by Jim Newman, Linnean Solutions — Boston’s harbor and rivers were once mocked for their dirty water, but the city has truly cleaned up its act, and some new green infrastructure in the Back Bay points to an even brighter future. The facilities team at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) has worked for over 5 years to create an exemplary project. All over the country, green infrastructure projects are being implemented, as campuses and communities come to realize the many benefits of using ecologically sound ways to manage stormwater, including preventing sewer overflows, cleaning pollutants out of the water, and replenishing the underlying groundwater table.
The City of Philadelphia has been an early leader, as have San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. By sustainably redeveloping Public Alley #444, which lies on the urban campus of the BAC between Boylston and Newbury streets, Boston is learning how it can address the challenges of aging infrastructure in a changing climate.
The facilities team at the BAC, lead by Art Byers, has been the major force in this project. While funding came from federal, state, and city sources, as well as from the BAC, and the project is primarily located on city property in a public alley, Art led and coordinated the project from the beginning. The project brought big benefits to each of the parties, including sprucing up the space between the two very urban campus buildings and reducing flow into Boston’s storm sewer system.
To make the project go, Art worked for over 5 years to secure permits and funding. In this case, the fact that the use of the public way was going to benefit the College was outweighed, in the City’s estimation, by the benefit to the City and State.
What is Green Infrastructure?
I get this question all the time, when I say that my company is monitoring a green alley in Boston. As a quick explanation, I will describe an alley between two buildings on an urban college campus that covers a total of 6,000 square feet. However, it handles the stormwater from 24,000 square feet of roofs and paved area.
There are 3 qualities that define how green infrastructure in a public alley (and the rainwater management system it embodies) can be considered “green”, and it’s all aimed at restoring a more natural water cycle.
Boston Architectural College
Boston Water and Sewer Commission
Boston Groundwater Trust (Long-term monitoring of groundwater levels)
Charles River Watershed Association
- A green alley keeps water out of the city or town’s storm sewers.
- Parts of Boston still have combined storm and waste sewer systems, including the area around this campus. Keeping combined sewage and rainwater from overflowing into the Charles River is a priority.
- A green alley helps clean pollutants out of the rainwater. Water picks up phosphorus, nitrates, and hydrocarbons when it hits the streets in Boston. Infiltrating rainwater into the ground, rather than collecting it in storm sewers helps clean those pollutants out.
- Eliminating so called non-point-source pollutants are a high priority in the ongoing efforts to clean up the Charles River.
- A green alley replenishes the underlying groundwater table by allowing water to absorb through permeable bricks and pavement.
- In Boston’s Back Bay, high levels of impervious surfaces have lead to a dropping water table. This is a problem for the hundreds of buildings built on wooden pilings. Systems that direct rainwater into the water table are a priority.
My company’s role was to monitor the effectiveness of the green infrastructure in the alley. To accomplish this monitoring, we worked with a hydrological engineering firm to design a low-cost monitoring system that automatically reports to a web-based display that is available to the public. The public will be able to see total daily rainfall, along with the percentage of rainwater that is infiltrating into the water table and the effect on ground water levels. Everyone will be able to see how effective this particular green infrastructure is.
And it turns out that the green alley is very effective!
In our preliminary monitor readings, over the last 3 months, no water was detected leaving the green alley system. In other words, the green alley diverted ALL of the rainwater that fell on the site — over 87,000 gallons of water — into the ground and away from the Boston storm sewers. This is great news for Boston, for the Charles River, for the water table under Back Bay, and for the Boaton Architectural College. This demonstrates that such a water diversion and infiltration system (with the right soil conditions) can handle a large portion of storm water in a very urban site.
The success of this project also shows the way to strong cooperation between public agencies and private institutions. The fact that this very public project was managed by Art Byers at the BAC and that it delivered real benefits to all of the parties involved will help other similar partnerships move forward. The College and the City both need projects like.
And the public can able to play along with the live web display of the rain, storm water, and ground water level monitors.