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Do urban farms reduce runoff and save water? Seeing Green is finding out

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What do you think is the reason for that lack of city support for urban agriculture?
People talk about the benefits of urban agriculture, but it seems that we don’t really know how to articulate those benefits and put them into policy. Right now the city’s Department of Environmental Protection is unrolling a green infrastructure plan. This is basically a movement away from mechanical, industrial ways of treating our stormwater supply. Planting trees, bioswales, blue roofs – all these are in the plan. But there’s no mention of urban agriculture. And my research partner Erik [Facteau] and I saw this as a huge disconnect. One of the reasons for that is there are no metrics for measuring the impact of green roofs.

So, your project aims to create that metric and then supply it to city programs?
With metrics you can monetize the benefits of green infrastructure. Urban farms absorb and retain rainwater, but we have yet to measure just how much they are capable of retaining. If you put a green roof anywhere, not only does that stormwater never reach a wastewater treatment plan, not only are you decreasing the monetary cost, but you’re using less electricity too. Seventeen percent of our greenhouse gas emissions are from wastewater treatment plans.

People in city offices need numbers, they need metrics. There’s a lagging in scientific study right now. Metrics for green roofs exist but not for urban agriculture. We thought that creating this research would be a great way to support urban agriculture, and show that it is a viable part of a city’s green infrastructure.

Why is green infrastructure such a priority right now?
There are systemic problems with [New York City’s] wastewater system. The pipes were designed to prevent flooding; they weren’t made to handle both septic waste and stormwater waste. So when it rains a lot, the treatment plants get overwhelmed and they discharge raw, untreated septic waste into our water bodies. There are 422 combined sewage pipe holes where this water discharges any time the plants reach capacity. Awareness of CSO – combined sewage overflow – is growing. There’s this video on YouTube of septic waste overflowing into the Gowanus Canal.

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