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Smart Growth

Smart Growth and Water

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Development affects both the quantity and quality of water by changing the natural flow of stormwater runoff in a watershed. When rain hits impervious surfaces such as roofs, streets, and parking lots, it flows off in large quantities, carrying pollutants it picks up from the surfaces. The runoff's increased quantity and speed erode stream channels and destabilize their banks, while pollutants harm plants and wildlife in rivers, streams, and bays. Additionally, increased runoff can cause water treatment plants to overflow, releasing untreated sewage into water bodies.

Communities and developers can reduce runoff quantity, protect water quality, and conserve water by developing compactly, preserving ecologically critical open space, and using green infrastructure strategies.

  • Compact development generates less stormwater runoff per unit of development because it creates less impervious surface. It can also conserve drinking water because it requires shorter pipes to serve a community, which reduces the amount of water lost to leaks.
  • Directing development to existing communities can help reduce the pressure to develop on open space that might have valuable ecological functions such as buffering a water body.
  • Green infrastructure techniques, such as rain gardens, permeable soils or pavements, and green roofs, mimic natural processes to capture stormwater, slow it down, absorb some of it into the ground, and filter out pollutants before releasing the remaining runoff to storm sewers or waterways. Other elements such as rain barrels and cisterns can store runoff for nonpotable uses such as irrigation, which helps conserve drinking water. In addition to protecting water quality, these green infrastructure practices can make streets and buildings more attractive and reduce ambient air temperatures.

These strategies can help regions, states, and communities cope with climate change impacts and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Many regions will see heavier rainfalls, more drought, and increased flooding. Smart growth strategies can help communities accommodate development in safer areas, integrate green infrastructure into streets and neighborhoods to reduce stormwater runoff, and use water more efficiently.

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EPA Resources

National Award for Smart Growth Achievement Winners

The National Award for Smart Growth Achievement recognizes exemplary smart growth projects across the country. Many of the winning projects used various strategies, including compact development, green building, and green infrastructure, to reduce stormwater runoff, improve water quality, and use water more efficiently. Projects that are particularly focused on water include:

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Stormwater Management and Green Infrastructure

City Green: Innovative Green Infrastructure Solutions for Downtowns and Infill Locations (2016): Case studies of projects around the country that illustrate how green infrastructure techniques can be used on sites that have limited space and other constraints to bring environmental and community benefits.

Reports from Greening America's Communities/Greening America's Capitals projects provide useful models for communities that want to implement green infrastructure to help revitalize neighborhoods. Lessons from Greening America's Capitals Projects (2013) describes five lessons from the first two rounds of projects that can help all communities incorporate green design strategies into their planning and development.  (This publication is available in the EPA Archive. Click on SEARCH EPA ARCHIVE and type or copy and paste the title into the search box.)

Enhancing Sustainable Communities With Green Infrastructure (2014): Guide to help communities integrate green infrastructure and sustainable communities strategies to plan and design green infrastructure for multiple environmental, health, economic, and social benefits.

Managing Vacant and Abandoned Property in the Green Zone of Saginaw, Michigan (2014): Report from a technical assistance project with the city of Saginaw, Michigan, to develop a land use and infrastructure strategy that stabilizes neighborhoods through the sustainable reuse of abandoned properties, supports redevelopment of abandoned properties as green infrastructure, and creates opportunities for long-term economic growth.

Stormwater Management Handbook: Implementing Green Infrastructure in Northern Kentucky Communities (2009): Report on the EPA technical assistance project to help Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky explore development options, including green infrastructure, that protect water quality and improve communities.

Using Smart Growth Techniques as Stormwater Best Management Practices (2005): Reviews nine common smart growth techniques and examines how they can be used to prevent or manage stormwater runoff.

Protecting Water Quality With Smart Growth Strategies and Natural Stormwater Management in Sussex County, Delaware (2009): Report on the EPA-NOAA technical assistance project to help Sussex County, Delaware, better protect water quality as the county grows using green infrastructure and other solutions. (This publication is available in the EPA Archive. Click on SEARCH EPA ARCHIVE and type or copy and paste the title into the search box.)

How Can Wells Grow and Protect Depot Brook? (2007): Report on the EPA-NOAA technical assistance project to help the town of Wells, Maine, find options for development that protect Depot Brook. (This publication is available in the EPA Archive. Click on SEARCH EPA ARCHIVE and type or copy and paste the title into the search box.)

Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

The following publications are available in the EPA Archive. Click on SEARCH EPA ARCHIVE and type or copy and paste the title into the search box.

