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Tucson shows how green infrastructure can create community resilience

Tuscon What would happen if every time a roadway was built or renovated, new green infrastructure that added green spaces and soaked up rainwater was also installed? What if every time a new road is planned, we also planned to include lush tree canopies that naturally lower temperatures? Well, the city of Tucson is no longer asking these questions—they are finding the answers. The city’s Green Streets policy requires that stormwater-harvesting features, such as vegetated streetside basins, be integrated into all publicly-funded roadway development and re-development projects. City officials believe that this will reduce demand on precious potable water supplies for landscape irrigation, increase shade along roadways, enhance the urban forest, reduce flooding, and cut back on water pollution. The adoption of this innovative policy is a lesson in the power of grassroots movement building.

I recently interviewed Tory Syracuse, Associate Director of Watershed Management Group (WMG), the lead organization in developing and helping to adopt the Green Streets policy, to find out more about how the program works. Her answers are below.

Tory: The Green Streets policy requires that all new publicly-funded roadway development and re-development projects integrate green infrastructure to capture the first half inch of rain. The policy also requires that projects meet a 25 percent tree canopy cover and a 25 percent shrub and grass cover.

The policy essentially turns everyone working on roadway projects into green infrastructure practitioners, because green infrastructure is now part of the design process for roads from the very beginning.

Tory: A grassroots movement has been building in Tucson over the past 10-15 years that in some ways has culminated in this policy – although of course we still have a lot of work to do!. We first had to make sure we gained credibility and trust from our public partners. We worked with the Department of Transportation to make sure we were pushing for a piece of policy that was in line with their needs and that we were striking a balance between pushing the agency to do something and working with them to make their jobs easier.

We also spent a lot of time educating the public and creating demand for green infrastructure. We worked with low-income communities to build a grassroots movement in support of the policy by engaging them in the construction of pilot projects that helped to educate the community about the benefits of green infrastructure.

Tory: Developing the policy helped to spark conversations between the utilities and the transportation department. Really, the whole process was contingent on getting a few very important people talking with each other and helping them realize that incorporating green infrastructure into their plans would not lead to additional work or negative impacts. Consistently bringing these folks to the table to discuss these issues helped to overcome entrenched positions and break through silos. Once they were on board, we worked to train as many professionals as we could, emphasizing the fact that planting more trees is important to the future of Tucson and that achieving triple bottom line benefits from infrastructure investments is possible.

I think that having the policy come from the grassroots with public partners made it very easy for our government representatives to support it because by the time the policy was up for a vote, there was no one to oppose it.

Tory: One of the most tangible ways that the policy is promoting equity in Tucson is by extending tree canopies to low-income communities and reducing the heat island effect, which is a consequence of too much pavement and the lack of green spaces and trees. This policy is going to be applied throughout the city so the benefits won’t just go to affluent communities with the political capital to demand them. The policy will be applied equally throughout Tucson.

We hope the policy will also generate accessible employment and business opportunities from the installation and maintenance of green infrastructure projects. We are currently working with the Primavera Foundation to provide job training on green infrastructure operations and maintenance to individuals and families seeking a way out of homelessness, a way to find work, a way to become homeowners.

Watershed Management Group (WMG) develops community-based solutions to ensure the long-term prosperity of people, and health of the environment. We provide people with the knowledge, skills, and resources for sustainable livelihoods.

Watch our Green Stormwater Infrastructure video.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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