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Green Infrastructure

Overcoming Barriers to Green Infrastructure

Communities across the country are experiencing the benefits of green infrastructure. They have adopted performance standards or incentives promoting green infrastructure while others have built demonstration projects. Here we identify some of the barriers to adopting green infrastructure approaches and suggest strategies to overcome them.

On this page:

Barriers Confronting Municipalities

City Hall sign represents municipalities working to implement green infrastructureLocal governments are in the best position to promote sustainable stormwater management on a larger scale. They also face some of the most complex challenges. Resources are limited, responsibilities are fragmented, and the tolerance for risk is generally low. These strategies should help municipalities overcome those challenges. See Also: EPA's Barrier Buster Factsheet Series.

  • Perception that Performance is Unknown

    Green infrastructure practices are often perceived as emerging technologies with a limited track record. Many local governments are skeptical of their performance and prefer to rely on familiar pipe-and-pond approaches. Some municipalities perceive green infrastructure as untested in their particular location, with their particular soils and climate.

    Strategies

  • Perception of Higher Costs

    Many municipalities are reluctant to integrate green infrastructure into their capital projects or policies because they suspect that it will cost more than gray infrastructure in the short and/or long term. For example:

    • In the short term, design and construction costs might be higher for innovative approaches than for a conventional pipe-and-pond approach.
    • In the long term, maintenance requirements and costs are unknown.

    Strategies

    • Learn about national and local experience: A growing body of experience demonstrates the potential for green infrastructure approaches to improve the triple bottom line for sustainability – people, prosperity and the planet. See: Green Infrastructure Cost Benefit Resources.
    • Recognize avoided costs: A green approach to stormwater management is often as cost-effective as—if not more cost-effective than—conventional approaches (which include stormwater ponds, pipes, paving, clearing, and grading). Using cost analyses can quantify many of the costs avoided when green infrastructure approaches are implemented. See: Cost Analyses.
    • Recognize multiple benefits: Green infrastructure provides environmental, social, and public health benefits that centralized storage and detention facilities do not. You can leverage limited public funds to provide multiple benefits, including not only cleaner water, but also cleaner air, higher property values, and more recreational opportunities. A growing number of municipalities have conducted comprehensive cost benefit analyses demonstrating the potential for green infrastructure to provide more value than gray. See: Community Cost Benefit Analyses
  • Perception of Resistance within Regulatory Community

    Some municipalities view the regulatory and enforcement community as unwilling to accept green infrastructure solutions to water quality impairments.

    Strategies

  • Perception of Conflict with Principles of Smart Growth

    Smart growth” aims to create more vibrant, sustainable communities by:

    • concentrating growth in existing cities and suburbs; and
    • promoting compact built environments with a mix of housing, transportation, and employment choices.

    Advocates of smart growth believe that:

    • managing stormwater at its source will require large areas of open land and inhibit compact development; and
    • requiring developers to manage stormwater at its source will disproportionately affect redevelopment costs and inhibit redevelopment.

    Strategies

    • Learn about the different forms green infrastructure can take: Green infrastructure includes practices that are easily integrated into compact site designs:
      • Planter boxes and rainwater cisterns can be designed to fit into small spaces.
      • Rain gardens and swales can be placed in medians or parking strips.
      • Permeable pavement can be placed in parking lots, streets, and walkways.
    • Assess the economic factors that affect developers’ decisions: In 2011, ECONorthwest published a report investigating the impact, if any, that stormwater regulations requiring or encouraging green infrastructure would have on developers’ decisions about where and how to build. The report concluded that many developers consider the costs of implementing stormwater controls minor compared to the many other economic factors involved in their decision to build a project.

    Enhancing Sustainable Communities with Green Infrastructure - A guide to help communities better manage stormwater while achieving other environmental, public health, social, and economic benefits.

    Managing Stormwater in Redevelopment and Greenfield Development Projects Using Green Infrastructure (PDF)(30 pp, 290 K, About PDF)Exit.

