Status message

COVID-19: Times are tough, but our communities are tougher. Learn more about how you and your neighbors can play a part in tackling community challenges.

What is Green Infrastructure?  |  Project Examples  |​  Download the Guide  |  Ask an Expert  |  Resources

Green Infrastructure

At ioby, we love it when neighbors come together to make their communities a thriving place for all. Thousands of neighbors have worked together and with ioby to bring to life over 2,200 projects across the country, including green infrastructure—projects that mimic nature to manage stormwater—in their neighborhoods.  This toolkit will help you dream up solutions to stormwater overflow in your neighborhood, and give you key tips to help you make it happen. 

Need funding to bring your green infrastructure idea to life? The ioby Green Infrastructure Crowdfunding Match doubles donations for any project that addresses stormwater management in your community, including rain gardens, bioswales, vegetated strips, rain barrels, planter boxes, depaving projects, and green roofs. 

Tell us your idea!
 

What is green infrastructure?

Not every neighborhood gardening or greening project is a green infrastructure project. Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management practices that mimic what happens in nature during and after heavy rainfalls—as opposed to the “gray infrastructure” that you might think of to manage stormwater (think concrete and metal pipes, tanks, pumps, tunnels, and treatment plants people have built to deal with heavy rain in urban areas). While there isn't anything wrong with gray infrastructure, it can sometimes get overwhelmed by big storms that can cause flooding, and overflows that dump polluted water into our waterways. Green infrastructure, like rain gardens and rain barrels, work to either capture stormwater so it can be reused, or offer it a place to seep into the ground gradually and feed plants instead of leaving it to flow over paved surfaces like roads and sidewalks where it can't seep into the ground. Even on a small scale, green infrastructure projects can play a big role to help manage stormwater and flooding, and keep our waterways clean. 

Neighbor-led green infrastructure projects stand to not only benefit the local environment and help take the pressure off city governments, they’re also fantastic opportunities to meet, work alongside, and bond with your neighbors. Nonprofit organizations, schools, business improvement districts, faith groups, half a dozen friendly neighbors… you name it! Any kind of group can get in on the fun and benefits.

The good news: many green infrastructure projects are small-scale and simple enough that you don't need lots of money or big machinery to make them happen. Even individuals and small teams of neighbors can bring green infrastructure to life, maintain them, and enjoy them. Here's how. 

 

What green infrastructure projects can I build in my neighborhood?

There are all kinds of green infrastructure projects that you can use to help manage stormwater. We've listed seven types of projects that we know to be particularly effective at managing stormwater. These projects are eligible for our Green Infrastructure Crowdfunding Match, but we're happy to speak with you about your own creative ideas, too! Share your idea with us to find out if your creative green infrastructure project is eligible for this match.

 

ROW bioswale NYC DEP

Right-of-Way (ROW) Bioswale

Bioswales are areas of low-lying land that have been planted with vegetation and designed specifically to collect excess stormwater so that it can water plants and trees rather than flow into an overwhelmed sewer system. "Right-of-way" bioswales are generally along roadways or sidewalks. ROW bioswales typically look similar to street tree beds, and are similarly low-maintenance. They generally only require occasional weeding, watering, and litter removal while adding lots of natural beauty to a streetscape.

Rain Barrels

Rain barrels are pretty simple: when it rains, they allow you to collect and store water that can then be used on drier days to water street trees, community gardens, or other plantings. In addition to diverting stormwater runoff, plants often prefer rainwater to tap water since it is free of the minerals you find in tap water. Some even cities offer incentives for using rain barrels, or like giving barrels away for free to interested individuals and groups. Visit your local Water Department, or Parks Department, or Environmental Protection Department to learn if your city offers such a program, or, learn how to build your own rain barrel

rain barrel

parking lot depaving

Parking Lot Depaving

Water can't get through hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete. But our cities are covered in such surfaces, presenting a thorny problem for stormwater management. One way you can tackle it? Simply remove pavement from areas that don't need it in your neighborhood! Think unused parking lots and driveways that could instead be gardens or small parks, letting the water seep through the dirt and bringing lots of beauty to the block. Depaving isn't a massive project, but it might require some heavy equipment like power saws and jackhammers, so you may need some extra assistance. You might also need a permit from your city government before getting started. 

