The Well Farm at Voris Field

Better Green Infrastructure Starts with Benefits-Driven Design

By Rose Jordan, Marketing Director

A version of this article originally appeared on MeetingoftheMinds.org.

“Peoria should be proud today. We’re standing on a piece of property that was vacant for a lot of years, and we’re seeing crops grow...” I’m in a crowd of nearly 100 community leaders and stakeholders; every single one of us is sweating with the heat index well over 100 degrees, but no one takes their eyes off the man framed by the City of Peoria and American flags. Peoria City Council Member Sid Ruckriegel gestures behind him at a large blue ribbon waiting to be cut, and beyond it, the shimmering leaves of a forest of young hybrid poplar trees and 100 raised garden beds overflowing with beautiful greens. He smiles and continues, “and we’re talking about them growing from stormwater.”

Everyone gathered knows the stakes. Peoria is one of nearly 800 U.S. cities whose infrastructure spills raw sewage to its waterways and must yield to regulations under the Clean Water Act or risk federal judicial action. Collectively we’re risking our precious water resources, but everyone is smiling and applauding today. Why? Because we know we’re looking at a prototype of the solution.

Urban watersheds: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

When it comes to urban watersheds, climate change can transform our most precious resource into a destructive force. And while hurricane season gets most of the press, there’s a year-round battle inland, where states in America’s heartland face historic flooding from increasingly frequent and intense storms. Urban flooding impacts everyone, but we know it hits low income communities hardest because they are more likely to:

  1. be located in areas prone to flooding,

  2. lack the resources to invest in flood preparation, and

  3. lack the resources to respond when floods do occur.

The ugly truth is that lower income communities are unable to invest in climate resilience and are rarely included in the funded solutions. The result? These communities are reliant on the public sector, which currently faces a crippling water infrastructure funding gap (according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we face a $105 billion funding shortfall between committed public funds and those needed to make critical water and wastewater infrastructure upgrades by 2025).

Compounding this issue is that fact that America’s water management infrastructure is outdated and centralized, which concentrates risk and makes systems easier to overwhelm, even during minor storms. How widespread is this issue? Today in the United States, 772 cities have obsolete combined sewer systems that collectively discharge an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year (that’s more than 1.3 million Olympic sized swimming pools, or--put another way--it’s how much water everyone in the U.S. will collectively drink over the next 50 years). And there are ripple effects: the ASCE estimates that unless this water and wastewater infrastructure funding gap is closed, America will lose $896 billion in business sales, $508 billion in GDP, and 489,000 jobs by 2025. Resource-constrained communities must prioritize critical water infrastructure updates, but they need a smarter solution.

A better infrastructure solution

Greenprint Partners defines green stormwater infrastructure as “the use of vibrant natural systems to manage water where it falls.” We believe it is the best tool for addressing stormwater, flooding, and water pollution problems because:

  1. It is cost effective (studies show an average of 60 percent cost savings compared to traditional “grey” infrastructure) making it a more viable option for resource-constrained cities,

  2. It creates stable jobs due to its long-term maintenance requirements, and

  3. It drives community health, safety, and prosperity, giving communities more value for every dollar invested.

However, in order to realize its potential, green infrastructure must be designed holistically in partnership with the community, delivered at scale, and maintained for the long-term. And that’s where Greenprint Partners comes in. We help cities achieve high-impact, community-driven stormwater solutions, leveraging private capital to accelerate and scale green infrastructure development in low-to-middle income communities. Several forward-thinking U.S. cities have realized the potential for green infrastructure to not only solve regulatory challenges, but also transform communities faced with urban blight, vacant properties, and economic decline, and I’m standing in one of them. Peoria isn’t the largest city investing in green infrastructure by a long shot (others include: Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, and Seattle) so why is it garnering so much attention? At The Well Farm Ribbon Cutting, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis’ reflections shed some light... “we’ve actually developed a 100% green solution for our [combined sewer overflow] issue...and it’s the first one in the country.”

If it plays in Peoria...

