Fortifying bridges, repaving roads, installing new water pipes, and pressure washing public plazas. It’s jobs like these that come to mind when you think about infrastructure maintenance.
They’re jobs done by trained professionals with industrial equipment paid for by local governments.
But something as simple as picking up litter can be a critical job in maintaining urban infrastructure as well. Let’s see how.
What Maintenance Means for Green Infrastructure
Trees, rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and bioswales. These are some of the most common examples of green infrastructure being increasingly deployed in cities around the world.
We’ve covered the many benefits of green infrastructure before, including evidence suggesting that it can often be a more cost effective solution than traditional gray infrastructure like storm tunnels.
For example, when Philadelphia calculated the net benefits of handling all the stormwater from the city’s impervious surfaces via green infrastructure, they valued them at $4.5 billion over the next 40 years. That’s much higher than the corresponding figure of $140 million in total net benefits if all the water was handled via gray infrastructure.
Like any type of infrastructure, maintenance will be required over many decades. But for green infrastructure, maintenance involves different tasks like picking up litter from tree beds, unblocking the flow of water into and out of rain gardens, planting water-absorbing vegetation, and cleaning sediment from permeable pavement.
These tasks generally don’t require as much professional expertise and expensive equipment as maintaining traditional gray infrastructure. That creates a big opportunity for communities and individual citizens to be involved.
What Role Can Environmental Stewardship Play
Environmental stewardship of green infrastructure has an incredibly vital role to play in maintaining green infrastructure. Especially volunteer stewardship driven by local communities.
Not only does stewardship make green infrastructure perform better (more benefits), but these volunteer efforts also make it less expensive to maintain (fewer costs).
On top of that, the involvement of local citizens and community groups has numerous co-benefits. It strengthens community ties, improves the health and well-being of the neighborhoods, and even leads to increased property values.
In a report from the EPA, it’s noted that successful sustainable communities and green infrastructure plans typically involve:
- Residents, including those from underserved communities with the least green space
- Property owners, developers, and homeowner associations
- Neighborhood groups like garden clubs and civic improvement organizations
- Business organizations like a local chamber of commerce
- Nonprofits like watershed groups, environmental justice organizations, and religious institutions
- Academic and research institutions like universities and hospitals
Why Green Infrastructure and Environmental Stewardship Are a Good Fit
As I noted earlier, many maintenance activities for green infrastructure are relatively straightforward. Picking up litter, removing sediment, unblocking paths for water, etc. They’re often very similar to tasks used in gardening and keeping spaces clean and looking nice.
That means citizens, volunteers, and community organizations are able to help more easily.
Moreover, the equipment needed is often straightforward and easy to acquire as well. Just look at this recommended equipment list from the EPA:
- Leaf litter, trash, debris, and sediment can be removed with rakes, shovels, and trash grabbers.
- Flat-blade shovels are especially useful for scraping accumulated sediment from inlets and along curbs/gutters.
- Vegetation can be kept healthy and attractive using pruning shears and weed pullers, and mowers can be used to maintain turf grass at an appropriate height.
- Watering during the plant establishment period and in extended droughts can be done with a hose, irrigation system, or tree watering bags.
- A ladder is needed for inspecting roof drains that connect to rainwater harvesting systems.
Another reason why volunteer stewardship is so suitable for green infrastructure maintenance comes from how it is installed in urban areas. Unlike gray infrastructure which is often underground, green infrastructure is visible. You can literally see it, and even an untrained eye can often spot if it’s having problems. Are the plants wilting? Is there trash and sediment?
Additionally, green infrastructure is also necessarily distributed across neighborhoods and cities in parks, along sidewalks, and in other typically public spaces. That means many citizens and local community groups are already located where green infrastructure is.
Other Benefits of Environmental Stewardship
In addition to maintaining local green infrastructure, community stewardship also helps educate more people about the benefits of green infrastructure, which can lead to more uses of it, particularly on privately owned properties.
Community groups can also use stewardship activities to strengthen ties in their neighborhoods, to partner with schools in environmental education programs, to improve local parks and green spaces, and even as part of workforce development programs around green jobs.
How To Promote Environmental Stewardship
Governments, non-profits, local institutions, and other community groups need to work together to promote the benefits of green infrastructure. They can also advocate for funding, subsidies, and tax credits that incentivize green infrastructure. But that’s all fairly obvious.
A UK study on green infrastructure stewardship found that the design and use of green infrastructure spaces plays a role in promoting stewardship. People who use green infrastructure spaces purely for transit or exercise (even if they visit frequently) are less likely to be willing to steward them than those who use them for leisure, recreation, or play.
The authors of this research say it best: “The study therefore provides unique empirical evidence that inclusion of features specifically targeted at leisure, recreation or play in multi-purpose [green infrastructure] spaces could improve sustainability through improved involvement and willingness to contribute to practices such as lay clearing and maintenance.”
Another thing to consider is that green infrastructure is generally installed incrementally across neighborhoods and cities. With thoughtful planning and coordination, this means that stewardship efforts can be scaled up incrementally as well. This enables organizations to gradually develop their stewardship efforts, which is easier and more sustainable to scale up than if green infrastructure were installed all at once.
How To Get Involved
To learn more about green infrastructure opportunities in your area, see what your government and community organizations are doing.
One great resource for those in the United States is the STEW-MAP. The USDA Forest Service runs this Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project to track civiv groups around the country that are involved in environmental stewardship.