Moving a municipality toward using more trees in stormwater management means untangling a complicated maze of codes, regulations, ordinances and standards. Some are promulgated by the municipality itself.
Your first step will be to inventory the various mechanisms your community uses to control development and protect its environment.
Listed below are some typical local plans, policies, and ordinances that influence where, how, and to what extent green infrastructure and trees can be used for stormwater management and other benefits.
Many practitioners have found that ground-up neighborhood development or redevelopment offers more opportunities to replace impervious surfaces with green infrastructure and trees. Strong tree preservation, low impact development, and open space ordinances can create vibrant neighborhoods with cost-effective green stormwater controls.
The comprehensive plan – yours may be called a general plan or master plan – is the foundation policy document for local governments. They’re called “comprehensive” because they address many different community concerns – from land use and transportation to school boundaries and public health. These kinds of plans help guide specific policy decisions for a decade or more.
- EPA provides comprehensive guidance to communities via their Green Infrastructure program.
- Small communities can follow a similar, though simpler, process and achieve the same goals.
- Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland are leaders in green infrastructure and fully integrate these practices into their comprehensive plans.
Stormwater, Water Quality and Watershed Plans
Because of federal and state requirements, your community most likely has adopted a stormwater management plan tied to reducing flooding, controlling polluted runoff, and meeting surface water quality requirements. Below are some examples:
- Large Maryland County adopts comprehensive stormwater plan, incorporating green infrastructure
- Georgia’s stormwater management manual emphasizes tree protection and mitigation on new and infill developments
- Design guidelines for low impact development
- EPA general guidance on stormwater management plans
Green Infrastructure Plans
The best begin with a comprehensive assessment of needs and wants, then proceed to lay out the case for why green infrastructure (including forestry) should be implemented, as well as its costs and benefits. They are all crafted with the best available science at the core. See how some communities have done it:
Commonly developed at the regional level, transportation plans can easily morph into green infrastructure plans. Why? Because streets and roadways constitute one of the largest segments of public space on which green infrastructure can be developed. Fully implemented, these “complete streets” deliver a multitude of benefits, from traffic safety to stormwater management and economic growth. Chicago’s green infrastructure policies and guidelines are built on this principle. Advancing “complete streets” is a major focus for Smart Growth America. The challenge to planners: make “complete streets” also serve as “green streets.”
Many communities – large and small – have developed multi-dimensional sustainability plans. Virtually all embrace protecting and enhancing the natural resources that make urban spaces livable. For a summary of success stories (and guidance on how to make it happen in your own community), check out the STAR Community Index. The Sustainable Communities Partnership knits together programs from three federal agencies (HUD, EPA and DOT) so select communities can create comprehensive sustainability plans. Examples below:
- Federal government agencies create partnership for sustainability
- Lessons learned from EPA’s assistance programs
Delta Institute has compiled an assessment of the strength of sustainability plans.
The most useful watershed plans transcend urban and rural boundaries. Viewing the watershed as a whole (i.e. “everybody lives downstream from somebody else”) enables planners to evaluate the impact of site-specific interventions, including urban forests.
Though often constrained by state BMP manuals and other state or federal rules, modifying your stormwater ordinances to incorporate trees and other forms of green infrastructure may be the most direct route to achieving your goal. Consult other communities’ ordinances to guide revisions to your own. Many different sample ordinances offer guidance.
Zoning, Development, Site and Subdivision Design Ordinances
Whichever of these regulatory approaches one chooses, by applying low-impact design principles, communities can exercise significant influence on the extent of impervious cover in new developments and the practices required to manage on-site stormwater.
- Design guidelines for low impact development
- Texas guidelines for low impact development
- Puget Sound guidelines
- Tools for local planning boards and councils in smaller communities
- TetraTech created a checklist to identify gaps in local ordinances
- Camden determines whether ordinances advance or retard green infrastructure initiative
- Watershed-level review in Michigan identifies barriers and suggests changes to local ordinances
Urban Forestry Master Plan
Dozens of cities have created these plans – some simple, some complex and comprehensive. The best of these plans are built from the ground up by a broad cross-section of stakeholders, and by multiple agencies. They’re designed to assure all the benefits of healthy urban forests are distributed equitably, and for optimum impact across the community. Stormwater management is, or should be, a component of an urban forestry master plan. Pittsburgh’s Urban Forest Master Plan covers all the bases.
Tree Protection Ordinance
Tree protection ordinances often reach beyond getting permission to cut trees on private lands. The most sophisticated ordinances set low impact development and subdivision standards, require mitigation for clearing trees, and offer incentives for conserving trees and open space.
Remember that federal and state rules, especially stormwater BMP manuals and road specifications, may seem to limit your opportunities. That doesn’t have to be the case! Check with the relevant state authorities; they’re likely to be as interested in going “green” as you are.
No one person will likely be familiar with all the plans and policies that influence land use and water quality in a single jurisdiction. Some, in fact, may have been adopted by other agencies altogether (including in your own municipality).