”)