Devastating gas pipe explosions and bridge collapses are painful examples of how our nation’s infrastructure is rapidly crumbling. There is, however, some reason to be optimistic about how we can actually fix these problems. A few municipalities are now using the opportunity to rebuild their decaying infrastructure in a new way, choosing solutions that are not only more sustainable, but also more affordable.

Philadelphia’s sewer system needed eight billion dollars in repairs so that it met the EPA’s clean water standards. Instead of pouring billions of dollars that the city did not have into fixing the conventional water management system, the city is now planning to create a more affordable and reliable green infrastructure.

Over the next twenty years the municipality will spend 1.6 million dollars to implement their “Green City, Clean Waters” plan. The green infrastructure development includes many low- cost efficient projects, like thousands of new green roofs, rainwater harvesting, swales, permeable pavement, and plantings to divert storm water runoff and keep the region’s water clean.

Emily Bobrow wrote in a recent issue of The Economist about the massive sustainable green infrastructure plan that the city is going to implement:

“…the cash-poor city has crafted a less expensive and potentially far more beneficial scheme, which may set a new precedent for urban stormwater management. Called“Green City, Clean Waters”, the plan outlines a comprehensive $1.6 billion, 20-year investment in green infrastructure—everything from “green roofs” covered with vegetation to street-edge gardens—to keep excess water from entering sewers in the first place. The EPA has yet to give the proposal a green light but city officials hope that they can move forward with the plan in 2011.

Though Philadelphia’s plan is the most ambitious to date, the green-infrastructure trend has finally taken root in North America after decades of progress in Europe. New York, for example, has run a number of pilot programmes around the city involving everything from rain barrels to porous sidewalks, and hopes to produce a comprehensive, city-wide infrastructure plan in 2011.

Other cities, such as Milwaukee, Chicago and Seattle, are initiating more incentives for residents and business-owners to manage water on their own property. In 2010 Toronto became the first North American city to require green roofs on parts of all new developments with more than 2,000 square metres of gross floor area; come January 2011 the bylaw will apply to new industrial projects as well.

Research into green infrastructure has shown that it not only helps cities handle their run-off problems, but also helps to cool and cleanse urban air, cut energy costs, reduce asthma and create new jobs. As Philadelphia awaits the EPA’s verdict, other big cities will be watching too.”

Hundertwasser green roof
This green roof lives atop an amazing public housing project in Darmstadt, Germany; it was created by the Austrian artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.