July 25, 2002

‘Green infrastructure’ puts Seattle on the map

  • Market emerges for local firms in creating sustainable urban systems
    City of Seattle

    Street Edge Alternative
    Photo courtesy of Seattle Public Utilities
    In 2000, the Street Edge Alternative pilot project was completed in Northwest Seattle. It features landscaped areas along the road edge to filter and slow the run-off into nearby Piper’s Creek.

    In the not-too-distant future, Seattle could be as renowned for “green infrastructure” development as it is today for innovations in airplane design, software development, biotechnology and gourmet coffee roasting.

    The design and construction of more sustainable urban infrastructure — transportation, drainage, energy, water and waste management systems that are more resource-efficient and healthier for both people and the environment — is emerging as a new business sector. This new sector features a suite of products and services that are helping to meet growth management challenges here at home, and could emerge as a major export to fast-growing, cash-strapped cities all over the world.

    A growing cadre of local architectural, design, engineering, and construction companies — including Mithun, Mid-Mountain Contractors and SvR Design Co. — are pioneering these innovative approaches, and developing the materials, technologies and skills needed to implement them.

    Green infrastructure

    The concept of green infrastructure, broadly defined, includes two closely related ideas. First, that natural resources (trees and forested areas, waterways and watersheds, parks and other green spaces, etc.) are the underlying foundation that sustains life and enables economic development, and therefore must be protected, maintained and preserved.

    And second, by greening our “gray infrastructure” (buildings, roads, bridges, pipelines, etc.) — effectively softening the lines between the human-made and natural environments — we can create urban systems that serve human needs and protect and restore environmental quality at the same time.

    Take stormwater management. The traditional approach in the last several decades has been to collect the run-off from roofs and roads and channel it through underground pipes and into the nearest lake, stream or estuary. We know now that this approach can create a host of problems: too much water flowing into water bodies too quickly, disrupting salmon habitat; run-off laden with contaminants that spoil water quality for people and fish; and a complicated network of buried pipes that are difficult and expensive to maintain and replace.

    These problems will only get worse as Seattle’s population increases and our existing infrastructure ages.

    That’s why the city of Seattle, in partnership with local businesses and neighborhoods, is experimenting with alternative approaches to stormwater management and drainage system design and construction.

    In 2000, for example, Seattle Public Utilities and the Seattle Department of Transportation, working in collaboration with a block of residents in Northwest Seattle, completed the Street Edge Alternative (S.E.A.-Street) pilot project. This innovative street design, the first of its kind in the country, created landscaped areas along the road edge to filter and slow the run-off into nearby Piper’s Creek. Preliminary analysis suggests the project has significantly reduced the quantity of stormwater leaving the site and entering the creek and, ultimately, Puget Sound.

    Similar demonstration projects now are planned or under way in both North and South Seattle, in areas that drain to creeks.

    These kinds of innovative approaches yield a range of benefits. First and perhaps foremost, they do the job they are intended to do — in the case of S.E.A.-Street, keeping basements, yards and neighborhood streets dry and safe — even more effectively than the traditional approach. At the same time, these systems are easier on the environment, in terms of the materials and resources used to build them, and post-construction impacts on the air, water and land. On top of this, these projects are more pleasant to look at and live near, enhancing both quality-of-life (and likely property values, as well) in the neighborhoods in which they occur. And, these systems can have similar or even lower life-cycle costs than more traditional approaches.

    Similar opportunities for innovation exist for other types of urban infrastructure as well, including energy supply (e.g., district heating systems), wastewater management (natural treatment systems, reclaimed water systems), water supply (rainwater collection and use by households and businesses), solid waste management (neighborhood-based, on-site food and yard waste composting), and transportation (transit-, bike- and pedestrian-oriented development).


    There are huge opportunities in Seattle to hone these skills and advance these approaches. Thirty-eight neighborhood plans — most of which include substantial capital improvements — are in various stages of implementation.

    Parks, schools, libraries and community centers all over the city are being constructed or remodeled. At the same time, large swaths of the city are being, or are likely to be, substantially redeveloped in the next decade, including South Lake Union, High Point, the central waterfront, and Port of Seattle-owned sites on the Duwamish River and in Interbay. And large portions of our existing infrastructure — roads, bridges, rail lines, and water and sewer pipelines — are scheduled for construction, maintenance or upgrading.

    In light of these opportunities, Mayor Greg Nickels launched a sustainable infrastructure initiative as part of the environmental action agenda he unveiled on Earth Day 2002. Announcing that agenda back on April 22, Mayor Nickels said: “As we shore up our basic infrastructure and implement our neighborhood plans, we’ll have great opportunities to try some new approaches to design and construction that are smarter, more efficient, more durable, and better for both our communities and the environment.”

    The goals of the city’s sustainable infrastructure initiative will be to develop a shared framework across city departments for more sustainable design and construction of public infrastructure, and to explore ways in which the city can support this budding business sector.

    Worldwide demand

    Reinventing urban infrastructure is not only an important arrow in the region’s growth management quiver, as we strive to keep Seattle green and livable in the face of population growth and increased densification, it is also an economic development opportunity.

    The materials, technologies and skills local companies are developing will be in great demand in rapidly urbanizing countries around the world, such as China, India and Brazil. In 1960, about 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2010, that percentage will increase to more than 50 percent. In developing countries, the proportion of urban dwellers will increase from less than 20 percent in 1950 to more than 40 percent in 2010.

    These and other important trends and opportunities are described in “Tomorrow’s Markets: Global Trends and Their Implications for Business,” a recently released report produced jointly by the World Resources Institute, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and the United Nations Environment Program.

    “The current pace and scale of urban growth strains the capacity of many local and national governments to provide basic services to residents,” the report concludes. “With suitable development strategies and investment in infrastructure, urban areas in the developing world can become important and readily accessible markets.”

    Seattle-based businesses in the vanguard of green infrastructure design and development will be in a position to help meet these needs, and serve these markets.

    “Innovative corporate practices in the area of the environment will often enhance internal competitiveness,” Harvard business professor Michael Porter writes in the preface to the “Tomorrow’s Markets” report. “Products that address environmental scarcities will also have enormous market potential.... There are huge unsatisfied human needs to be met in the world, and demand will only increase as more nations become more prosperous.”

    Steve Nicholas is director of the city of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. For more information on the Mayor Nickels’ environmental action agenda and the city’s sustainability initiatives, visit

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