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Cities turn to innovative 'green infrastructure'

From Seattle to Sweden, city and regional governments are using roof gardens, specially designed wetlands, and other forms of 'green infrastructure' to rein in pollution – and to save money.

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While large cities such as Seattle, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia have adopted rain gardens, green roofs, and other aspects of green infrastructure, it’s still a young field, and much about the approach is untested and evolving. “This is really technology on the move,” says Weinstein. “Five years ago there weren’t any green roofs. Now they are all over the place.”

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That means that, in some cases, it’s not known how well these technologies will work over time. And one of the biggest hurdles to more widespread implementation is from regulatory agencies, which have a hard time reconciling the new approach with existing regulations.

“It takes years to change codes and allow new technologies,” Weinstein said.

In spite of the hurdles, experts say, green infrastructure is likely to take off, not only in the United States but across the world. “It pretty much has to,” Weinstein says. In the US, “more than a thousand communities have [sewage overflow] problems. We have tons of urban areas, and the infrastructure is at the end of its lifecycle.” And because of the cost, he said, “You can’t do it conventionally. We need new tools.”

Jim Robbins is a veteran journalist based in Helena, Montana. He has written for the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and numerous other publications. His latest book, The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet, will be published in April. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, he explored a great forest die-off occurring in western North America and reported on efforts to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

This article originally appeared at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

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