Data plus community: A winning formula for green infrastructure

Digital networks have placed an unprecedented amount of information within the reach of designers, offering revolutionary possibilities to reshape the built environment. Although this has led to important advances (BIM, for instance), the profession is still figuring out what to do with all this data.

To me, one of the more important lessons learned so far is that sensors and algorithms supplement, not replace, the human element. For complex efforts like the large-scale green infrastructure and resilience projects I typically work on, designers can’t just sit at their desks and conjure up solutions, no matter how much information they can pull out of the cloud. As a recent initiative in New York made clear, community engagement will remain a critical part of the process. Integrating digital design and community input can lead to better solutions.

New York Rising

After Hurricane Sandy devastated the Eastern Seaboard, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $25 million in disaster relief block grants for affected areas.

New York Rising sites

This program, called New York Rising, aimed to implement locally driven recovery plans, taking into account current damage, future threats, and economic opportunities. Each community selected to participate brought together residents, local officials, and other stakeholders to work with external consultants and state planners.

My group at Arup was assigned to work with five communities on Long Island’s South Shore, a 35-square-mile region housing approximately 200,000 people.

Five communities targeted in Arup’s New York Rising work (in white), shown with their watersheds (in yellow)

My specific task for this effort: identify tangible and implementable plans that could serve as green infrastructure pilot projects for the most-affected areas.

Green infrastructure

Traditional infrastructure approaches deal with urban stormwater by carrying it away from the source for treatment at processing plants. Green infrastructure, which is rapidly becoming the new normal, utilizes a combination of natural systems and engineered approaches to treat water at the source instead.

Green infrastructure (bioswales) in Newtown Creek, New York

Among its many uses: preventing combined sewer overflows, controlling the effects of normal rainfall events, recharging groundwater in drought-stricken areas, and combating saltwater intrusion from sea level rise.

One of the reasons for green infrastructure’s growing popularity is the host of benefits it offers over and above basic water treatment. From saving energy, increasing biodiversity, and reducing carbon dioxide to providing recreational opportunities and increasing property values, it can make communities healthier, safer, and more pleasant.

Proposed green infrastructure corridor for New York Rising

But realizing these benefits requires a carefully thought-out design customized for every site. Green infrastructure can come in many forms, from constructed wetlands to curbside bioswales. Some are much more appropriate for specific sites than others, depending on factors like lot size and soil condition. For example, designers will often specify green roofs for large apartment buildings, but rain gardens for single-family houses with yards. In some places — brownfields; areas prone to sinkholes — green infrastructure may not be appropriate at all.

Faster, better

Although working through all the variables involved in green infrastructure design can be extremely time-intensive, relaxed project schedules are rare. The vast scale of the initiatives being planned in many parts of the world, along with the tight time constraints often imposed by regulatory mandates — and, of course, the wild cards introduced by extreme events like Sandy — have given engineers and government officials alike strong incentives to develop better, faster ways of working.

Green infrastructure (bioswale) in Hunter’s Point South, New York City

In an ideal world, design teams would conduct in-depth in situ investigations for all green infrastructure projects. As budgetary and scheduling issues often make this impossible, however, my team has developed alternate methods for obtaining the information necessary to make sound technical decisions.

Using both digital tools and stakeholder interviews to identify the intersections between the design criteria and existing site conditions, we can identify opportunities for green infrastructure relatively quickly and efficiently.

Putting the pieces together

In recent projects, we’ve followed a five-part process to identify optimal locations for green infrastructure.

The first step is to gather data about the site, a process that takes various forms. We first study open-source data, public records, and engineering databases to understand its history and physical makeup. We then talk to local residents, government officials, and others familiar with the area to understand their concerns and ideas. We visit the area to learn more about the site and its surroundings.

Vincent Lee presenting to community members in Long Island as part of New York Rising.

Throughout this process, we feed the information retrieved from all these sources into GIS, resulting in maps that detail existing conditions.

The second step is to analyze the existing conditions maps by finding intersections with design criteria for various green infrastructure methods.

For example, during New York Rising we needed to identify sites based on a number of existing physical conditions, including soil type, groundwater presence, land use, parcel size, environmental concerns, and natural resources. Digital analysis of the existing conditions maps allowed us to identify locations with the exact combinations required.

Once we understand what solutions can be successfully implemented where, we develop a map detailing the available green infrastructure retrofit opportunities for the site.

Digital layering of physical conditions to identify green infrastructure opportunities

The result: a simple visual framework that is both rigorous enough for engineering decision-making and intuitive enough to discuss with a wide variety of stakeholders.

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New York Rising green infrastructure opportunity map

Once we have the map in hand, we identify priority areas for green infrastructure treatment based on flooding hotspots, subsurface conditions, and other localized issues. Some of this information is derived from knowledge we’ve gained during the study, but some comes from sitting down with community members and looking over the map together, asking what should be prioritized. (For New York Rising, these conversations quickly made it clear that frequent nuisance flooding was as much of a concern for local residents as major storm impacts.) This information is then fed back into the models, creating a feedback loop.

Monthly flooding along the South Shore of Long Island due to high tides

Buy-in

This process not only results in stronger, more thoughtful solutions, but — critically — increases trust and buy-in from stakeholders. When people can visualize and understand the reasoning behind project decisions and feel that they’ve had a hand in shaping them, they’re much more likely to support their implementation.

For projects responding to climate change that can make entire regions more resilient, everyone wins.

 

Questions or comments for Vincent Lee? Email vincent.lee@arup.com.

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