Helping Cleveland Communities

By Marguerite Huber

Vacant lot with dug out section for a rain garden; rest of the area covered with straw to prevent erosion.

Turning a vacant lot into a rain garden.

EPA researchers are turning vacant lots in Cleveland, Ohio into field research sites for exploring the effectiveness of tapping green infrastructure (GI) techniques for reducing stormwater runoff and improving local waterways.

Over the last few years, the research has focused on the feasibility of re-using land left vacant after home demolition to answer questions such as: does the lot have soil that can absorb excess stormwater runoff? Can it provide ecosystem services? And how does the re-use of the lot benefit the local community?

To find out, the researchers initially looked at tree cover, the amount of rubble left after demolition, and ease of water movement on the lot. The cost of preparing the lot for re-use was dependant on the type and quality of demolition.

This research then paved the way for additional projects where EPA researchers have been studying stormwater management through GI installations, such as rain gardens and bioswales, in the vacant lots of Cleveland’s Historic Slavic Village neighborhood.

An ORISE fellow working on the project, Olivia Green, says “green infrastructure allows us to invest in natural capital and nature’s ability to absorb and redistribute stormwater. If we tap into natural capital and ecosystem services, we could manage stormwater to a high degree of quality for potentially less cost.”

Green and her colleagues are gathering baseline hydrologic and ecosystem services data. They will then use this data to collaborate with the neighborhood on a plan to use GI elements throughout the community. With continual monitoring, researchers can estimate the impact of GI implementation and identify where modifications need to be made.

Through the research, scientists hope to find a way to reduce stormwater volume, increase habitats for bees and other pollinators, and increase ecosystem services. But the data is starting to show that local streams and watersheds aren’t the only elements reaping the rewards. Reductions in violent crime and increasing property values have been recorded in the same neighborhoods where green space has replaced former abandoned, unattractive lots.

“We may create a culture that is more connected with the environment in the long term,” Green explains. The results of the research will not just benefit the residents of Cleveland, but could ultimately benefit communities everywhere, inducing a national culture that is more in tune with our environment.

About the author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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