Failing streets open up opportunities to build green infrastructure

Late last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Committee released a report on the state of the streets in the nine-county Bay Area. As anyone who has been jolted when there car or bike hit a pot hole, it will come as no surprise that the situation is pretty dire. In many cities and counties, routine maintenance is not enough to even maintain the status-quo, let alone rebuild for the future. Across the region, 43,000 miles of streets are stuck in the “fair” category, with no sign of improvements on the horizon. I might add that my home town of Albany had one of the lowest scores and has shown steady declines over the past three years.

There was a short segment on KQED’s forum this morning about the report. The discussion focused on the need to develop new funding mechanisms, and how cities like El Cerrito have successfully raised new revenue to fix up old streets.  While the MTC report and radio debate touches on the concept of “Complete Streets” –streets that are build for cars, bikes, and pedestrians — they both missed another element from my perspective. Namely water.

Essentially, our street system has extended and in some cases replaced the system of creeks and rivers that used to drain into the Bay.  In a region that is defined by the Bay, we should use every opportunity we can to enhance its protection. And in a time of scarce public resources, we can not afford to solve one problem at a time. Fortunately, in the case of streets you can solve the pot hole problem, create a safer and more livable street, and protect water quality at the same time. It’s already happening in pockets around the area as “low impact development” ordinances are adopted and implemented. What is needed now is a comprehensive set of ordinances to ensure that as our streets are upgraded, we’re creating green streets for the future.

Rather than getting rainwater off our streets and into the storm drain as quickly as possible, we need to allow it to percolate back into the groundwater. This can be achieved through curb-cuts, bioswales, rain gardens and cisterns. Not only do these enhance water quality, they also create more liveable green space in our community. If done correctly, it can also open up new funding mechanisms focused on water quality and supply.

If I’m going to be asked to tax myself to pay for road upgrades, I want to ensure we’re building streets for 2050, not taking the region back to 1950.

What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
What would you prefer? More concrete or a green rain garden?
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.
A curb-cut captures water from the street and directs it into a rain garden.

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