Green Infrastructure: An Evolution of City Building

For centuries, cities have found remarkable and innovative methods of utilizing nature for man’s advantage. From animal waste recycling in 19th century Brooklyn to landfill-powered generators today, ecological resources don’t just need protecting in the modern day, they might just be what drives the future of urban sustainability through green infrastructure.

green infrastructure illustrated
Image by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

Green Infrastructure is the idea of using natural, ecological processes to provide functional use to modern cities. An abundance of people in a concentrated area creates its own issues and difficulties that have to be addressed. Often, through the pursuit of quality of life for its citizens, cities often throw environmental health by the wayside. However, it could be many of those same environmental resources that can help us build more modern and sustainable urban centers.


In the mid to late 1800s, city centers were dealing with many of the same problems with which we struggle today. Pollution reduction, water conservation, and class conflict were a focus of city leaders then and now. However, perhaps above any of these problems in the 19th century was the issue of waste removal. In the 19th century city, organized waste removal was almost non-existent. Garbage from citizens riddled the streets. Interestingly, this actually created rather unique opportunities for lower class residents. Waste became so abundant that it became common place for feral pigs and other animals to roam the downtown streets of even the biggest cities. However, citizens (particularly the lower class) praised their presence. The streets of New York City became natural commons that allowed a low-income family to walk out their front door and be able to grab a meal out from under its feet.

Populations of pigs would migrate through the streets, scavenging refuse left by the citizens on the street. This allowed poorer citizens a free source of red-meat. However, after urban health issues were thrust into the national conversation, many cities started removing feral animals en masse. This was met with heavy disapproval from lower income families due to their reliance on the animals as a food staple in their diet.

Though urban hunting of feral animals hardly constitutes an institutional use ecological resources, animals provided many more traditional services for developing cities in the 19th century. Animal transportation was widely utilized at the time for day to day transit. From stagecoaches to omnibuses, horse and ox-drawn vehicles provided essential mobility to urban-dwellers of the day. The presence of these animals had unintended consequences, both good and bad.

Transit animals leave large amounts of manure on streets that require constant removal. Though, on the surface this represented a maintenance challenge for city leaders, it presented a unique opportunity for local. Brooklyn, NY was able to bolster arable farmland with fertilizer collected on urban streets. This allowed for fresh and more widely available produce for the masses without the need for long transportation from farmland outside the city limits.

At the same time, this process reduced the amount of raw nutrients that otherwise flowed unfiltered into local waterways. This allowed local food production to increase while limiting the negative affects on the health of local waterways.


Modern day green infrastructure uses similar hydrological and geological concepts from early, developing cities. The difference is, modern city leaders focus on instilling these natural processes while maintaining functions of the current infrastructure. This often calls for either retro-engineering or structural re-design. The increased use of green infrastructure (seen here) results in better managed stormwater and wastewater supplies within an urban environment. It could also reduce and ultimately eliminate the use of grey infrastructure (man-made, non-ecological) and negative environmental effects associated with it. Though many of the same environmental concerns remain from the 19th century, modern issues sought to be alleviated through green infrastructure. These include localized urban heating, point/nonpoint water pollution, and the loss of natural areas from the increasing development associated with urban sprawl.

These new green infrastructure practices deal heavily with capturing and filtering stormwater. Current infrastructure is based heavily around ‘grey’ practices that are energy intensive and focus on redirection of water through concrete piping and treatment plants. Rather than continuing the ecological flow back into the local environment, this practice works to physically control the flow of water and waste through our cities and suburbs. It often results in contaminated water being disbursed back into the local streams, rivers and lakes.

A core tenant of modern green infrastructure is replicating existing natural processes that filter and cycle resources biologically and for growth, rather than degradation. Green roofs, permeable pavement, bioswales, and constructed wetlands are examples of leading efforts that cities are starting to make to manage stormwater without inhibiting water quality. Allowing water to be filtered through native plants and soils allows for the landscape to process nutrients at a much more ecological rate. It also often increases the quality of life for residents.

green infrastructure infographic
Infographic by Jesse Howe and Andy Thies

Green infrastructure can be used as a staple for urban planners when developing new suburban areas. Lenexa, KS (suburb of Kansas City, MO) has designed its Parks and Recreation department alongside the stormwater infrastructure throughout the planned city area. Connected networks of streams, ponds and rivers are used as a blueprint with which to design trails and parks. Trails follow the streams that flow throughout Lenexa’s watershed into existing bodies of water. These reservoirs become anchors of larger parks and neighborhoods. The idea is titled “Rain to Recreation” and has been the focus for Lenexa city leaders. Parks are designed to be more than just a source of outdoor recreation, but to be a living piece of infrastructure that is used by residents in multiple ways on a daily basis.


New, innovative ideas for green infrastructure are emerging each day as technology and communication drive toward a more sustainable future. One idea in particular may prove to be a game-changer: locally gathered energy. Today, this can be seen with the installation of wind and solar farms powering small towns and geothermal energy used to heat individual homes. But one of the biggest sources of energy has yet to be harnessed: humans.

No, not like the matrix. New green infrastructure ideas are looking towards transforming human waste into something productive. Whereas our urban predecessors of the 19th century pursued a similar concept through animal waste, civil engineers of tomorrow may be on the way to effectively utilizing one of the more unpleasant outcomes of dense human populations. Lucid Energy, a Portland hydrokinetics company, has developed wastewater and storm drainage pipes that generate electricity from waste transport. Integrated with internal turbines, the system gathers energy from the flow of water within gravity-fed pipes. The “Water to Wire” product will allow cities to retrofit these pipes into existing sewer structures to then generate power back into the local grid.

Another example waste conversion into usable energy comes from a waste management facility in Arlington WA, a suburb of Seattle. Instead of old waste management practices of throwing refuse into a localized area, the Crimson Ridge facility is gathering all biodegradable products and allowing it to decompose naturally, creating methane gas. Instead of releasing the gas into the atmosphere or otherwise trap and contain it, the company is able to use it as a fuel source for generating electricity. As of 2014 the facility was able to generate 12.8 megawatts annually. which is enough to power roughly 13,000 homes.

These new green infrastructure projects are driving innovators towards more advanced and intuitive ecological engineering solution for unique landscapes. Though many of the concepts remain unchanged from the early days of urban development, future green infrastructure may change the very fabric of future city life. Urban infrastructure is designed to be a physical and functional testament of time. With an ever evolving history, our infrastructure is a physical representation of our progress in design and engineering as humans. Through green infrastructure, not only can we push toward a more modernized and sustainable future, but happier lives for residents in towns and cities across the globe.

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