Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach

Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach

by Karen Firehock


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Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach by Karen Firehock

From New York City's urban forest and farmland in Virginia to the vast Sonoran Desert of Arizona and riverside parks in Vancouver, Washington, green infrastructure is becoming a priority for cities, counties, and states across America. Recognition of the need to manage our natural assets—trees, soils, water, and habitats—as part of our green infrastructure is vital to creating livable places and healthful landscapes. But the land management decisions about how to create plans, where to invest money, and how to get the most from these investments are complex, influenced by differing landscapes, goals, and stakeholders.

Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning addresses the nuts and bolts of planning and preserving natural assets at a variety of scales—from dense urban environments to scenic rural landscapes. A practical guide to creating effective and well-crafted plans and then implementing them, the book presents a six-step process developed and field-tested by the Green Infrastructure Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Well-organized chapters explain how each step, from setting goals to implementing opportunities, can be applied to a variety of scenarios, customizable to the reader's target geographical location. Chapters draw on a diverse group of case studies, from the arid open spaces of the Sonoran Desert to the streets of Jersey City. Abundant full color maps, photographs, and illustrations complement the text.

For planners, elected officials, developers, conservationists, and others interested in the creation and maintenance of open space lands and urban green infrastructure projects or promoting a healthy economy, this book offers a comprehensive yet flexible approach to conceiving, refining, and implementing successful projects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610916929
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 09/30/2015
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 10.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Karen Firehock is director and co-founder of the Green Infrastructure Center. She has more than twenty-five years of experience in planning and natural resources management, and is an adjunct lecturer in green infrastructure planning at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. She has won multiple awards for her planning work, including a Renew America Award for the Nation’s Best Water Protection Program, a National River Greenways Award, and State Conservationist of the Year award.

Read an Excerpt

Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach

By Karen Firehock, R. Andrew Walker


Copyright © 2015 Karen Firehock
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-692-9



The Natural Assets That Sustain Us Including:

• Forests

• Water Resources: Rivers, Wetlands, Lakes, Estuaries, Aquifers

• Soils That Support Agriculture

• Unique Geologic Features and Landscape Forms

CHAPTER 1 - Green Infrastructure

Chapter One provides a rationale for why we need to think of environmental resources as 'green infrastructure.' It includes a definition, explanation and short history of the term 'green infrastructure,' along with basic ecological concepts and the reasons for undertaking an inventory of natural assets to create a green infrastructure network.


Thinking about environmental resources as 'green infrastructure' is a way to recognize that they have value to people. Unfortunately, many of us take natural resources for granted, even though they sustain our very existence. Without clean air, water and agricultural soils, we could not survive. How we manage our landscape directly translates into whether we have the high-quality air, water and nutrients to keep us healthy.

In addition, these natural resources are valuable to us in social terms – terms that are difficult to quantify, but include the social and emotional benefits provided by natural beauty and the open, unspoiled vistas that many of us appreciate. In short, they should be considered our 'green infrastructure.'

Thinking of natural resources as 'green infrastructure' helps us recognize that they provide life-sustaining functions, along with tangible economic and social benefits. It also emphasizes that these natural resources need to be connected as a network because they are interdependent and because connected landscapes allow species to recover and repopulate areas that may have been damaged by such disturbances as drought, forest fires, diseases and hurricanes.

"Green infrastructure (GI) planning is a strategic landscape approach to open space conservation, whereby local communities, landowners and organizations work together to identify, design and conserve their local land network, in order to maintain healthy ecological functioning."

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy which bludgeoned states in the mid-Atlantic, states are looking to restore and protect their 'green infrastructure.' New York and New Jersey, which suffered many billions of dollars of damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, are beginning to look towards green infrastructure as a way to mitigate risk and prevent damage.

In New York they are looking to replenish the marshes that once acted as natural storm surge protectors and restore the wetlands that once provided water filtration and flood control. Many scientific studies demonstrate that restoring 'natural infrastructure' can reduce significantly the damage from storm surges. "A 2007 study of New Jersey's wetlands, for example, estimated that freshwater wetlands saved the state $9.4 billion per year in filtrating and flood control costs, while its saltwater wetlands delivered $1.2 billion per year in protection. Hackensack, NJ – one of the hardest hit states in Hurricane Sandy – lost more than 75 percent of its wetlands between 1889 and 1995, according to the US Geological Survey" (Cassin 2012).


The recognition of the need to plan for conserving our natural assets has led to the field of green infrastructure (GI) planning, in which local communities, landowners and organizations work together to identify, design and conserve their local land network to maintain healthy ecological functioning. In short, it is an organizing construct that enables us to think about our natural resources as a critical part of our life support system. They are 'green' because they are part of the natural environment, and they are 'infrastructure' because they provide those basic services that we all need for healthful and restorative living.

Green infrastructure planning evaluates the types of natural and cultural resources available today and prioritizes those assets that are most important to us, or that best meet our current and future needs. In other words, a green infrastructure strategy includes the process of identifying, evaluating and prioritizing those areas we deem critical to preserving a healthy community for the future. Most importantly, we need to not only prioritize them; we need to implement actions to ensure their conservation over the long term.