  • Long-term Planning for Sustainable Water and Wastewater Infrastructure in Wellpinit, Washington, for the Spokane Tribe of Indians (2013): Report from a technical assistance project with the Spokane Tribe of Indians to evaluate the tribe’s water and wastewater needs, identify actions to improve the systems’ capacity for new development, and help ensure successful long-term operation of the infrastructure.
  • Opportunities to Advance Sustainability in California's Clean Water State Revolving Fund Program (2012): Report by EPA's Office of Water and Office of Sustainable Communities on a pilot project to help the state direct resources to projects that support sustainable communities.
  • Maryland Clean Water State Revolving Fund Sustainable Communities Pilot Project Report (2012): Report on how EPA worked with Maryland's Clean Water State Revolving Fund program to consider ways to focus resources in existing communities and infrastructure systems to leverage past investments and support sustainable communities.

Water Conservation

Sustainable Design and Green Building Toolkit for Local Governments (2013): Addresses the local codes of ordinances that affect the design, construction, renovation, and operation and maintenance of a building and its immediate site (including elements that affect water use) to help local governments, the development community, and other building professionals identify and remove barriers to sustainable design and green building in their permitting processes.

Growing Toward More Efficient Water Use: Linking Development, Infrastructure, and Drinking Water Policies (2006): Focuses on the relationships among development patterns, water use, and the cost of water delivery, and includes policy options for states, localities, and utilities that directly reduce the cost and demand for water while indirectly promoting smarter growth.

Water Quality

Water Quality Scorecard: Incorporating Green Infrastructure Practices at the Municipal, Neighborhood, and Site Scale (2009): Offers policy options for protecting and improving water quality across different scales of land use and across multiple municipal departments.

Protecting Water Resources with Higher-Density Development (2006): Helps communities better understand the impacts of higher and lower density development on water resources. The findings indicate that low-density development might not always be the preferred strategy for protecting water resources.

Protecting Water Resources with Smart Growth (2004): Intended for audiences already familiar with smart growth concepts who seek specific ideas on how techniques for smarter growth can protect water resources. Offers 75 policies that communities can use to grow in the way that they want while protecting their water quality.

Waterfront Development

Planning for Flood Recovery and Long-Term Resilience in Vermont: Smart Growth Approaches for Disaster-Resilient Communities (2014): Report from a technical assistance project with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the state of Vermont, and the Mad River Valley Planning District on how communities in Vermont can recover from flood impacts from Tropical Storm Irene and become more resilient to future disasters. The report includes the Flood Resilience Checklist to help communities determine whether they are prepared for a flood.

Smart Growth for Coastal and Waterfront Communities, EPA, NOAA, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the International City/County Management Association (2009): Builds on existing smart growth principles to offer 10 development guidelines for coastal and waterfront communities, along with tools, techniques, and examples.

The following publications are available in the EPA Archive. Click on SEARCH EPA ARCHIVE and type or copy and paste the title into the search box.

  • Achieving Hazard-Resilient Coastal & Waterfront Smart Growth: Coastal and Waterfront Smart Growth and Hazard Mitigation Roundtable (2012): Report from a meeting organized by EPA and the state Sea Grant College Programs of Rhode Island, Texas, and Hawaii on how coastal and waterfront communities can create economically and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods while minimizing risks from flooding and related natural hazards.
  • Embracing the River: Smart Growth Strategies for Assisting in Cedar Rapids' Recovery (2010): Report on the EPA-FEMA project to help Cedar Rapids revise its land use policies to encourage infill and more sustainable growth after the 2008 floods.
  • Waverly, Iowa, Smart Planning Workshop: Policy Options and Project Designs (2010): Report on the EPA-FEMA project to help Waverly develop policy options and strategies for green infrastructure, housing, and infill development after the 2008 floods.
  • Downtown Waterfront Form-Based Code Workshop (2008): Report on the EPA-NOAA technical assistance project to help Marquette, Michigan, develop a form-based code for its Downtown Waterfront District.
  • Implementing the Aquidneck Island West Side Master Plan (2006): Report on the EPA-led technical assistance project to help Aquidneck Island, Rhode Island, develop tools and options to implement its West Side Master Plan.

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Technical Assistance

Please see the Smart Growth Technical Assistance Programs page for more information about EPA's smart growth technical assistance programs. One program that focuses on green infrastructure is Greening America's Communities, which helps cities and towns develop environmentally friendly designs for a neighborhood that can serve as a model for other communities. These designs incorporate innovative green infrastructure strategies. EPA works with other federal agencies to provide this design assistance and help city staff develop implementation strategies.

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Flood Resilience Checklist (2014): Can help a community determine whether it is prepared for a flood.

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EPA’s Office of Water manages programs to protect the nation's water. Programs particularly relevant to smart growth strategies include:

  • Green Infrastructure: Includes research, tools, and examples to help communities implement green infrastructure solutions.
  • Water Infrastructure: Helps communities make water infrastructure investments that support overall community goals.
  • Urban Waters: Helps communities, especially underserved ones, access, improve, and benefit from their urban waters and surrounding land.
  • WaterSense: Labels water-efficient products and promotes water-efficient landscaping.

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