Friday, September 12, 2014  |  0 Comment(s)  |   Email   Print

10 tips for selecting the best community green infrastructure sites

by Ryan Mackin

Vacant to Vibrant has considered a plethora of criteria for finding the sites for our project in Gary, Cleveland and Buffalo.  The following tips provide guidance based on lessons we have learned.  While these lessons are a result of a specific Vacant to Vibrant process, we believe they are applicable to a variety of community green infrastructure (GI) efforts.  The process can be simple, only considering the essentials of site selection, or very technical, utilizing the best GIS, topographic and Census data and applications available.  Regardless of your approach, there are considerations that every GI project needs to examine.


Considerations for Vacant to Vibrant site selection have followed a variety of goals.  These goals include stormwater capture on standard-sized residential lots (approx. 0.1 acre), uniform and replicable design elements in all cities, stabilization of communities with significant yet resolvable vacancy issues, resident access to sites, and further criteria with research capacity.  Looking at attributes at the city-level, then neighborhood-level, and finally parcel-level helped guide our approach.  Every project will have at least a slightly different focus or set of goals.  The following tips may lean toward the goals of our project but aim to provide universal benefit:


Educate yourself.

It’s important to be mindful of all the different GI options before choosing your sites.  Some sites can utilize specific GI elements better than others.  Though rain gardens may be the most well-known, there are many options that serve the same or similar purpose.  Bioswales, dry wells, pocket wetlands and filter strips may better suit the needs of your site, or part of it.  Additional features like permeable paving, curb cuts and downspout disconnects may add to your site’s retention potential.  Consider the topography of each site, of adjacent parcels and the greater neighborhood that may contribute to your project’s stormwater conveyance and collection.  If your intention is to divert flow from the street, is your site large enough to handle the volume?  Will the GI be far enough away from structures to avoid foundation damage?  Know what types of native vegetation you have in mind before picking a location—some sites can handle large trees and shrubs while other sites will limit your plant selection.


Choose the right scale for your needs and your budget.

The primary goal of green infrastructure is maximizing the amount of stormwater retained at your site and mitigating stormwater runoff for the best environmental impact possible.  Whether you have a large or small budget, pick a site where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.  For instance, don’t pick a site in the middle of a hill!  You don’t have to cut corners to make your dollar go further.  Proper planning will help you attain a higher gallon-per-dollar ratio.


Do some digging.

In many areas of the region, clay content of soil can turn a potential rain garden into a mud garden.  Without proper infiltration, your GI will not be effective.  The NRCS provides a Web Soil Survey where you can check the soil type in your project area. While this tool is helpful, it is no substitute for testing the soil on site.  You can obtain a soil sample yourself with a basic hand auger and test the permeability of the soil with an infiltrometer.  If your budget allows, a professional test will provide the most reliable results.


Implement for impact.

The GI plans that you will end up implementing should make the biggest net positive impact possible.  As previously mentioned, sticking to combined sewer overflow (CSO) and other environmental areas of concern are very important.  If your prospective project area doesn’t have CSO, flooding, erosion or other issues, is it worth building something there?  In addition, a discussion with City Planners will tell you if the sites you’re considering have other development plans—don’t put GI in a place where a new building will be constructed within a few years!


One impact that is often overlooked is the impact on the neighboring community.  Underrepresented communities need the most love, and your GI project can have a more transformative impact on a community in need.  Access to green space and public space is a key to neighborhood vitality, an issue easily approached via GI.  If you’re just looking to control stormwater, you may be missing a great opportunity in stabilizing a neighborhood.  Check out EPA’s Environmental Justice tool, EJView to get started.

Figure 1.  Greenspace proximity in the Buckeye-Woodland neighborhoods (Cleveland, Ohio).  By mapping the distance to each publically accessible park or natural area, we can tell which residents have a longer distance to travel in order to enjoy outdoor spaces.  Each shade level represents 0.1 miles.  Studies have shown that distances over 0.4 miles are not considered walkable by the average resident.  You don’t need GIS to figure out which residents are more isolated—a simple drive through the neighborhood will tell you what areas will be most impacted by your GI project.


Partner up. 