To create a green infrastructure plan, you should follow these six steps:

Step 1. Set Goals:

What does your community or organization value? Determine which natural assets and functions are most important to you.

Step 2. Review Data:

What do you know or need to know, to map the values identified in Step 1?

Step 3. Make Asset Maps:

Map your community's highest-valued natural assets that contribute to a healthy ecology and also support cultural and economic values – Based on the goals established in Step 1 and data from Step 2.

Step 4. Assess Risks:

What assets are most at risk and what could be lost if no action is taken?

Step 5. Determine Opportunities:

Determine opportunities for protection or restoration. Based on those assets and risks you have identified; determine which ones could or should be restored or improved? And which need the attention soonest?

Step 6. Implement Opportunities:

Include your natural asset maps in both daily and long-range planning such as park planning, comprehensive planning and zoning, transportation planning, tourism development and economic planning.


During its field tests, the GIC identified six steps necessary to create a natural asset inventory and strategy. The following is a summary of those steps; they are explained in more detail in the following chapters.

STEP 1. Set Your Goals: What Does Your Community or Organization Value? Determine Which Natural Assets and Functions Are Most Important to You.

All GI planning efforts must start with the establishment of goals. What does your community or organization most value about your natural resources? Is it:

• Forests that provide clean air, water filtration, wildlife habitat or wood products?

• Recharge areas to replenish aquifers used for drinking water supplies?

• Water quality to support healthy fisheries?

• The landscape settings around historic landscapes and battlefields?

• Working farms?

• Nature based recreation, such as hiking trails and recreation areas?

• Landscape features, such as key views and vistas?

• Connections across the landscape for wildlife corridors?

STEP 2. Review Data: What Do You Know, or Need to Know, to Map the Values Identified In Step 1?

Once you have established your goals, it is time to assemble and review all the existing relevant data for your local area:

• Research existing studies and available data: What are their findings and are they relevant? Are the data accurate?

Examples of data include watershed plans, wildlife plans, open space plans, ecological inventories, groundwater studies and air studies.

• Determine what data are still needed if you are to implement your goals: If you are using a Geographic Information System (GIS), you will require data to be arranged spatially in digital layers, which can be analyzed by overlaying them to show patterns and priorities.

Examples of data that you might need to collect include stream buffers, watersheds, key agricultural soils, recreation routes, forested areas, historic structures and wetlands.

STEP 3. Make Asset Maps: Map Your Community's Highest-valued Ecological and Cultural Assets – Based On the Goals Established In Step 1 and Data From Step 2

Once you have assembled all the existing data and collected additional data to match your goals, it is time to create a natural asset map. This is not a map of all your natural resources, only those you rank as most important because they fulfill a key goal or are the most unique example of a community value. Depending on your goals, and what your community has valued as of high importance, your maps may include elements such as:

• Large intact forests that provide interior habitat for wildlife.

• Watersheds that provide municipal water supplies.

• Key geological features, such as unique rock outcrops or bluffs.

• High-quality agricultural soils that support farms and farming districts.

• Streams, rivers, wetlands and groundwater recharge areas.

• Nature-based recreational areas (for fishing, boating, hiking, biking, birding, etc).

• Tourist sites that depend on the landscape.

• Historic and cultural features (such as battlefields and historic landscapes).

• In urban areas: street trees, the tree canopy, parks and streams.

• Locations and routes for agritourism (such as pick-your-own fruit orchards and farms, wineries, honey producers, local beef, pork and chicken farms, and permanent vegetable stands).

• Scenic views (viewsheds) or routes through historic or cultural assets that should be protected.

STEP 4. Assess Risks: What Assets Are Most at Risk and What Could Be Lost If No Action Is Taken?

Once you have created your natural assets map, it is time to assess those assets most at risk:

• Which areas are zoned for development and do they overlap key natural assets?

• Where are new roads or subdivisions planned – will they fragment key assets?

• Which steams are impaired and need restoration or, which streams are in good condition but may decline in the future?

• Which historic structures are in danger of destruction if no action is taken?

• Are there impaired areas where habitat can be restored?

• What viewsheds are threatened?

• Is any mining, drilling or quarrying planned for your region that might affect air or water quality?

• Which assets are most impacted by present zoning and currently planned developments?

STEP 5. Determine Opportunities: Determine Opportunities for Protection or Restoration. Based on Those Assets and Risks You Have Identified; Determine Which Ones Could or Should Be Restored or Improved? And Which Need the Attention Soonest?

• Which forests or woodlands that are most threatened, or that offer the most value for forestry, recreation and wildlife habitat, are at risk? Specify why.

• Which historical structures are most important and most under threat? Again, specify why.

• Which recreational areas are of most value and are most threatened? (Perhaps an important hunting area is threatened by a new housing development, or is zoned for industrial purposes, or a trout steam is at risk of pollution from expanded land development and runoff.)

