Green Infrastructure

Definition and Background

What is green infrastructure?
Green infrastructure refers to systems or practices that use or mimic natural processes to infiltrate, reuse, or evapotranspirate stormwater on site. You may have also heard the term "low impact development" (LID). These two terms tend to be used interchangeably, but LID refers to the concept or approach to land development, while green infrastructure is about the actual system.

What's the important of green infrastructure (vs gray infrastructure)?
Gray infrastructure refers to more heavily-engineered systems for transporting stormwater, such as pipes and concrete channels.  They allow stormwater to travel faster, potentially creating erosion issues. Gray infrastructure systems are also expensive to build (and sometimes to maintain) and when they’re undersized, flooding occurs. With gray infrastructure systems, pollutants are carried to rivers and lakes where they can create water quality issues. Common pollutants include sediment, oil, metals, pesticides, fertilizers, yard waste, and general debris.

Compared to gray infrastructure, green infrastructure practices can reduce and potentially eliminate instances of flooding, sanitary sewage backup, and other property damage due to poor stormwater management. A green system allows more time for pollutants to break down and be filtered by soil. Gray systems also allow stormwater to travel faster, potentially creating erosion issues. Because green infrastructure systems mimic or use natural systems and are designed on a smaller-scale, failure on a large-scale isn’t as likely. Green systems, like gray, do have maintenance costs, however, those costs are similar to managing a park or other vegetated area. Often with green systems, there is an added aesthetic quality to stormwater management.  

How did green infrastructure get started?
Green infrastructure is a concept originating in the United States in the mid-1990s [Source]. One of the first green infrastructure projects was developed in 1990 in Prince George's County, Maryland.  A developer chose to build a new subdivision using rain gardens on each house's property, rather than installing BMP ponds.  This system, which cost 25% of a traditional system of curbs, sidewalks, and gutters, resulted in a 75-80% reduction in stormwater runoff during a regular rainfall event. 

Types of Green Infrastructure

Bioswales are open-channel drainage ways for stormwater. In contrast to traditional concrete channels, bioswales allow for infiltration, slow water movement, and can partially treat stormwater quality. Video on Rain Gardens or Bioswale

Constructed Wetlands  
A constructed wetland is an artificial wetland, marsh or swamp built to serve several purposes including accepting/treating stormwater runoff, wastewater, or sewage. Constructed wetlands are also used as wildlife habitat and land reclamation after ecological disturbances requiring mitigation. These systems help to remove pollutants from the water

Green Roofs  
Green roofs, like the previous two types of green infrastructure techniques, reduce the amount of runoff and absorb/collect rainwater. They also serve to provide insulation and reduce the “heat island effect,” which often occurs in urban areas with a large amount of buildings and pavement.

Greenways and Streamways
Greenways are continuous corridors of undeveloped land, often connecting public lands and natural areas.  When greenways follow a river or brook, the corridors are called "streamways."  Greenways and streamways provide wildlife habitat, improve water quality, lessen flooding impacts, and enhance quality of life for residents.

Infiltration Basin
An infiltration basin is a shallow, artificial pond designed to infiltrate stormwater though permeable soils into the groundwater aquifer. They do not discharge to a surface water body under most storm conditions, but are designed with overflow structures. More Information

Permeable Pavement
Permeable pavement work best in low-traffic areas. The pavement allows rainwater to pass through the pavement, into the earth below, thus reducing stormwater run-off.

Rain Barrels 
Rain barrels are used to collect and store stormwater runoff, typically from roofs through rain gutters. This allows for water reuse and reduces the amount of stormwater runoff which might otherwise end up in a curb/gutter system. Video on Rain Barrels

Rain Gardens 
A rain garden is a shallow, constructed depression planted with deep-rooted native plants and grasses. It's located to receive runoff from hard surfaces such as a roof, a sidewalk, or driveway. Rain gardens slow down the rush of water from these hard surfaces, hold the water for a short period of time, and allow stormwater to naturally infiltrate into the ground. Video on Rain Gardens or Bioswales

Rivers and Lakes
Green infrastructure doesn't just refer to the structural practices mentioned on this page; it is a system that ties the developed landscape into the natural world, including rivers and lakes.

Streambank Stabilization
Streambank stabilization consists of practices such as matting, establishing vegetation, or installing riprap, to reduce or prevent erosion of stream banks.  Stabilization helps prevent sedimentation, reduces damage to nearby land uses, and improvemes habitats for fish and wildlife.

Urban Tree Canopy
Urban tree canopy refers to the layer of leaves and branches covering the ground when viewed from above. This canopy intercepts rainfall and slows its movement that would otherwise fall onto paved surfaces and into storm drainage systems. It also reduces the urban heat island effect, reduces air pollution, increases property values, and provides wildlife habitat.

Water Reuse
Where stormwater is collected and stored, water reuse is an option. Using stormwater for irrigation reduces water consumption.

Stormwater Management Ordinances

2022 Model Stormwater Management Ordinance 
(Illinois Department of Natural Resources)

Illinois Model Stormwater Management Ordinance 
(Illinois Department of Natural)

Stormwater Operation and Maintenance Model Ordinance 
(US Environmental Protection Agency)

Other Resources

Case studies in and around Kansas

Tools and guidelines for planning your own project

Funding sources and opportunities

Example ordinances