Unexpected Barriers to Green Infrastructure Use in Cleveland and Milwaukee

Green infrastructure has generated excitement in recent years as a cost effective way to address flooding and water quality problems while making communities more attractive to live in. Previous studies have found the lack of interest or awareness of new technologies to be a major hindrance to implementation. But according to a new study (Keeley, Koburger, Dolowitz, Medearis, Nickel, and Shuster, 2013) funded by the U.S. EPA, awareness is actually quite high among practitioners, and hindrances to wider implementation arise rather from an outdated regulatory structure, a disconnect between larger and more local goals, and difficulties in how to arrange responsibility for maintaining projects.

The study gets its information from those working on the ground, with a limited survey of practitioners. The practitioners work in either Milwaukee or Cleveland, two cities that are spending substantial money on reducing combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and have also made notable commitments to green infrastructure. Cleveland is spending $3 billion in 25 years to reduce combined sewer overflows, this includes $42 million to be spent on green infrastructure. Milwaukee’s Deep Tunnel and auxiliary projects have reduced CSOs from 50-80 per year to an average of 2.5 per year but the utility has turned to green infrastructure since 2000 as an auxiliary approach.

They are also two cities which have seen significant declines in their industrial base and thus face significant financial difficulties. Cleveland has 6% of its land covered by vacant lots, a statistic that is repeated in many other Rust-Belt cities.

A lack of awareness or experience was not a barrier to implementation among practitioners as found in earlier studies. Interviewees noted that many young hires are eager to implement green infrastructure. Rather, interviewees pointed to a misalignment between new technologies and an outdated regulatory structure. This structure, combined with aging and degraded water infrastructure and inconsistency and ambiguity in policy and guidelines, has proved to be a major barrier to compliance with federal water quality standards and wider implementation of green infrastructure. The structure increases perceptions that green infrastructure carries more legal risk than conventional options.

Another significant finding was the disconnect between stakeholders looking to advance goals at a very local level (i.e. a specific block or neighborhood) and municipal level officials who are often trying to meet federal water quality requirements. The potential common ground between these groups is a major selling point for green infrastructure, as an attractive little park can revitalize a community while improving water quality. But in practice this isn’t happening, as it takes a lot of time for municipal officials to find enough small scale projects to meet their federal requirements and many community level groups lack the technical sophistication to assist municipalities in locating and designing these projects. Inability to work out who is responsible for maintaining projects once they are in the ground is a further barrier.

A further interesting finding of the study is that even when CSOs have been reduced substantially, those that still do occur create negative PR, and make expenditures difficult for public officials to justify. Other difficulties with the public arise from ongoing differences in perceptions in the public of what fixing infrastructure problems should cost versus what the problems do cost cost and a lack of awareness of the role of impervious cover and poorly maintained private laterals in public clean water problems.

The study offers some solutions to these problems and points to ways forward such as formalized regional problems such as (Cleveland’s) Sweet Water which can allow local knowledge to be applied to problems that need to be coordinated at a regional scale.