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The new era of green infrastructure

David Beach  |  03/18/10 @ 4:00pm

It's not often that public officials get to do something truly transformational for Greater Cleveland. The board members of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) did so on Jan. 7 as they voted to approve the creation of a new stormwater program.

This program is one of the most important developments for local water quality that I have seen in the past 25 years. At last we will have an agency with professional staff and construction budget to deal with stormwater on a watershed basis. We will be able to make real progress on the region's most serious remaining water quality problems, getting to the root of problems instead of sending them downstream.

This program can be our green infrastructure agency. It can help our region become a leader in retrofitting the urban landscape to reduce stormwater runoff and restore ecological functioning. This is one of our best opportunities for creating the green city on a blue lake that we all dream about.

Capacity to redesign the urban landscape

The NEORSD stormwater program was just one of the big organizational capacity additions in the past year that will allow Greater Cleveland to rethink the urban landscape. The second was the creation of the Cuyahoga County Land Bank, which provides new legal and financial capacity for acquiring and accelerating the reuse of vacant properties.

The land bank can be used to assemble property in a strategic way for redevelopment or for environmental restoration. For instance, the land bank could work with the stormwater program to piece together parcels along urban stream corridors or in locations where wetlands could be created. The vision could be of a more livable urban area with active nodes of higher density development in some places interspersed with regenerated greenspace.

Several projects are studying the patterns of vacant property in Cuyahoga County to envision what is possible. The ReImagining Greater Cleveland 2.0 project (organized by ParkWorks, Neighborhood Progress Inc., and the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative), is sponsoring pilot projects to test the types of alternative land uses that will work best on vacant land. The Cleveland Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition is studying how to transform vacant urban land into urban agriculture sites that will strengthen the regional food system.

And the last year also brought new scientific capacity to analyze the restoration of urban land in Greater Cleveland. A consortium of local researchers - from institutions including Cleveland State University, Cleveland Metroparks, Ohio State University, Kent State University, and the GreenCityBlueLake Institute - received a grant from the National Science Foundation for urban ecology research. The consortium will seek to measure the effectiveness of land restoration strategies.

All of these exciting initiatives are evidence of a growing interest in transforming the old industrial landscape. By retrofitting vacant land, we can build a new kind of sustainable city that works with nature.

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