  • Perception of Conflict with Water Rights Law

    Water is such a limited resource in many western states, that they have developed complex legal systems to define water rights. Most western states base their water rights law on the doctrine of “prior appropriation.” Under this doctrine, the right to use water is given to the first appropriator (the “senior appropriator”) who put the water to beneficial use. The senior appropriator has the right to use the water before later users (“junior appropriators”). Appropriation rights can be held by individuals, corporations, public utilities, partnerships, cities, state governments, and the federal government.

    Each state has different laws and policies. As green infrastructure practices become more common, the laws and policies continue to evolve. The following steps can help ensure compliance with water rights law:

    Strategies

    1. Research the law in your state and locality:  The impact of state water rights law on the feasibility of green infrastructure practices varies by state:

    • In some states, prior appropriation does not affect green infrastructure practices because those states do not have jurisdiction over precipitation.
    • In other states, precipitation is subject to appropriation and some green infrastructure practices could be restricted or prohibited.
    • If a water rights issue arises, some states might require permits or design modifications for certain green infrastructure projects.

    Before designing a green infrastructure project, ask yourself these questions: 

    • Does the state have jurisdiction over precipitation?
    • Does the green infrastructure project retain, use, or otherwise consume precipitation?
    • Will the design of the project affect the water rights of others?
    • Will this particular green infrastructure project require a water right?

    2. Contact the agency in your state or locality that handles water rights issues:  Project designers should consider contacting the appropriate state agency to find out more about water rights when developing a green infrastructure project.

    3. Identify projects that have been completed in your state or area: Some states and localities encourage specific green infrastructure projects, including the following examples in western states:

    • Rainwater harvesting programs in several California cities, see Los AngelesExit, San FranciscoExit, and San Diego;
    • Roof gardens and rain gardens at libraries in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and
    • Green roofs in Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Unfamiliarity with Maintenance Requirements and Costs

    Many local governments are reluctant to pursue green infrastructure because they are unfamiliar with its maintenance requirements. The placement of green infrastructure practices on private property also poses challenges:

    • It is difficult for a public agency to ensure that proper maintenance of the stormwater facility is occurring.
    • A facility might be filled in or removed by a private owner who is unaware that it is an important part of a stormwater management system.

    Strategies

    • Recognize that all infrastructure requires maintenance: Conventional stormwater systems and green infrastructure facilities both require periodic maintenance. For example, conventional stormwater filters that are not maintained eventually become clogged with sediment and debris and fail to remove pollutants. Maintaining green infrastructure practices generally requires more manual labor and less heavy equipment than maintaining conventional stormwater controls. It varies depending on the facility and can be as simple as weeding a vegetated swale or removing debris from curb cuts.
    • Consult whole life cost tools: Whole life cost models estimate construction and maintenance costs for a range of green infrastructure practices, including:
    • Develop a maintenance program: Local governments are developing maintenance programs for green infrastructure facilities within their jurisdictions. Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, both have extensive experience operating green infrastructure maintenance programs.
      • Portland employs three full-time staff to maintain and manage its green streets, and relies on other government bureaus to help with construction inspection and community outreach. The city also contracts with private landscape and reforestation companies to provide maintenance. To provide cost efficiency, Portland batches the maintenance work by location and performs quarterly maintenance.
      • Seattle has developed a Green Stormwater Operations and Maintenance Manual (PDF)(25 pp, 4.6 MB, About PDF)Exit that provides a summary of routine maintenance activities for rain gardens, vegetated swales, and permeable pavements.
    • Develop communication and outreach materials for private property owners: As more green infrastructure facilities are installed on private property, property owners must be educated about the facilities and their maintenance responsibilities. Communication materials should describe the benefits and functions of green infrastructure. Portland has developed an Operation and Maintenance Guide for Private Property Owners (PDF)(22 pp, 296 K, About PDF)Exit for homeowners and business owners written in simple language.
  • Conflicting Codes and Ordinances

    A local environmental department might want to promote green infrastructure, but existing comprehensive plans, zoning codes, and building standards could limit the possibilities. They could be silent on, ambiguous towards, or even in conflict with green infrastructure principles. Requirements that can limit opportunities for green infrastructure include:

    • zoning density standards,
    • storm sewer connection requirements, and
    • minimum parking and road widths.