Kari Cohen, Director of the Conservation Innovation Team at USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), flew in from Washington D.C. to witness today’s ribbon cutting that wouldn’t have been possible without his Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG, is a federal program that stimulates the development and adoption of innovative approaches and technologies for conservation on agricultural lands). In 2016, NRCS awarded Greenprint Partners $1 million in CIG funds to install an urban agriculture and stormwater management project in Peoria. Stepping up to the mic, Kari’s eyes sweep the crowd, and he says with pride, “there are many people around the country watching this project who are interested in using it as a model...no one’s doing it quite like this.”

Scanning the site, I see what he means. The Well Farm features surprisingly few of the more common green infrastructure installations like tree trenches, rain gardens, and subsurface storage and infiltration. Here, stormwater water management features include:

  • a ‘stormwater forest’ with 126 hybrid poplar trees,

  • 100 agricultural raised beds tended by urban agriculture apprentices, and

  • a 3,000 square foot bioswale that grows flowers for sale at local farmers markets.

Together, these features capture runoff from a 1.55 acre area, preventing an estimated 1.3 million gallons of stormwater from entering Peoria’s combined sewer system each year.

But the differences go even deeper. As the ribbon cutting speeches continue, I’m struck by the sheer number of private sector experts, nonprofits, community volunteers, and government agencies that rallied resources to turn the vision into a reality. It includes everyone from the Mayor and members of City Council, to local urban agriculture nonprofit, The gitm Foundation, to the 20-member stakeholder advisory group representing residents of Peoria’s First District. At the center of the web of activity is April Mendez, Greenprint Partners’ co-founder and VP of programs. Recently asked what gets her up in the morning for a Delta Institute profile, April quipped, “coffee...and an inherent respect for the human spirit, not necessarily in that order.” It’s her authentic drive to help diverse communities blossom that led April to spearhead Greenprint Partners’ innovative “benefits-driven design” approach to green stormwater infrastructure.

Benefits-driven design

Greenprint Partners may be one of many organizations tackling stormwater challenges, but we do things a little bit differently. A certified B-Corporation and a women-owned business, Greenprint Partners is a mission-driven green stormwater infrastructure delivery partner. We make it easy for cities to build high-impact green infrastructure at scale and in partnership with their communities.

A key differentiator is our approach to benefits-driven design, and it’s based on our firm belief that green infrastructure must be designed holistically in partnership with the community. We approach every green infrastructure project with the goal to maximize social, economic, and environmental benefits during the design phase. This involves identifying the local community’s priorities, whether they be better health, a greater sense of safety, beautification, or other assets, and integrating them into green infrastructure designs. This requires deep upfront engagement with the local community (e.g., leading stakeholder working and advisory groups, deploying surveys, and hosting community workshops). And not only does it result in goodwill for the projects, but it’s also an investment in the long-term success of our projects. We find that community-driven designs are more likely to be protected by local neighbors who feel pride of authorship. The Well Farm is the perfect embodiment of benefits-driven design.

A “stormwater farm” is born

The idea to pursue an urban farm concept began with Greenprint Partners’ goal to pioneer green stormwater infrastructure solutions that maximize benefits to the local community, and engage residents in design, construction, and maintenance to ensure the long-term success of installations. Through our community engagement process, Greenprint Partners identified the First District community’s deep desire to increase access to fresh produce and create new jobs. This made the urban farm concept an ideal fit for the community.

The working urban farm, which produces locally grown flowers, food and timber, and provides youth internships and adult apprenticeships, offers a lush backdrop to the Ribbon Cutting ceremony. Raised beds are overflowing with thriving crops of kale, collard greens, and okra. When The gitm Foundation’s Dwayne Harris takes the mic, he explains that their Urban Agriculture Apprenticeship Program hosted here will take up to 20 participants each year to cultivate produce, cut flowers, and learn how to sell their products at local farmers markets. With a smile, he proudly states that his apprentices sold out of Well Farm-grown produce this morning at the Riverfront Farmers Market.

I snap a few final shots with my camera, of the stormwater forest, the raised beds, and bioswale that manage 1.3M gallons of stormwater each year. I turn my lens to the proud groups of Peorians gathered to celebrate their new asset and our mission statement flashes into my mind.

“Green infrastructure transforms communities. We partner with cities to deliver more, better, for all.”

Here in Peoria’s First District, we can say ‘mission accomplished.’

Now onto the next.