Reports vary, but the term “low-impact development” was coined in the late 1980s or early '90s in Prince George's County, Md., when the county began diverting stormwater into rain gardens, landscaping, and other nature-mimicking spots rather than manmade structures like gutters and stormwater ponds. The term, also known as LID, refers to how stormwater runoff is diverted via best management practices, allowing a city or other jurisdiction to meet regulatory-compliance and resource-protection goals.

Wordy definition aside, the concept is simple. Use Mother Nature's inherent absorptive capabilities to save one of the planet's most important natural resources: water.

As logical as this sounds, not every city puts low-impact development at the top of its list of things to fund. Public works managers recognize its intrinsic value, but aren't using its “warm fuzzy” appeal to convince elected officials that it should be higher on their list of priorities.

Limited budgets for up-front costs, the perceived cost of long-term maintenance (even though studies show that costs are actually lower), and the lack of federal mandates make championing low-impact development tough, but the price of not implementing water-saving practices may be higher in the long run.

On The Radar

While the U.S. Green Building Council doesn't track low-impact development, it estimates that 5% to 7% of commercial construction is Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED)-certified or -registered, meaning that the building is environmentally sustainable or “green.” That translates to about 1 billion square feet of commercial facility space. Departments working to acquire LEED certification can incorporate low-impact development tactics, such as adding a rain garden on the roof, to earn LEED points.

But according to an exclusive survey of PUBLIC WORKS readers, about half of you haven't considered incorporating low-impact development into projects, primarily because it's not mandated by local or state government.

Departments that don't take advantage of low-impact development are missing the boat, says Neil Weinstein, executive director of Low Impact Development Center, Beltsville, Md.

“Making your community look nice is high on the list of many public works leaders and elected officials, and low-impact development is the perfect way to enhance the aesthetics of a community,” he says. Green roofs, pervious pavements, and rain gardens not only incorporate low-impact development concepts, they also improve the look of a neighborhood by reducing ponding and adding green space.

To boost the low numbers, Weinstein makes three suggestions.

  • Assess your city's capabilities. Do you already have an environmental management system in place? Do you have feedback and conduct quality-control checks on your projects? If the answer is yes to these questions, you're on your way to low-impact development.
  • Define your goals. What changes do you need to implement to reduce runoff on, say, a major artery? Knowing your resources—grant sources (many state environment departments fund “green” projects), consultants (as the demand for green building and products increases, more firms are specializing in procuring green products and designing low-impact structures), and experienced local contractors—comes into play here, since you can't achieve anything without them.
  • Launch pilot projects and work with the development and environmental communities.
  • “Rain gardens and tree-planting programs are always big hits,” says Weinstein. Monitor these projects, perhaps with the help of a local university, to get feedback on what works—and what doesn't. If you make elected officials look good, they'll be more apt to approve and fund future projects.

    Save The Planet

    Low-impact development isn't the only way to make infrastructure green.

    Other tactics, like environmentally sustainable design, green building, Green Highways, and LEED or Green Globes certification, are equally valuable approaches.

    That's why the editors of PUBLIC WORKS have developed four articles and a resource list that focus on how to make your department more planet-friendly.

    • Team Green: introduces you to a water district that decided to build green, and offers tips on how you can do it, too. It also provides a snapshot of how the solid waste department serving Florida's capital implemented a green demolition of its administration building.
    • Auditors Welcome: shows how auditing a department's facilities can provide a step-by-step plan for using less electricity and water.
    • Trickle-Down Effect: A story from Chicago shows how one of the nation's largest cities reduced storm-water runoff in its alleys by using specially designed pervious pavement.
    • Low-Impact Leader: our Q&A with Seattle's low-impact development program manager will give you ideas on how to incorporate their trail-blazing solutions into your own plans.
    • Resource List: A list of useful links for organizations and associations that can help you make you're department more sustainable, and planet-friendly.