Scaling Up: Integrating Green Infrastructure into Existing Processes

Green infrastructure in this toolkit includes strategies to manage stormwater, reduce urban heat island effects, improve air quality, and promote economic development and other sustainability goals.  Green infrastructure provides an attractive alternative and complement to traditional concrete (or “gray”) infrastructure by making paved and hard surfaces vegetated or permeable. Permeable pavements and green roofs both capture rainfall and retain it on site, keeping it out of the stormwater system, and can also provide wildlife habitat and greenhouse gas reduction benefits.See footnote 1  Climate change will exacerbate stormwater runoff problems in many places due to more intense storms that could overwhelm existing infrastructure systems; green infrastructure, when installed at a larger scale and in combination with gray infrastructure, can help to manage those more intense storms.  

While many local governments begin experimenting with green infrastructure practices through pilot or demonstration projects, in order for green infrastructure to have a substantial impact on managing stormwater, it must be constructed and installed on a much larger scale. Therefore, local governments are increasingly incorporating green infrastructure practices into their existing laws, policies, plans, and processes, so that its implementation can be more systematic.

 This chapter investigates legal tools designed to integrate green infrastructure into:

  • planning tools (including green infrastructure-specific plans and comprehensive plans),
  • regulatory tools (including zoning and building codes and stormwater ordinances),
  • incentive-based tools (including grants, subsidies, and stormwater fee adjustments), and
  • government operations (efforts involving public infrastructure, land, or facilities).

These tools vary in their ability to reach new construction versus existing development and in reaching public versus private property. Effective green infrastructure programs leverage multiple tools to encourage or require green infrastructure.See footnote 2  As such, it is prudent to consider each set of tools alongside the others and craft an implementation approach that incorporates many of the tools discussed in this chapter. Similarly, many of these approaches deliberately build off of pilot programs that carefully monitored demonstration projects for effectiveness in managing runoff, reducing nutrient pollution, reducing urban temperatures, and other factors. Many are therefore beginning to “scale up” with rigorous data on the effectiveness of individual projects, and are continuing to monitor on a larger scale for cumulative effectiveness.


Different types of tools can achieve different goals and will face different challenges in enactment and implementation. The following chart compares the types of tools local governments can use to integrate green infrastructure practices into their existing systems along four sets of criteria.See footnote 3 

New vs. Existing Development:  some tools are better suited for incorporating green infrastructure into new development – these largely include tools that involve permitting or governmental review of some kind such as zoning. Others might also be able to influence installation on existing development – these tools would more often involve incentive-based approaches than regulatory approaches.

Public vs. Private Property: some tools will more effectively influence design and construction on private property, and others on publicly-owned land such as in the public right-of-way or surrounding public buildings. Government operations tools clearly will most directly affect public property and facilities, while regulatory tools will mainly influence private property. Some tools will be able to impact both types.

Administrative: some tools will require higher levels of organization, coordination across agencies, and participation from residents or other private actors to be successful. Because most local governments are starting from some kind of existing program, they must consider how current policies fit with their adaptation and other goals. The “Administrative” criterion captures how complex each tool is along these dimensions.

Legal: Local governments will need to consider which tools fall within the authority that agencies already possess and which may require further granting of authority from either the local legislative body or the state legislature. In addition, certain methods or tools could conflict with current state or local law. To improve current laws, governments can consider consolidating the laws on a particular topic or revising existing ordinances to better enable green infrastructure practices to become regular practice in that jurisdiction. We have attempted here to identify potential legal obstacles for each local government to consider.

The following table compares the types of policy tools that the rest of the chapter describes in order to provide a starting place for local governments to begin to make their own decisions about how to integrate green infrastructure into their own systems and usual processes. It is not a sufficient guide to the intricacies of every potential cost and benefit, nor does it answer specific questions about each jurisdiction’s local law, politics, and geography. Each of the sections of this chapter will explores the methods in more detail, including evaluation of how local governments might implement each one.

Planning Tools

Local governments are increasingly creating plans for their green infrastructure programs and incorporating green infrastructure into other planning documents such as comprehensive plans and general resilience plans. Incorporating green infrastructure goals and practices into those plans can shape local governments’ interventions to be as highly effective and strategic as possible, instead of installing green infrastructure on a more ad-hoc basis.

