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Rooftops to Rivers: Aurora, Illinois' Use of Green Infrastructure in Riverfront Cleanup and Urban Redevelopment

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The term “infrastructure” typically brings to mind images of water mains, roadways, sewers and power lines – vast public works projects that make up the fabric of the urban environment but go largely unnoticed. These projects traditionally are designed and constructed for a single purpose and at substantial taxpayer expense. Communities that use “green infrastructure” reject this mindset, choosing instead to design and construct public works that provide multiple uses and solutions.

Green infrastructure uses ecological processes, both natural and engineered, to supplement or replace the more traditional “grey” infrastructure that collects, stores and transports stormwater for discharge to nearby lakes and rivers. In green infrastructure systems, water is an important resource rather than a waste product. Vegetation, open space and natural areas are intentionally combined to enhance hydrologic processes that absorb, infiltrate, evaporate and reuse stormwater. Green infrastructure improves water quality by reducing stormwater runoff and, in combined sewer systems, the volume of combined sewer overflows. It also enhances water supplies by promoting the percolation of stormwater through the soil to recharge groundwater.

Green infrastructure reduces or eliminates the need for grey infrastructure, and is generally less expensive, freeing up scarce municipal resources. It offers other benefits as well, especially for urban communities. Thoughtfully-designed green infrastructure systems can provide multi-functional open space; enhance views and recreational opportunities; provide ecological habitat for wildlife; and increase the property values of nearby homes.

U.S. EPA and many other public, nonprofit and private organizations share the view that green infrastructure can be both a cost-effective and an environmentally-preferable approach to managing stormwater while helping to meet other community needs. For example, in planning for green infrastructure, there may be opportunities to integrate sustainable stormwater practices with brownfield redevelopment activities. There also may be opportunities to create greenways or riverfront areas where stormwater practices coexist with recreational features, such as walking and biking trails.

In April 2007, U.S. EPA and the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) signed a statement of intent to pursue green infrastructure approaches to reduce sewer overflows and stormwater pollution. The agreement – also signed by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators and the Low Impact Development Center – formalized a public-private partnership to help states, cities and local governments implement innovative and effective green infrastructure solutions. The impetus for the agreement was NRDC's publication, Rooftops to Rivers: Green Strategies for Controlling Stormwater and Combined Sewer Overflows (Kloss and Calarusse, 2006), which recognized forward-thinking communities across the U.S. already using green infrastructure to restore their waterways.

A riverfront redevelopment plan recently approved in Aurora, Illinois adopted a “Rooftops to Rivers” approach to integrate green infrastructure for stormwater management with the redevelopment of brownfield sites and creation of public recreational areas. Like many older riverfront municipalities, Aurora has a number of former industrial sites and underutilized buildings on its riverfront. Challenges to Aurora's restoration of the Fox River and sustainable redevelopment of the downtown riverfront corridor includes riverfront brownfield sites that inhibit redevelopment and diminish water quality by contributing to nonpoint source discharges; an aging, inadequate stormwater management infrastructure; combined sewer overflows (CSOs) averaging 30 to 40 per year; and lack of public open space.

To address these challenges, the City of Aurora retained Shaw Environmental to help it develop and implement integrated solutions that would restore the Fox River, strengthen Aurora's downtown economy and improve the City's infrastructure. Shaw began by developing a design framework for the redevelopment area that included sustainability strategies to increase energy efficiency, manage stormwater, reduce construction and demolition debris, and promote economic development through job creation. Essential to this framework was the careful integration of green infrastructure along the riverfront corridor.

The City is using green infrastructure in its riverfront corridor to improve water quality by eliminating nonpoint sources of pollution, eliminating or enhancing regulated outfalls and incorporating Best Management Practices (BMPs) for stormwater management. The City's green infrastructure plan, called the Aurora Rooftops to Rivers Plan, includes a new riverfront park that will serve as a venue for concerts, festivals and other special events while providing more effective water quality treatment of urban runoff into the Fox River. The plan is designed to meet the following objectives:

Improved water quality and reduction of nonpoint source pollution deposition in the River

Naturalized, dispersed stormwater management design to alleviate CSO challenges

Increased stormwater detention capacity

Decreased stormwater discharge volumes to the Fox River

Urban wildlife habitat creation through naturalized stormwater management and interconnected greenways

Community education regarding the value of BMP implementation

Provide a model for naturalized stormwater management for the region and the Fox River Watershed

Multiple financing measures were combined into an innovative financing package for the Aurora green infrastructure project. The City of Aurora leveraged City plans and investments with a strong State of Illinois partnership that ultimately led to the State creating a 20 million riverfront redevelopment initiative that named Aurora one of three pilot communities for riverfront redevelopment. This paper will summarize why U.S. EPA and other entities are promoting green infrastructure practices, discuss what some of the benefits can be in addition to management of wet weather flows, and describe the specific features being put in place in Aurora, Illinois to achieve multiple public benefits.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2008-01-01

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