NEW YORK CITY is building a floating park.

With green space at a premium in many urban centers, cities like New York are looking for ways to solve multiple problems at once through green infrastructure.

The Pier 55 project will result in 2.7 acres of public space balanced on concrete columns above the Hudson River. A floating park can be a pleasant recreational space as well as a tool for water treatment and cleaning. It’s the ability to be both that makes it green infrastructure.

France now requires green roofs on new buildings, Portland has installed hundreds of street planters and Philadelphia is building rain gardens across the city.

Some of the rush to install green infrastructure comes from the fact that our old grey infrastructure – the stormwater and sewer systems that service our cities – is getting old. Many of Canada’s sewer systems are nearing the end of their useful lives.

Compounding the problem are two factors:

  1. Climate change is increasing the incidence of major storms
  2. Impermeable surfaces give stormwater nowhere else to go

In a park or, say, anywhere in New Brunswick, falling rain is absorbed into the soil. In a city, rain lands on impervious asphalt and pavement and runs off into the drain, overwhelming the stormwater and/or sewer system. That’s how we get floods.

A city consisting of more than 10-20 per cent impermeable surfaces is in trouble. Many Canadian watersheds, such as Massey Creek in Toronto, are already close to 40 per cent impervious.

Hence the call for green infrastructure. But some are discovering that they don’t need to wait for their municipality to take action.

This past June, a team of volunteers arrived at St. Anthony Catholic School in Ottawa, armed with shovels, pry bars and a barbeque.

Pavement, as it turns out, lifts easily in the summer heat.

The project is called Depave Paradise, and the depavers tore up over 100 square meters of asphalt from the school grounds with hand-held tools. In their place will go gardens of native flowers, shrubs and trees.

In one corner of the schoolyard sits Lake St. Anthony, so named because the counters of the pavement create a stagnant lake whenever it rains. The volunteers dug a couple of holes right in the middle of the lake and plan to create a rain garden with plants that can withstand being occasionally drowned.

For both the school and the environment, this new green space will reduce injuries caused by the unforgiving asphalt, lower the temperature of the yard – already scorching in late spring – as there will be less pavement to absorb the heat and soak up, slow down and clean the stormwater as it falls and is absorbed into the soil.

With many Canadian municipalities now considering or taking the first steps toward developing green infrastructure, the Depave Paradise project demonstrates that efforts to improve local stormwater management don’t have to be floating island-sized.

A couple of tools and maybe a hotdog or two is all one needs to create the new brand of infrastructure.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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