Michigan Land Use Institute

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Low-Impact Design:

Working with Nature

May 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffin

Using nature instead of paving it over pays big dividends.

When it comes to development in Michigan, a state that began as a swamp, the instinct is to bulldoze a wetland or field, pave it over, and then try to control the stormwater it once naturally absorbed by installing costly pipes, pumps, and concrete retention ponds. But a growing number of residential and commercial developers are discovering the least expensive way to manage water and keep it clean: Let Mother Nature do the work.

“Michigan is a drained state,” said Greg Minshall, president of Fitzgerald, Henne and Associates, a Lansing-based engineering firm. “We used to be a wetland. We can’t replace those natural systems. But we can mimic them.”

By carefully managing construction techniques, developers can utilize wetlands and other green spaces as valuable assets that store or absorb rainwater runoff and, acting like kidneys, purify and return the water to underground aquifers and nearby streams. According to Mr. Minshall, developers that do this can reduce the cost of building and maintaining sewers, sell quality homes at more affordable prices, and make their projects more attractive and easier to market.

“Our understanding has come along since the 1960s, when we used to discharge stormwater and sanitary sewage directly into rivers,” Mr. Minshall said. “The challenge is that a lot of the old zoning ordinances don’t recognize the value of these [new] strategies.”

New ordinances can simultaneously improve water conservation and protection efforts and save tax dollars in all sorts of ways: Encouraging narrower roads and rights of way, allowing porous parking surfaces, and mandating projects with higher home and commercial building densities. Known in the industry as low-impact development, these practices are gaining popularity due to their common-sense appeal and indisputable economic and ecological benefits.

A July 2003 white paper prepared by the National Association of Home Builders finds, “the larger impervious areas created by wide streets have led to increased storm water runoff, reduced water quality, and riparian habitat and species degradation. They have also translated into increased design, construction, and maintenance costs for both developers and municipalities. Low-impact development practices can help alleviate these concerns.”

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