Green Infrastructure-specific plans

Because green infrastructure can involve so many different agencies, partners, and funding streams, some local governments have created green infrastructure-specific plans to coordinate all of those moving pieces. These green infrastructure plans can accomplish several purposes including prioritizing particular neighborhoods or types of locations (such as streetscapes or parking lots), setting goals for research or monitoring of installations, clarifying relationships among partners, and calling for policy changes to support green infrastructure investments.

Because green infrastructure-specific plans are not regulatory, they can influence behavior for both new and existing development and can affect decision-making on both public and private land. Hoboken, NJ has created a green infrastructure-specific plan that lays out the target neighborhoods and even individual parcels for green infrastructure installation. Because these plans are not regulatory, however, they may need changes in law to implement their recommendations. Hoboken’s plan identifies the zoning changes that would need to happen to generate more green infrastructure on private property.

Comprehensive plans

Local governments use comprehensive plans to set policy and to plan the direction of their communities for years to come. In some localities, a larger jurisdiction such as a county might create the comprehensive plan, which then would guide the zoning codes set by the municipalities in that county. By incorporating requirements for green infrastructure into its comprehensive plan, a local government can thus require or encourage the use of green infrastructure through requirements or incentives in the zoning code for various types of land uses.

Because comprehensive plans shape future changes in zoning codes, they can directly cause green infrastructure to be required for new development and on private property. However, changes to the zoning code generally must happen for the comprehensive plan to be effective in changing construction and development; this can be a long and burdensome process for small local governments, and developers may resist additional requirements.

Different types of planning tools can achieve different goals and will face different challenges in enactment and implementation. The following chart compares green infrastructure-specific plans and comprehensive plans along four sets of criteria, following the discussion of each type of planning tool above.See footnote 4 


Regulatory Tools

Regulatory tools include requirements set in zoning or building codes or stormwater retention ordinances, mandating action by private property owners. In many jurisdictions, stormwater retention ordinances establish retention requirements and then lay the foundation for other regulations that mandate green infrastructure as a specific set of practices to meet those retention requirements.

Regulatory tools, because of their inherent nature as requirements (as opposed to options or incentives), get surer results than programs that rely solely on capital improvement projects on publicly owned lands or voluntary measures for private land.  Private property owners must meet regulatory requirements to obtain a permit and, therefore, they must change their landscaping and building practices to comply. As a result, regulatory approaches may result in some political pushback. Many of the regulatory tools below may be more palatable to local developers if some flexibility is built into the system. For example, Seattle’s stormwater ordinance allows some retention offsite if retention is not practical onsite,See footnote 5  while the District of Columbia’s ordinance allows for payment of a fee or purchase of stormwater credits as alternative methods of meeting its retention obligation.

Last, because of the nature of regulatory requirements as things mandated in laws such as zoning codes or other ordinances, many of these strategies may require legal changes to incorporate those requirements into that particular legal framework. These legal changes can be administratively complicated and time-consuming.

Zoning Codes

Zoning codes can create green infrastructure requirements for new construction and sometimes substantial renovations. Zoning codes are particularly suited to tailoring those requirements to particular land uses such as industrial, residential, etc, and for addressing the entire site under development, including landscaping (in contrast to building codes, which generally focus more specifically on the buildings. Zoning requirements can either set retention requirements that property owners can meet by choosing green infrastructure practices themselves, or can enumerate particular green infrastructure practices that qualify to meet the regulatory requirement. Each local government will need to look at the authority given by its state government to enact zoning regulations in order to determine how strong that local government can make green infrastructure requirements.

Building Codes

Building Codes can similarly create green infrastructure requirements for new construction and sometimes substantial renovations. In contrast to zoning codes, however, building codes are particularly suited to tailoring requirements to particular building types regardless of the use – for example, single-family residential, office buildings, etc.  Different states grant different authority to local governments for building codes; some states require local building codes to conform to state standards, while other states give local governments wide latitude to create their own standards.See footnote 6 Each local government will need to look at the authority its state government has given it over building codes in order to determine how strong that local government can make green infrastructure requirements.

