Is Green Infrastructure Doomed to Underinvestment, Just Like Our Grey Infrastructure?

July 7, 2016

Bioswale on Columbus street in Manhattan. Photo © Kevin Arnold

If you’ve seen the news, you’ve probably noticed that the United States’ infrastructure — roads, bridges, water pipes — is in crisis.

Persistent underinvestment means that the traditional “grey” infrastructure we do have is crumbling, and new infrastructure that our country needs isn’t getting built. Conservationists have been advocating lately for green infrastructure: trees, oyster reefs, wetlands and more that provide infrastructure and additional values. But how can we ensure that green infrastructure don’t see the same level of underinvestment?

The American Society of Civil Engineers routinely gives our transportation system a D grade. One in nine American bridges are considered structurally deficit. This woeful neglect of transportation infrastructure is true for other types of grey infrastructure as well. In total, there is a more than $3 trillion backlog of maintenance needed for American infrastructure of all types. Our water pipes are aging and cracking, our subway and train systems are falling apart, our electrical grid is obsolete and failing. And it isn’t just an American problem: most industrialized countries appear to be struggling to maintain the infrastructure they have.

There has been a lot of research into why countries seem to be under investing in grey infrastructure, relative to what would be optimal economically: even though there is clear evidence that investing more in, for example, fixing American roads would deliver more benefits to society than it would cost, we still don’t do it. Partly, it is a collective action problem — the benefit a road or a bridge provides is to everyone nearby, and we all have to have some agreed upon way to chip in to pay for this common good. Government is typically the solution to this collective action problem, but often governments desire to please people in the short-term with, for instance lower taxes outweighs their motivation to provide a common good like a functioning bridge a decade or two in the future.

The concept of green infrastructure is all the rage now in the conservation community. The idea is that trees and other vegetation provide important services that people need: shade on a hot day; slowing the movement of rainwater downhill, filtering it as it passes by; cleaner air as leaves removes toxins; aesthetic beauty that makes our lives better and our property more valuable. Green infrastructure is this marvelous thing that provides multiple benefits, and while sometimes the hype is too big, there really is solid science backing up the idea that these ecosystem services are crucial to people’s lives.

On August 1, 2007, the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. A tragic failure of a bridge that had been rated "structurally deficient." Photo © Tony Webster / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
On August 1, 2007, the Minneapolis I-35W Bridge suddenly collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145. A tragic failure of a bridge that had been rated “structurally deficient.” Photo © Tony Webster / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

Why is the conservation community so energetically promoting the concept of green infrastructure? At least partially, it is in the hope that once people know the value of this “green infrastructure”, they will pay to protect the natural habitats that remain and perhaps even recreate more natural habitat. After all, it is economically rational to invest in something that is providing you a service: any cost for maintaining or creating the green infrastructure could be outweighed by the benefits provided by the green infrastructure.

The problem is that green infrastructure, just like grey infrastructure, requires investment. It takes money to protect natural habitat that prevents erosion into a drinking reservoir. It takes money to create green infrastructure like the constructed wetlands and sidewalk bioswales that many cities are using to control stormwater. And green infrastructure, just like grey infrastructure, requires money to be maintained. Sometimes the maintenance costs are limited for some natural habitats — a forest preserve might only require occasional thinning and then small costs to maintain the preserve. But for other types of green infrastructure, like those that control stormwater, the costs are more significant — bioswales require periodic weeding, occasional removal of trash, and annual work to keep them draining properly.

So is green infrastructure doomed to chronic underinvestment, like grey infrastructure? At the very least, we need to learn some lessons from engineers and advocates for grey infrastructure: knowledge of something’s value does not always, or even often, lead to its adequate provision. A strong, robust societal commitment is needed to invest in creating and maintaining infrastructure, whether green or grey, a willingness to collectively commit resources now for future benefit.

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  1. Perfect opportunity for job growth in urban areas-there are some programs already training young people to maintain green infrastructure such as curbside rainwater gardens etc.

  2. We live in the mountains of western North Carolina near Balsam Grove a remote area that is home to PARI and CCC camp of Pisgah forest that was established in the late ’30’s. I find it interesting that such a small community has so much history and not to mention located out in the middle of nowhere. The forest is in a way our infrastructure and I look at what is happening in the cities and wonder if anyone is paying attention ? The pandemic has everyone yearning for things to return to normal but the old normal is the problem, money and the lust for power is destroying the planet, living out in the mountains makes one appreciate nature and hope that the rest of the world wakes up before it’s too late.