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12 Things to Know about the Green Infrastructure Maintenance Workforce

By Kevin Doyle

This fall, I’ve visited with urban green infrastructure (GI) leaders in Charlotte, Lincoln, Denver, and Ann Arbor as part of JFF’s two-year NatureWORKS Initiative. This project aims to better understand the GI workforce and training needs, and to examine the potential for job growth associated with green infrastructure investments. 

My most recent trip was a three-day visit to Ann Arbor that included a GI tour with leaders from the City of Detroit, City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, The Nature Conservancy, Erb Family Foundation, and leading contractors.
Touring rain gardens in Ann Arbor, Michigan.© Patrick J. Doran/The Nature Conservancy
© Patrick J. Doran/The Nature Conservancy
One of the recurring themes I’ve heard is a concern about the capacity of government, commercial, and residential property owners to provide for the long-term maintenance of GI projects. A community’s green infrastructure can include parks, greenways, street trees, natural areas, buffers around streams, rivers, lakes and ponds—even golf courses and ball fields. All of these require long-term maintenance from qualified workers.
The concern expressed about maintenance issues was particularly adamant around green infrastructure for stormwater management, such as rain gardens, bioswales, “green streets”, green roofs, pervious pavement, and the like.
Highlighted below are 12 twelve maintenance-related recommendations gleaned from my interviews with professionals in all four cities. 
  1. Know who’s responsible. Long-term maintenance schedules, and responsibility for all individual sites, must be understood, agreed upon, assigned to specific entities, and recorded in a continuously updated GIS/IT system.
  2. Design with maintenance in mind. Assurance that long-term maintenance has been properly considered must be part of design/project review and approval before installation begins.
  3. Develop true GI crew leaders. It’s probably not necessary for every full-time and seasonal maintenance crew member to have the skills and knowledge to assure proper maintenance work. Quality GI crew leaders, however, are essential.  They must understand all of the factors that can affect GI stormwater management performance, and how important the visual quality of GI is to the public.
  4. Utilize monitoring professionals. People skilled in the monitoring and evaluation of the stormwater-related performance of specific installations are critical. 
  5. Grow your own plants and trees. Local nurseries need to improve their ability to provide truly local native plants and trees, even when the overall market for these is relatively small.
  6. Budget for maintenance. Public and private owners of green infrastructure must accurately estimate—and budget for—the real cost of long-term GI maintenance.
  7. Educate the public. Public acceptance of green infrastructure—including understanding what healthy GI looks like across all seasons—is essential.
  8. Provide continuous training for incumbent workers. The current public and private workforce in landscaping, tree care, paving and stormwater will need additional training to assure maintenance quality. 
  9. Use specialty contractors. Talented, qualified, and passionate specialty contractors and public workers are quickly appearing in every city to address green infrastructure installation and maintenance needs. They are a valuable resource.
  10. Harness volunteer passion. Involving volunteer citizens directly in the design, installation, and maintenance of green infrastructure (like rain gardens) can generate a cadre of dedicated advocates for green infrastructure maintenance.
  11. Guard against low-bid problems. Requirements for green infrastructure must be carefully written into Requests for Proposals so all bidders will have the responsibility to properly install GI projects.
  12. Record and share lessons learned from experience. Because using green infrastructure to achieve measurable stormwater management goals is still a fairly new phenomenon, there is a pressing need to quickly share successes and learnings within and between different cities, professions, and industries.

On December 2, NatureWORKS brought together leading experts from four NatureWORKS cities (Ann Arbor, Charlotte, Denver, and Lincoln) for a national webinar about urban green infrastructure actions and related workforce and training needs. An important theme from our panelists was the concern around long-term green infrastructure maintenance. The webinar recording may be streamed and a PDF of the webinar slides are available.

We’re not alone in thinking about the need for a skilled operations and maintenance workforce to care for the nation’s expanding use of green infrastructure for stormwater management. On November 3, NatureWORKS was part of the conversation with other leaders seeking a "National Perspective on Workforce Development and Future Needs for Stormwater Management." 
Want to learn more about the nation’s urban green infrastructure workforce? Please visit JFF’s NatureWORKS site.   
Roadside green infrastructure looking good on an October afternoon in Ann Arbor. © Patrick J. Doran/The Nature Conservancy