Stormwater Ordinances

Stormwater Ordinances can directly require green infrastructure practices, as Binghamton, NY’s, ordinance does, or can serve as a foundational regulation to encourage green infrastructure to meet retention requirements. Stormwater ordinances can link these practices to reductions in stormwater fees (see incentive-based approaches), or can simply require retention and/or green infrastructure practices. Like zoning and building codes, stormwater ordinances best reach new construction projects, although they can impact existing buildings when those buildings are undergoing substantial renovation. Unlike state-level authorizing statutes for zoning and building codes, authority delegated to local governments to enact stormwater ordinances can be found in any of several sources, including authority to enact zoning codes, erosion control ordinances, and subdivision regulations.


Incentive-Based Tools

While mandates are the most certain method to change behavior, both financial and development incentives for green infrastructure can be important tools as well. Both types of incentives can stand alone or can accompany mandates; unlike mandates, incentives can influence stormwater management practices on property that is not otherwise subject to zoning or building code requirements (i.e., existing development not planned for renovation). They therefore can be a critical tool for highly-developed municipalities to spur change on private property.

Financial incentives

Financial incentives such as subsidies, grants, and rebates can make the initial capital costs needed to install green infrastructure seem less daunting to private property owners, while tax incentives can reduce costs to property owners over time. Both strategies require the local government’s having funds available, although tax incentives involve foregone revenue more than direct expenditure. Developing a financial incentive strategy may also require local governments to choose between subsidizing many properties with small amounts of money, or few properties with larger amount of money. Local governments may also want to consider whether to take a “first-come, first-serve” approach to those subsidies, or to be strategic about targeting funds to particular watersheds, neighborhoods, or land-use types that are the highest priority (for example, areas with greater urban heat islands or with high percetages of vulnerable residents). Local governments wishing to use tax incentives will need to look at their taxing authority to determine whether tax incentives are a viable option for them. City or county governments can look to the breadth of the tax authority delegated to them, and other types of governments (i.e., water utilities or regional governments) will need to assess whether they have the authority to tax at all. 

Development incentives

Development incentives such as expedited permitting are likely to make a difference only for large development projects, but those projects may have the most potential for intensive green infrastructure installation, due to their higher acreage. The effectiveness of development incentives may also depend on the amount of new development happening in that jurisdiction in the first place; smaller urban areas with less development are likely to see less change from development incentives.

Government Operations

Unlike regulatory and incentive-based tools designed to influence private landowners, local governments have much greater discretion and control over municipal operations. Green infrastructure can be incorporated into processes and plans governing public land, such as street design standards governing road construction, capital planning processes guiding public investment, and facilities management governing construction of public buildings and on public land outside of the streetscape such as parks or recreational areas. By investing public dollars in green infrastructure, local governments can achieve multiple goals simultaneously, from managing stormwater to reducing temperatures and improving water quality.

Street Design Standards

Street Design Standards allow local governments to provide clear direction for employees and contractors who may be installing green infrastructure in rights-of-way along roadways. Street design standards allow green infrastructure to be built to a consistent standard, and to a standard that is well-suited for that particular locality’s soil type, traffic priorities, and drainage systems. These design standards may require time and effort to develop, and will require data from monitoring of pilot programs to ensure effectiveness.See footnote 7  Street designs that incorporate street trees should develop protocols for ongoing maintenance of trees, particularly in areas anticipating increased temperatures and/or drought.

Capital Planning Processes

Capital planning governs how local governments invest their funds in infrastructure and facilities over time. Local governments are beginning to incorporate green infrastructure into those capital plans, enabling green infrastructure to be funded by the bonds that generally support capital investments. 

Facilities Management

Facilities management is the term for the methods that local governments use to guide construction of public buildings and construction on public land outside of the streetscape such as parks or recreational areas. Local governments are now incorporating green infrastructure practices into the management and retrofitting of public properties in order to manage stormwater, increase energy efficiency, and improve water quality. The most innovative local governments are strategically choosing government facilities to get the most “bang for the buck,” as in the District of Columbia’s Smart Roofs Program, and are ensuring that green infrastructure investments benefit low-income and overburdened communities within their localities.


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