ROUSING THE RABBLE: What exactly is green infrastructure?

The term “green infrastructure” surfaced at the March 28 meeting of the Grand Forks city council and by way of defining it, reference was made to the new lift station at the eastern end of City Park.

While the lift station may be referred to as a “green machine,” it is part of the more familiar “gray infrastructure,” namely, the basic facilities, services and installations such as roads, communications systems, water systems, power lines and public institutions, including schools, libraries and post offices.

The concept of the green infrastructure dates back to the 19th century and the term is attributed to Frederick Law Olmstead, founder of American landscape architecture, who believed that connected systems of parks and greenways were more beneficial than isolated green spaces.

The phrase was used in a May 1999 report of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, where it was defined as “…an interconnected network of protected land and water that supports native species, maintains natural ecological processes, sustains air and water resources and contributes to the health and quality of life for America’s communities and people.”

Green infrastructure conjures up a different set of images from those of the environment, a term that has become rather meaningless.

The green infrastructure highlights the multi-functional aspects of what is identified as nature.

The Boundary Country’s green infrastructure is extensive and covers the whole of the Kettle River watershed.

It includes farm land, hay fields, wooded areas, rivers, streams and wetlands, grasslands, alpine meadows, agricultural land (both used and neglected), cemeteries, backyard and municipal gardens, general amenity spaces such as parks, playing fields, golf courses and street-side trees.

The green infrastructure doesn’t fare too well when land use decisions are made. The neglect of local, regional and provincial governments shows.

Logging, cattle grazing, road construction, industrial development and housing developments have left scars and most of them are severe.

Ecosystem services come without costs. They include cleaning the air, filtering the water, storing and cycling nutrients, conserving and generating soils, pollinating crops and other plants, regulating climate, maintaining aquifers, sequestering carbon, and protecting areas against storm and flood damage.

Such services cannot be replicated.

The natural support systems across the Boundary region are now in dire need of attention. Riparian areas along the Kettle and Granby Rivers, and around Christina Lake, have been destroyed or placed under severe stress.

The wetland that runs through Grand Forks is gradually being mined and filled.

The Gilpin Grasslands, a prime example of a complex, delicate grassland ecosystem, and the numerous small watersheds that exist within it, have been misused over many years.

Preservation of the green infrastructure must be placed at the top of the list when future land use decisions are made because of the critical functions it performs.

What will be lost if it is destroyed? What can be gained if it is preserved?

The options for enhancing the green infrastructure across the region are numerous. Rain gardens can be built to improve water quality and reduce flooding.

Restored wetlands will capture and slow water movement and improve water quality as well as provide valuable wildlife habitat. Tree windbreaks will reduce residential heating and cooling costs. Swales can replace storm sewers. Natural surface material can replace asphalt on pathways.

A functional, lively, and sustainable green infrastructure in and around all Boundary communities is needed at a time when there is heightened concern about air quality, water quality, and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

When it comes time to invest in offsets to achieve a carbon neutral status in 2012, smart local and regional decision-makers will invest in regional green offsets rather than buying them somewhere else.

– Roy Ronaghan is a columnist for the Grand Forks Gazette