• Explore the extent to which current zoning adequately addresses your county's or region's land assets.

• Where should towns or developments be located in the future, so as to allow retention of key resources or to take advantage of access to outdoor recreation?

• Where are new roads or transportation projects likely to impact your assets – should those projects be modified to minimize or prevent impacts?

STEP 6. Implement Opportunities: Include Your Natural Asset Maps in Both Daily and Long-Range Planning

Based on how you have ranked the key natural assets in your area, and which assets are at risk, you may need to implement projects or policies or make changes in local laws, zoning and comprehensive plans to ensure that the priorities you have outlined are achieved. Here are some examples of questions to consider:

• Given your rankings of your landscape's top natural assets, where should towns or developments be located in the future?

• Should zoning or the comprehensive plan be changed to better conserve high-priority assets?

• How can the key forests, farms and waterways you have identified be preserved?

• Should funding be sought to acquire development rights?

• Should there be a landowner education program to encourage voluntary conservation action?

• Could the area's natural assets be utilized in marketing campaigns to expand tourism or attract new businesses?

• Can highly-ranked natural assets be used to prioritize locations for future parks?

• What further data need to be collected, in order to monitor future changes and threats to the area?

• How can local communities, businesses and farmers be best involved in your green infrastructure plan?

• Determine areas important for growth and development, as well as for conservation.


To create a green infrastructure strategy, you need to:

• Determine which natural assets and functions are most important to your community.

• Make an inventory of the location and extent of your natural assets and determine which are of the highest quality and how they are (or could be) connected.

• Identify opportunities for the protection or restoration of these highest-quality assets.

• Develop a coordinated strategy to channel development and redevelopment to the most appropriate locations.


The following are examples of how you can think of natural resources as assets within a green infrastructure planning effort.

Forests and Wildlife Habitats

Forests play a key role in the water cycle, helping to evapotranspire water into the atmosphere while slowing overland runoff and providing better infiltration of rain into underground aquifers. New York City relies on the vast forests of upstate New York to filter its drinking water and provide some of the cleanest water in the country to its five boroughs. This slowing and storage of runoff water also reduces flooding, since water is released much more slowly from forested landscapes to surface waters than from open fields or impervious areas, such as parking lots.

A forest is not only its trees but also includes the structures and assemblages of forest soils, accumulated leaf litter – also known as the 'duff' layer – soil microbes, fungi and the myriad habitat niches provided by over-story and understory trees, shrubs and plants (e.g. herbaceous plants and vines).

Forest cover is the most effective land cover type for reducing runoff pollutants. Tree canopy breaks the energy of rain drops, while the duff layer of the forest floor acts like a sponge, soaking up water, reducing the velocity of overland runoff and breaking down pollutants. In addition, forests absorb air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, sequester carbon (which helps to abate climate change impacts) and produce oxygen.

Forests also provide habitat for wildlife. Larger forests can support a greater diversity of habitat types and thus more wildlife diversity. In general, the larger an intact forested area, the more likely it is to support a greater diversity of species. In order to support a diversity of wildlife, plant and insect species, a good rule-of-thumb for the size of a forest in the eastern U.S. is a minimum interior size of 100 acres made up of native tree species (e.g. not a pine plantation, but a natural forest with a diversity of tree species). In the semi-arid and mountainous regions of the western and southwestern U.S., a much larger area is needed to support many native forest species. Consult your state's Natural Heritage Program or wildlife department to determine a good minimum size of forest to support a high diversity of native species in your locality.

Alternatively, some regions may recognize the value of non-forested areas as functioning ecosystems and habitat for viable suites of plant and animal species. For example, throughout the midwest, only minute remnants of native prairie remain, relative to pre-European settlement. As a result, conservation priorities in these regions are focused on preserving those patches that remain and on finding opportunities to restore native vegetation assemblages. In parts of the country, marshland and open water are the preservation priorities, and not forests, which may actually be encroaching on those areas. Natural resource agencies in your region can provide guidance on the priorities for your locale and the minimum size requirements for such areas.

Trees Within the Built Environment

Natural resources are not just found in wild and rural areas. They also protect and enhance our urban life. Street trees and woodlots keep cities cooler, reduce air-conditioning costs, absorb stormwater and provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. They also provide habitat values for people by producing oxygen and absorbing pollutants. Within new subdivisions, yard trees increase property values and wooded lots are advertised as an amenity.


Excerpted from Strategic Green Infrastructure Planning: A Multi-Scale Approach by Karen Firehock, R. Andrew Walker. Copyright © 2015 Karen Firehock. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Green Infrastructure Overview
Chapter 2. The Need to Evaluate and Map Natural Features
Chapter 3. Organize Your Initiative
Chapter 4. How to Identify, Evaluate, and Prioritize Natural Assets
Chapter 5. Case Studies from Region to Site
Chapter 6. National Case Studies
Chapter 7. Using Models and Spatial Data to Create Natural Asset Maps

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