Planter Boxes

Planter boxes come in many shapes and sizes, and offer lots of opportunities for creativity: tall ones can double as dividers between spaces in a garden or be built into the backs of benches; smaller ones can be attached to fences, windowsills, or the side of your tool shed. Planter box construction is relatively simple and cheap and makes for a great group project. Plantings can be easily swapped in and out according to the seasons or your mood. And planter boxes provide nearly instant gratification—just add soil and plants—while keeping rainwater in the dirt and off the pavement.

planter box

filter strip

Vegetated Filter Strip

Similar to ROW bioswales, vegetated filter strips are gently sloping sections of vegetated land between a potential pollution source (like a road) and a body of water that receives stormwater runoff. The strips help filter the pollution before it hits the open water, and slows the flow of rain to reduce flooding. They’re often placed near roads and highways, the edges of roofs, and parking lots, and can be planted with grasses, trees, or both.

Green Roof

Green roofs are roofs that are covered, fully or partially, with vegetation. Besides helping put stormwater to good use, green roofs can insulate buildings against heat gain or loss, improve species diversity, and in some cases provide space for recreation. Designing, planting, and maintaining a successful green roof requires significant research, and likely the help of an architect and contractor, but when carefully planned can provide years of significant environmental and aesthetic benefits.

green roof

rain garden

Rain Garden

Similar to a bioswale, rain gardens are planted depressions that allow rainwater runoff from hard surfaces like roads and driveways to be absorbed into the ground. The most effective rain gardens mix soil with sand, gravel, or rocks to aid filtration; are built on low-lying land with good drainage capabilities; and offer different depth zones for plants that prefer wetter (deeper) or drier (shallower) conditions. Rain gardens can be built in many shapes and sizes, and are ideal spaces to showcase a selection of pretty native plants.

 

Looking for tips to bring your Green Infrastructure project to life? Download our FREE guide for key tips and strategies. 

Download the FREE guide

 

5 green infrastructure questions for veteran ioby Leader Robyn Mace

Three-time ioby Leader Robyn Mace raised the money, buy-in, and helping hands needed to convert a neglected lot adjacent to her family’s Memphis home into the stormwater-thirsty Evergreen Rain Garden.

Robyn Mace

Q: Why did you want to use green infrastructure in your neighborhood?

A: I’d seen flooding at the site and knew it was a problem. I wanted to do something to help, but didn’t want to have to water or maintain the area like you would a lawn. I also thought it would be a great place to propagate some native plants, and that it could serve as a demonstration site to show other homeowners that they can do something to reduce runaway stormwater runoff, too.

Q: How did you get the word out and gain support for the rain garden?

A: I relied on two pretty strong neighborhood associations: the Evergreen Historic District Association and the Evergreen Garden Association. Both were great for building awareness and helping to raise funds. I had also been petitioning to get the sidewalks around the lot fixed, which put me in touch with some good people. Lastly, I actually went door to door and talked to my neighbors. I am not a social media maven, but I’m sure the process would have gone even faster if I were!

Q: Can you share any tips for working with decision makers?

A: Develop an “elevator pitch” for your idea [a quick summary you can relate quickly and casually—like during an elevator ride], and practice it. Also have a written summary ready—with illustrations if possible—that you can immediately send to anyone. Both of these efforts demonstrate that you’ve thought things through and come prepared. Try to figure out who might get involved as early as possible and reach out to them: an area gardening organization, your local representatives, the city’s environmental or sanitation department, etc. Make yourself available to answer questions. And ask questions! Everybody I spoke with got on board with this idea pretty quickly, even if they didn’t have money to support it. That kept us going during moments when we thought it might not happen.

Q: What were the benefits of the garden? Did they go beyond environmental ones?