With green infrastructure impacts on economy, social welfare, health—aspects beyond the environment—there are many groups that may be willing to be a part of your project.  Look for help for things you know others can do better: technical and design skills, landscaping, tools, funding, labor, community connections, artists—no one group is best equipped to handle all demands of a project.  Follow the Haitian proverb men anpil chay pa lou (“many hands make the load lighter”) and spend more time focusing on what you do best.  Reach out to a local community development corporation, street clubs, community activists, volunteer organizations, and students looking to put their knowledge and hands to work.


Know the owners.

Most vacant parcels are held by one of three entities—a government (city or county), private entity, or some kind of group.  The group can be anything from an active non-profit to a defunct community organization to a group that doesn’t find value in green infrastructure.  This is one of the most critical of all criteria as the inability to access a site nullifies any plans you may have for it.  If it is a city- or county-owned site, consider any and all lease and purchase possibilities and familiarize yourself with the acquisition process.  If it’s privately held, you can try to talk directly with the owner, or investigate the tax history which may lead to tax foreclosure and vacant property auction or annexation to your municipal land bank.


Know your history.

Every vacant site has its own history.  Some are riddled with a maze of title transfers, while others have an environmental past that may be less desirable for your project.  Get to know the general demolition history in your city—older demolition practices like knocking a structure into the basement and burying it were common in some metropolitan areas in the 20th century.  Knowing the neighborhood's demolition history can help you deduce the demolition history of a particular site.  While many residential neighborhoods have always been zoned as residential, there are blocks where mixed use was prevalent.  Are you taking on a site that used to be a gas station or dry cleaner?  Don’t!  Latent contaminants are too unsafe for construction and future site use.  A professional Phase I Environmental Site Assessment will give you essential details into your prospective site’s past.


Know your neighbors.

Work where you’re welcome.  If residents are reluctant to support your project, take it upon yourself to educate on the direct and indirect benefits of your GI plans.  Community support goes a long way—both in the immediate efforts in programming, designing and building your site, and in the long-term care and collective “ownership” of the site.  If you are truly building a site for people, then the residents need to have a space that they can and will use.  Talk to adjacent residents about downspout disconnects and incentivize if possible.  Your new neighbors may know more about their neighborhood’s stormwater and runoff issues than you think!


Go beyond GI. 

Many of these tips have suggested making the most of your project in ways beyond environmental stewardship.  Unfortunately many GI projects being built today still fall short of an expansive vision.  People want a place to go, to congregate, talk, play, reflect and enjoy an urban landscape returning to nature.  Some sites are suitable for more active options like exercise, performance spaces and sport courts.  Some sites are fit more for establishing natural habits in an urban setting.  Still others may need to reflect a particular aesthetic and aim for beautification above other factors.  A little extra effort and vision now will last a long time in the future of the neighborhood.


Ask questions.

Run your site options by others.  Get a second opinion –and a third and fourth. Troubleshoot before there is trouble.  Ask “what if?”—play out all scenarios.  Keep asking questions at every stage in your project’s development—both the questions and answers will continue to evolve.


For additional assistance in your site selection process and beyond, go to EPA’s Green Infrastructure website, complete with modeling tools, case studies and more.  


The following resources might also help as you jumpstart your project:

  • Ohio Prairie Nursery’s manual on rain gardens
  • EPA Stormwater Calculator
  • NY State Stormwater Design Manual
  • NEORSD’s new green infrastructure RFP
  • Michigan State’s Native Plant website

Keep checking the Vacant to Vibrant blog for a future case study in our site selection process and many other updates!


Figure 2. Vacant parcel ownership on the west side of the Aetna neighborhood (Gary, Indiana).  The colored parcels show all vacant lots that were considered for our GI installations in Aetna.  Green lots are owned by the City of Gary and were the most viable for our project’s use.  Orange lots represent parcels owned by various organizations, while yellow parcels show private ownership.  Additional gray shading shows the context of other abandoned structures and vacant lots that were not under consideration at this stage in our site selection process.  Knowing the ownership of your prospective project sites can help you narrow down your best options quickly.


>> Click to return to V2V Blog landing page <<


<< Back

Reader Comments

Submit your comment

* Name
* Email
* Your Comment
You have 300 characters remaining for your comment.