    Strategies

    The following steps can help you remove some of the obstacles from local codes and ordinances.

    1. Conduct an audit of local codes and ordinances:  Audit tools are available to help you identify barriers to green infrastructure in local codes and ordinances and collaboratively develop solutions, including:

    2.Amend local codes and ordinance:  Craft codes that facilitate green infrastructure approaches by:

    3.Develop design guidance:  Supplement language providing flexibility for green infrastructure with design guidelines that demonstrate acceptable designs. The guidelines also can introduce engineers and public works staff who are unfamiliar with green infrastructure to the techniques.

  • Lack of Government Staff Capacity and Resources

    Municipalities cite lack of resources as one of the most common and significant barriers to implementing green infrastructure projects and policies. Government staff and funding are needed for:

    • updating development codes;
    • educating builders, developers, and the public; and
    • inspecting and maintaining stormwater facilities.

    Strategies

    • Recognize avoided costs:  Local governments might have limited resources for reducing stormwater impacts, but providing the services will prove to be cost-effective. Otherwise, the public will continue to pay increasingly higher costs of:
    • restoring degraded streams,
    • recovering endangered species like salmon and steelhead, and
    • cleaning up polluted water and river bottoms.
    • Establish stormwater utility:  Some local governments have created a stormwater utility funded by customer fees to cover costs of providing stormwater management services. In most cases, The stormwater utility fee is very reasonable. You can use it as an incentive for on-site stormwater management if you offer a fee reduction. The city of Portland, for example, offers a stormwater fee discount for on-site stormwater management through its Clean River Rewards.

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    Barriers Confronting Developers

    New home represents the opportunity for developers to install green infrastructure as they build.Many developers are unaware of the potential for cost savings with green infrastructure. Even when developers are aware of the potential for cost savings, however, they may find it impossible to reconcile green infrastructure approaches with other codes and standards. Many of the strategies for overcoming these barriers require action by municipalities.

  • Skepticism about Long-Term Performance

    Many developers perceive green infrastructure practices as emerging technologies with a limited track record. They are reluctant to risk installing them in case they have to be repaired or reinstalled.

    Strategies

    • Learn about national and local experience:  See the strategies under "Perception that Performance is Unknown”  in the section on barriers confronting municipalities.
    • Learn about design variations:  Green infrastructure approaches are extremely flexible and can be adapted to a range of climate regimes and soil characteristics. Design strategies are discussed in “Design Challenges.”
    • Proper installation is key:  If green infrastructure practices fail, it is often because they were not installed properly. Construction procedures and sequencing for green infrastructure sites are different than for conventional sites. Contractors can learn about common green infrastructure construction errors, and recommendations for avoiding these errors in the Designer’s Guide for Low Impact Development Construction (PDF)(95 pp, 10MB, About PDF)Exit.
  • Perception of Higher Costs

    Many developers do not consider using green infrastructure practices to manage stormwater because of the perception that they cost more to install than conventional practices.

    Strategies

    • Recognize avoided costs:  A green approach to stormwater management is often as cost-effective as—if not more cost-effective than—conventional approaches (which include stormwater ponds, pipes, paving, clearing, and grading). Cost Analyses quantify many of the costs avoided when green infrastructure approaches are implemented.  See: Cost Benefit Resources.
    • Recognize potential to add value:  Installing green infrastructure practices can sometimes add value to a project by resulting in more buildable lots and higher market prices:
      • If the need for stormwater ponds is eliminated, a developers might be able to add more lots to a project.
      • Many consumers are willing to pay more for lots in close proximity to attractive landscaping and green space. See: Resources on the Economics of Green Infrastructure

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    Design Challenges

    Desert landscape represents concept of the value of green infrastructure for a range of watersheds.Municipalities, developers, and engineers often express skepticism that green infrastructure is appropriate for their particular context. For example, green infrastructure is often perceived to be limited to sandy or loamy soils. Green infrastructure practices are extremely versatile, however, and strategies exist to overcome most design challenges.  See: Design and Implementation Resources

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