What does blue infrastructure mean?

Reviewed: May 31, 2024

Visitor Question: At our town's zoning commission meeting, I heard some visiting big shot talk about how we need to preserve and enhance our blue infrastructure. Well, I didn't understand that comment at all because all of the infrastructure I see around here is gray or brown! Can you enlighten me, so that next time somebody invites a professor to lecture us we can follow what he is saying?

Editors Reply: Blue infrastructure is a term being applied to above-ground water resources in your community. Commonly professionals use this planning term to indicate that there is a system of streams, rivers, or lakes that have current or potential recreational uses, or just attractive waterfronts for local or tourist enjoyment.

We started hearing this language after green infrastructure became a thing. (Green infrastructure tends to refer to parks and open spaces, and networks thereof.)

Then everyone from planners to local environmental activists must have said to themselves, "Wait, there's also a network of water resources with recreational and environmental benefits that we should be considering. We could call it blue infrastructure."

Don't be intimidated though. We have been conscious of the need for good stewardship of our streams and rivers for decades now. We imagine that your fancy consultant was just trying to call attention to the need for better attention to the cleanliness of your streams, rivers, or lakes. We're talking about both freedom from litter (and mud, to the extent feasible in your geography) and freedom from bacterial and chemical pollutants.

Another blue infrastructure issue could be reclaiming streams and rivers that have been encased in a concrete culvert or coulee for a long time. If your community actually put your stream underground in a pipe, you could allow it to run in its natural pathway above ground. This would be called daylighting the stream. The purpose for these often fairly pricey projects is to create a scenic or recreational amenity.

Other pages on this website would help your community get started. For a volunteer project that can be repeated annually or seasonally, see our tips for a stream clean-up. Cleaning up your neighborhood park also could be relevant, because the litter from your park might end up in the nearby stream. This is another project suitable for short-term volunteering.

Another highly relevant topic is watershed planning.

We haven't even mentioned the pollutants from stormwater runoff yet. (It's another pretentious planning term, but just think of this as drainage from rain or melting snow.) Slowing and therefore filtering this runoff can represent a good step forward in your local water quality.

In addition to water cleanliness, many communities would like to develop their streams and rivers into recreational and tourism assets. For a window into this thinking, read our answer to a site visitor who asked what a water trail is.

We could give you more references, but just dig around on our sitemap or in the sustainability section for more topics that might be relevant to your particular town or city.

Ultimately water quality is very important in creating something that you will be proud to call your "blue infrastructure" instead of talking about that ugly, stinky little creek, if you talk about it at all.

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