A catchall solution to city development

Rebuilding our relationship with the globe’s most precious resource: water

Syracuse first broke ground in its approach to water management with a “model” system of combining the city’s sewers, developed in the early 1900s; Today, after years of paying for and upgrading what came to be known as a severely antiquated system, the city’s approach to water – using “green infrastructure” – is believed to be truly groundbreaking.

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“There is an old story of a western farmer” starts a letter to the editor published in Syracuse’s now-defunct Herald-Journal in 1865. The letter tells the story of the farmer – a representative of any people living off land – who, reveling in the fortune that his land has a stream, foolishly dumps his manure into it.

In a time when articles explaining the addition of the terms “sewerage” and “sewage” to the dictionary ran alongside a letter like this – and no one thought of the consequences of disposal of waste and storm water – its author was visionary in suggesting the “honest farmer” in this old tale was throwing away “by the shovel full” a valuable resource, fertilizer, and polluting his land.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw places like Syracuse construct cities to hold and accommodate mass populations. Onondaga County’s population ballooned by 70 percent from 1860 to 1930. And while the number of people grew, so with it grew the sheer amount waste they produced and the systems by which they disposed of it.

“There’s been quite a bit of sprawl, quite a bit of development, people congregating into cities and city life and with that came a need for quite a bit of infrastructure,” says Bj Adigun, program coordinator for CH2M Hill, an engineering firm known for its environmental projects worldwide, which was selected by the county to work with Syracuse’s green infrastructure program “Save the Rain.”

The major feature of that development, says Adigun, is a system of combining sanitary sewage with storm water, which frequently results in overflowing the city’s sewage.

Adigun used the example of simply pouring the contents of his water bottle outside. If its goes into the grass, he says, it is naturally absorbed by the ground. When it hits pavement, however, it ends up flowing into a “combined system.” On dry days, that’s OK, but in a city like Syracuse that experiences high levels of precipitation, the potential for overflow increases.

An evolved response to combined sewer overflows

Eventually, after Onondaga County legislators tossed waste treatment center plans around like political hot potatoes, and ignored sophisticated state and federal regulations, the county was sued by the environmentally-minded Atlantic States Legal Foundation.

The result of the “Amended Consent Judgment” issued in 1999 was multi-million dollar upgrades to the county’s regional treatment facility, Metropolitan Waste Treatment Center, and the order to look into long-term solutions for preventing the pollution of Onondaga Lake and its tributaries.

Initial plans in the early 2000s led to the construction of the Midland Regional Treatment Center in Syracuse’s impoverished South Side, a project that upended city residents and outraged the community. Steps to build three more similar centers were in the works until green infrastructure presented itself as an alternative.

A green roof catches rainfall atop the Center of Excellence in Syracuse. (Original Photo)

“In the very recent past, we’ve seen a shift from typical reactionary methods to more preventative methods in the form of green infrastructure,” says Adigun. Not only does the technology, which is designed to absorb water into surfaces, reduce storm water flow, but it also relieves the county of having to build large treatment facilities.

“Sewage treatment plants are expensive not only to build, but to operate, and the capacity of them, while large, is still limited,” says Khris Dodson, communications and program manager of the Environmental Finance Center at Syracuse University. “When you hit the capacity of that infrastructure, you have to build more infrastructure.”

The community as a green suprastructure

This November, a busload of Syracuse residents, businesspeople and activists signed up to be shuffled around the city to visit 45 green infrastructure projects currently underway.

A few steps make a difference in green infrastructure. Along the Onondaga Creekwalk in downtown Syracuse, one foot can rest on porous pavement implemented by the county while the other is planted on state cement, which water runs off. (Original photo)

From the impressive green roof atop the Center of Excellence on Washington Street, downtown, to a number of subtle configurations like patches of grass or urban gardens, engineers showed off STR’s success.

Matt Marko, an engineer and planner with CH2M Hill, led the tour, boasting that Syracuse’s program is extremely competitive in the nation. “Unless you’re from Portland, we’ve got a leg up on you,” he said. “And by 2018, we’ll be up on Portland.”

Portland, Ore., another city built on the water nestled in between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, boasts a number of green infrastructure projects underway through its Grey to Green Initiative: Ideally, by 2012, the initiative will have spurred the construction of 90 green roofs – roofs that absorb rainfall instead of letting it bounce off into the watershed – and 920 green streets, composed of porous pavements that also allow absorption of rainwater instead of contributing runoff into the sewer, which can lead to overflows ending up in water bodies.

Syracuse’s progress so far may sound a bit more modest, but for a city as old as it is, with a population of just under 150,000, compared with Portland’s almost 600,000, there is plenty of green to be seen. Not to mention, the EPA has listed Syracuse as one of its top 10 partners in green infrastructure implementation – and Syracuse is considered ahead of the curve in many of its projects.

“Those are a lot of hurdles that we’ve already cleared so they’re really looking to us for information and advice on how to implement those programs,” Adigun says.

As part of agreements reached through the court settlement, STR is obligated to collect 250 million gallons annually by 2018. Planners are confident that Syracuse’s “signature projects” will meet that goal.

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In addition to a number of green streets and porous pavements of its own – Concord Place in the Westcott neighborhood is the current prototype, with more on their way – Syracuse has a number of schemes “in the ground,” as Adigun likes to put it.

Among them is one of the largest green roofs in the Northeast. The 60,000 square-foot system on the OnCenter Complex will capture over 1 million gallons of water each year. The complex’s War Memorial Arena, where the local minor league hockey team the Syracuse Crunch skates is another of STR’s most remarkable projects.

