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Sustainable Urban Streets: 7 Tips for Successful Green Design

Discover key considerations for implementing sustainable urban development as Carrie Rivette shares insights gained from her experience working with the Vital Streets program in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Highlighting the significance of collaboration, thoughtful plant selection, comprehensive training, active community engagement, and the timeless wisdom of practical common sense, Carrie offers a roadmap for success in shaping eco-friendly urban spaces.

In our pursuit of sustainable urban development, the Vital Streets program in Grand Rapids, Michigan, serves as a powerful example. It's the fusion of complete streets and green infrastructure − a blend that struck a chord with me as the former manager of the City's stormwater system. While the green part was right up my alley, streets are a system I had to become familiar with, and all components have to work together to create the best options for the community.

Photo of landscaping around riverfront walkway

Let’s start with a definition of green infrastructure. While there are many definitions, my favorite is “managing the rain where it falls.” How can you go wrong when you’re mimicking Mother Nature before infrastructure was built? Okay, there are plenty of ways you could go wrong, but it’s true in the most basic form!

Complete streets on the other hand are the whole package: accessible, safe, functional, and attractive. These thoroughfares don't just make neighborhoods and businesses better, they also boost economic opportunities for the whole community.

Now, how do these two work together, and what lessons can we take from my experience with Grand Rapid’s Vital Streets program? Let’s dig in.

Multi-Department Collaboration = Community Success

Just like the street components, all stakeholder departments need to work together to collectively construct the best options for the community. A plan developed by one department isn’t always going to be accepted throughout. Departments – including planning, engineering, streets, traffic safety, mobility, fire, water, sanitary and stormwater – should collaborate for mutual benefits. Working together is the best way to determine how one amenity may affect another and how there may be mutual co-benefits. For example, one department’s bulb out/bump out/curb extension rain garden may be another’s traffic calming and pedestrian safety amenity.

Illustration showing all the departments working together to create community success

Even more important is securing buy-in from everyone. A plan where all stakeholders have been heard will minimize clashes during implementation. Not to mention, it never hurts to learn everyone’s constraints. One of the biggest compliments I received during a collaboration meeting was from a newer staff member who remarked, “I always forget that stormwater people here can talk streets.” While I like being different, more important was the acknowledgement that I recognize the constraints of others and we are all working as a team.

Evaluating Options Beyond Native Plants

Say what? While native plants are optimal, they might not always be the best fit. In certain neighborhoods, recognizing familiar plants is crucial. For example, if you can plant a hardy rose that the neighbors recognize from a weed, they are more apt to help you maintain it as they care for their own yards. Striking the right balance between aesthetics and efficiency, whether it's hardy roses or low-mow grasses, is crucial, as is aligning with community expectations.

Another perspective on plant selection arises if neighbors prefer the routine of mowing parkways and aren't fond of garden aesthetics. In those cases, considering native and/or low-mow grasses that neighbors can easily maintain ensures decreased city crew time and better aligns with expectations, potentially avoiding replanting if traditional rain garden plants are mowed over.

Illustration of a leaching basin

Sometimes, the area, soil, or utility constraints may not be conducive to plantings. One of the easiest compromises is to put in leaching catch basins. While lacking the same aesthetics or educational opportunities, it fulfills the primary goal of filtering water and minimizing runoff.

Finally, besides making sure the plants are salt tolerant, you will want to make sure they’ll be resistant to predicted future changes in temperature.

Weather resistant plant

Ensuring Buy-in Through Strategic Training

It’s really important to make sure that all staff involved in design and maintenance of streets are trained in the plan as a whole and their part(s) in it. Some of these roles may be new to them, and telling them why they are doing a job can be just as vital as how to do it. Also, be sure to keep this in mind for onboarding new staff.

Determining Maintenance Plans 

GreenStreets-MaintainingStreets

This is another area where having everyone at the table is best. Find ways to engage the team in maintenance discussions to explore questions such as: For bulb out and traffic islands, can we plow around it? Can we sweep it? Do we have the recommended sweepers for porous sidewalks and bike paths? How about porous pavement? Even better, can our maintenance shop maintain those sweepers? (Note that fleet may be needed at the table for this one.) It is also important to determine how crews will know what the best practice is and how often to maintain it. Finally, it is crucial to identify who will maintain each type of practice.

Proactive Community Engagement

As mentioned before, when the community has buy-in, everyone's job becomes easier. Make sure you let the community know what is going in and why. The best plan is to give them choices – find out if they want flowers and present them with a palette to choose from. Minimize those negative comments on Facebook when showing off new projects by emphasizing the benefits and demonstrating how they align with the community's preferences.

Different types of flower choices

Common-Sense Strategies

Next, let's think about balancing installation and maintenance efficiency. It’s good to at least have a scale for maintenance versus the benefits of each practice. There aren’t always choices, but when there are, it’s important to prioritize practices that offer the best bang for the buck. Think about clustering smaller practices so that those with similar maintenance needs are near each other. For example, if you put smaller bioswales together, you reduce crew and vehicle time going from place to place for maintenance. Make sure practices that need combined sewer cleaning truck maintenance are put into the work order system so that, to the extent possible, they will be maintained when the trucks are already in an area. Carefully planning out these steps will help streamline upkeep, optimizing resources effectively.

Regularly Revisit and Revise the Plan

As good as all this information is, you will learn valuable lessons as you implement green streets in your community. Make sure you set aside time to get the team together again and see if the plan requires updates. Do this annually, or at least every other year, to refresh the original team and keep new staff trained. This also reminds everyone that each department has its own struggles and to keep them in mind as they all do their parts.

Infographic showing an annual training for current team and new staff

Bringing It All Together

The installation of green infrastructure is truly one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. Yet, it's not just about doing it; it's about doing it as a team with common goals. If you keep these key points in mind and bring together a team that sees the purpose and respects everyone else’s positions, you can make great strides in reducing flooding and improving the quality of your waterways.

Photo of monument grasses along road

For further insights on sustainable urban development and successful green street initiatives, feel free to contact me directly. Let's work together to pave the way for resilient, eco-friendly communities!

Carrie Rivette

Carrie Rivette, PE*, a seasoned senior project engineer, brings extensive expertise in water resources and stormwater management. With a strong project management background working with cleanup sites and grant-managed projects, she played a pivotal role in the City of Grand Rapids' Vital Streets Plan and Design Guidelines. Carrie mentors professionals nationwide, sharing insights on stormwater management best practices and fostering collaborative improvement.

*Professional engineer in Michigan

Contact Carrie