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Lansing's green streets director shares lessons

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/04/08 @ 5:15pm

Count Lansing, Michigan among cities pioneering green streets. Their usually conservative Public Service department-feeling emboldened by a regional stormwater initiative-invested $1 million in a series of sidewalk planters along its Michigan Avenue that, through simple curb cuts, directs water running off the street into 18-inch deep, block long beds of soil, gravel and native plants which filter pollutants out.

These 'bioretention cells' have the added benefit of absorbing ALL of the water rushing off the streets from 90% of the storms that occur.

The emerging science of green infrastructure has the potential to improve the environmental performance of cities and their stormwater management, Chad Gamble, Lansing's director of Public Service told a group today at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

Currently, no laws require treating water running off paved surfaces. So, rain in Cleveland, like other older cities, runs into a combined storm sewer system and to the sewer treatment plant. Unless, that is, the rain exceeds one-eighth inch. Then, it overflows the pipe and dumps into the river and lake with raw sewage. Northeast Ohio's sewer district is spending billions to replace the old combined system, which will largely fix the problem, but that solution is 20 to 30 years from being completed. Meanwhile, bioretention cells are proving a cost effective solution, Gamble says. They have the added benefit of letting cities tout their green credentials.

"The performance data will help us make better decisions on the next phase of our stormwater planning," admits Gamble.

While concrete pipes will still get built in the event of a big "10-year" storm (state regulations), green streets can eliminate the typical stormwater runoff. In 2009, Lansing will study how well the bioretention cells filter toxic materials, such as heavy metals, from making their way into the Grand River which runs through downtown, behind the state capital.

"We have a $3.2 million grant to remediate a brownfield on the riverfront, and this could help show that we're doing all we can to be environmentally friendly."

The Michigan Avenue project led to a second green street project on Lansing's Washington Avenue. Lessons learned led to more strategic placement of the cells and a reduction of costs from $122 to $80 per linear foot, Gamble says. Most important, residents and elected officials like the way they add beauty and 'green' the street, which bodes well for a third project on the horizon.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District "is very serious" about a similar bioretention project at Walworth Run, says Frank Greenland, district director of watershed programs. Walworth was a stream that once ran in the open to the Cuyahoga River (today, it's in a culvert or underground pipe next to Train Avenue, an industrial road bordering Ohio City and Tremont).

Around Ohio, particularly where stormwater authorities have been set up, smaller bioretention cells have been installed. They range from unassuming locations ? a Taco Bell parking lot in Akron and a Sheetz Gas station in Twinsburg ? to a University Hospitals Health System satellite office in Akron.

See a photo gallery of Lansing's green street project.

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