The team will be the first to skate on ice made of recycled storm water. This particular project has also proven green infrastructure’s merits as a viable infrastructure solution.

“Anytime you change anything there are possibly unintended consequences,” Marko acknowledges. “We’re not naïve enough to think they’re not.” But in this case, the unintended consequences were positive. Since water’s freezing point varies based on its impurities, the high-quality rain water collected at the War Memorial is actually less expensive to freeze and to keep hard, a huge energy savings.

“There’s an unintended consequence,” Marko says. “My expectation is there is more value in the unknown benefits [of green infrastructure] than in the unknown costs.

“All new ideas and new infrastructure have their own set of challenges,” noted Dodson. “There’s no silver bullet otherwise we’d be using it.”

But the benefits of green infrastructure are stacking it against the odds that previous methods of water management faced.

“I think the real reason that green infrastructure is really starting to catch on is that number one, it’s an easy method to employ and number two, there are a lot of ancillary benefits to it as well,” says Adigun. “You implement green infrastructure, and you increase property values, you add sustainable spaces to urbanized areas, you add green spaces to urbanized areas, you provide additional transportation for folks in the form of walking lines or biking lanes, and you provide a beautification in certain areas that maybe don’t have any thing that’s green or sustainable whatsoever.”

The basketball court at Skiddy Park, funded by the Boeheim Foundation, is made of porous pavement, which collects water instead of letting run off into the watershed. (Original photo)

Adigun’s favorite example to use of green infrastructure finding its place in the community is the multiple projects taking place on Syracuse’s Near West Side, including a porous pavement basketball court at Skiddy Park, financed by the Boeheim Foundation.

“If you’re going to be replacing the basketball courts [kids] play on, or if you’re going to be lining their streets with trees or bike lanes where they can ride their bikes, or if you’re going to be providing them with parks and new setting for them to be able to use for recreation and other uses, they do care about that. And most people do care about those things happening in their neighborhoods.”

Having people “take ownership” of infrastructure, Adigun thinks, will make STR a more permanent solution than those past.

A different shade of green

At a Dec. 6 gathering at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, over 150 people were in attendance to discuss the future of Onondaga Lake, which is, according to EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, something to brag about.

“Cities are the epitome of sustainability,” Enck said to a packed auditorium at the zoo. “I was looking forward to coming here because of the amazing progress [in Syracuse]. I can promise each of you we are going to make progress every year. And this is what makes cities livable – people really want clean water, that’s fishable and swimmable.”

Each speaker at the forum – and generally, everyone involved with STF – gave a nod to County Executive Joanie Mahoney, first elected in 2008. Green infrastructure took off when Mahoney took office and called for the dissolution of plans for regional treatment centers in the area.

“[Mahoney] really went out on a limb and said let’s take a step back and see if there is a different way as opposed to building regional treatment facilities,” Adigun says.

Marko defined Mahoney’s leadership as pivotal to make a shift toward green infrastructure. “We knew the county and the leadership of Joanie and the county executive team … believed in doing the right thing, regardless of the initial capital cost,”

Estimated and projected population for Syracuse over time (Original graphic; Sources: US Census Data / http://pad.human.cornell.edu/counties/projections.cfm)

At the forum, Mahoney was optimistic about STR and the future of the lake, saying, “We are finding places where projects are being done, and we’re greening them. We live in a very special community where everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

That’s a relatively new environment for Syracuse, which has historically taken forever to upgrade its sewage systems.

“They’re doing fantastic,” says Diane Carlton, regional public affairs and education officer for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “They not only met [their] goal, they exceeded it. It’s phenomenal how many projects they’ve completed.”

If anything will get in the way of STR’s progress, it’s money. “The next paradigm shift will be actually getting [residents] to pay for it,” says Marko. “Any time you do something better it’s going to cost more. It’s value. The true meaning of value is you get what you pay for.”

Bearing the weight of the future

For the first time in years, Onondaga Lake has a healthy, diverse fish population and its shores and waters are visibly and olfactorily cleaner. Industrial pollution has been curtailed and the county will soon begin dredging the lake bottom, removing its most entrenched harmful sediments.

“So what else? How can we reconnect with Onondaga Lake?” asked DEC regional director Ken Lynch at the public forum. For the first time, the Onondaga Lake Partnership, consisting city, county, state and federal governments will refocus their attention on the future of the lake.

Mayor Stephanie Miner said she was excited that the community could begin to “see the lake and the creek as an asset to be celebrated not a detriment to be embarrassed about.”

Carlton said the lake would never be used for drinking water, due to its natural chemical composition, but recreational use might include bathing at some point in time.

“There are portions of the northern part of the lake where the chemical standard is met,” she says. But the visibility rates, established by the State Department of Health to prevent drowning, aren’t currently up to par. “Is it possible? Absolutely.”

That will all depend on the vision of the lakeshore’s property owner: the county. While there no foreseeable plans for beaches on Onondaga Lake, plans for lakeside development are already moving forward within the city, after its acquisition of 34 acres along the New York State Thruway in July.

“This all really ultimately about the lake and the tributaries,” says Marko. “Lakefront revitalization is really the end goal. The waterfront revitalization is really something that I know the county executive really believes in. The trickledown economics of having a downtown waterfront, whether it be the lake or more importantly the creek, with restaurants and shops along the waterfront, far outweighs the cost of doing something slightly better than we would have done it before, which is regional treatment facilities along the creek, which are not going to revitalize anything.”

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