A: Absolutely. In terms of community, we got to know neighbors from blocks away—sometimes even ten or twelve blocks away! In all we had close to 20 people come out to help build it. Some donors gave money to one of the local associations to help; some just slipped a $10 or $20 bill into a volunteer’s pocket! The area now looks healthy and maintained, which gives people a positive impression of open space, rather than thinking, “Why is there that unkempt empty space here?” Parents come by with their kids and check out the flowers. That’s always fun to see.

Environmentally, I have seen the garden fill with rain and still pull rainwater off the concrete pad it sits next to—which was the point! Does it make a big impact on our greater water management system by itself? No; it holds maybe 200 or 300 gallons in a big storm. But for what it was supposed to be, it’s absolutely worked. And I have heard from other people and groups in the city that they’re trying out their own green infrastructure projects after seeing this one, so I’m glad to see it working on the demonstration level, too.

Q: What should residents/nonprofits/community groups know or do before embarking on their own green infrastructure project?

A: Find out everything you can about the location you’re selecting. Learn who owns the property and its previous uses; do a search for news stories about it; see if there’s any infrastructure like gas lines under it. If you see city crews working on it, go ask them what they’re doing! Research some good precedents for the kind of project you want to do so you can be confident it will work—and you can illustrate that to other people. Go into it with the mindset that you’re willing to put elbow grease into a crummy place and make it better: why wouldn’t people want to help you do that?! But also be flexible and open to new ideas. Don’t assume that anyone, including you, has all the answers. Remember that advocates can come from unlikely places. Be prepared to regroup and persevere after the inevitable setbacks. Think long-term about your project’s maintenance needs and do your best to prepare for them to be met. Never hesitate to share your good ideas: the goal is to spread the positive impacts, not get an award for best idea. Lastly, keep at it! When your project starts to work, it’s really awesome.

 

Other resources

  • ioby's Green Infrastructure Checklist for Local Leaders. Interested in learning about what green infrastructure is, why it’s important, and how you can help your neighborhood and your city by starting a green infrastructure project where you live? Start here!

  • ioby Awesome Project Feature: Clean Rivers Campaign. A green infrastructure education campaign in Pittsburgh, PA. 

  • GrowNYC’s Green Infrastructure Toolkit. GrowNYC, which provides New Yorkers with free sustainability tools and services, offers this collection of downloadable guides, plans, maps, and more all about green infrastructure in the Big Apple.

  • The National Association of City Transportation Officials explains how elements of green infrastructure like bioswales are a natural complement to the design of bicycle boulevards (streets with low volumes and speeds of motorized traffic that prioritize bike travel).

  • Beautiful, Hardworking Rain Gardens. Resource Media, a nonprofit communications firm, published this “outreach & communications how-to guide” for anyone interested in building a rain garden in a residential yard, school site, or public park.

  • Low Impact Development: A Design Manual for Urban Areas. The University of Arkansas’ Community Design Center produced this award-winning manual illustrating the purposes, designs, and impacts of many green infrastructure projects at the neighborhood, municipal, and regional scales. (Robyn Mace says: “This is a really really great book. I wish I had a hundred of them in the back of my car! I would give it to everyone.”)

  • Detroit Stormwater Hub. The Detroit Stormwater Hub resources page is a collection of educational resources, stories, and tools designed to provide a comprehensive body of local information to support GSI work throughout Detroit. 

  • US Environmental Protection Agency's Green Infrastructure Resources: Build. Learn. Partner. 

  • Urban Forest Systems and Green Stormwater Infrastructure is a resource manual developed by the USDA Forest Service’s National Urban Forest Technology and Science delivery Team that focuses on the effects of trees on urban stormwater runoff.  It provides a synthesis of the science around how urban trees help mitigate problems associated with stormwater runoff.  This resource is designed to provide Urban Foresters and Natural Resource Managers some helpful urban forest management strategies to maximize stormwater benefits  Several tree crediting tools and case studies are also provided to help State and local governments better account for the stormwater benefits of urban forests as it relates to reducing stormwater volume and pollutant loading.