Green Streets: Using One Approach to Tackle Multiple Environmental, Social, and Economic Goals

As we go about our busy lives, we often forget the value natural resources bring to our daily routine.  Those fortunate enough to have green spaces in their communities often busily drive past the neighborhood park without a glance on the way to work.  At times we take for granted the trees providing shade for and adding property value to our homes.  And generally we don’t think about where our rainfall goes after it enters the storm drain and begins to degrade the local creek where we might have taken our kids fishing.

When we start to notice is when these resources are missing.

In many urban settings, a new technique is being formulated that seeks to bring back the connection to those natural resources with a cost-effective approach.  Communities routinely must repave and sometimes reengineer roadways:  What if we leverage these necessary activities and, with only a small additional investment, help our local natural resources, improve quality of life, and train workers in new techniques all at the same time?  It turns out this small additional investment may end up saving us money down the road.

We at the Chesapeake Bay Trust have been working with scientists and policy-makers at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and many other partner organizations to support the concept of “Green Streets.”  Our first experiment was one spear-headed by the local government of the Town of Edmonston, a tiny town in Prince George’s County, Maryland.  This experiment showed that with a small additional investment at roadway repaving time, you can have a huge bang for your buck in other, often unexpected ways. Green Streets like the one in Edmonston can have many elements:

Trees: Studies show that increased tree canopy has positive impact on property values, reduces energy costs for homes, improves air quality, and absorbs stormwater that otherwise would harm our local streams, and in business districts, can add to economic growth.  Trees are inexpensive: their addition to a street project is certainly worth it.

Pervious pavement in roadways and sidewalks: Pavement is one of the worst contributors to local stream health issues. When it rains, water sweeps the pollutants that lie on its surface right into a local water body.  Pervious pavement allows water to soak into the ground instead.

Bike lanes:  Encouraging biking and pedestrian access saves energy costs by reducing automobile use, and adds a livability component to communities that social scientists are working to quantify.  Making these bike lanes pervious helps with water quality too!

Raingardens and bioswales: We wouldn’t want to fish in a stream in which water poured directly from a roadway.  Various techniques can be added to roadways to capture the stormwater and encourage it to soak into the ground instead of heading right for the river.  These features can be planted with low-maintenance native plants that add an aesthetic component to improve quality of life.  And when situated in the roadway in a certain way, they can act as traffic calming, slowing traffic and improving pedestrian experience.

Energy efficient lighting: Reducing energy costs saves tax dollars and adds to improved air quality.

Green jobs:Changing regulations in the construction industry call for individuals who have increased knowledge about how to implement all of the techniques described above.  Those contractors, laborers, engineers, and landscapers employed in Green Streets projects gain valuable on-the-job experience that help them qualify for new projects in which homeowners, companies, government agencies aim to use a greener approach to infrastructure projects.  The small local company who built the Edmonston project, all fifteen staff, now have experience with new green technologies.  In fact, the company has been hired since to help with other local green infrastructure projects in the area.

Picture the main commercial street in the nearest town.  Now picture it with trees lining its sides, shading you from the hot summer sun; with your neighbors strolling down the pervious pavement sidewalks, shopping at the local stores; with gardens that are filled with native plants that happen to catch the runoff so that it doesn’t go into the nearby stream; and with the nearby stream healthy enough to host a grandparent teaching a grandchild to fish.  The concept of Green Streets aims for this image.

 Dr. Jana Davis is the Associate Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the Chesapeake Bay Trust. She oversees the Trust’s portfolio of grant programs focusing on watershed restoration, education, outreach, and innovation, one of which is the Trust’s new partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maryland Department of Natural Resources to fund “Green Street” and other urban green infrastructure work.

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