Green Infrastructure

Cornell's green space serves as a natural storm buffer and provides beneficial ecosystem services for campus...

innovation icon

Green Infrastructure is an Innovation goal in the Cornell Climate Action Plan (CAP).

Enhance green infrastructure and associated research and interpretation on campus.

1) The Land Team will seek to document how green space (plants and soils) on Cornell’s campus serves as a natural storm buffer and provides ecosystem services, such as: habitat, carbon sequestration, storm water mitigation, water filtration, soil remediation, energy conservation, and enhanced biodiversity. Existing green infrastructure projects across campus can be expanded to serve as a research and teaching tool, as a showcase for sustainable landscape practices, and as an effective means of adapting to the weather-related impacts of climate change.
2) The Land Team will identify areas on campus that are suitable for different types of green infrastructure interventions.

Each landscape on campus brings a set of values that contribute to the overall ecological services provided by Cornell’s open spaces. Individual green infrastructure projects demonstrate and highlight different values and functions within our campus landscapes. For example, climate models are predicting high-intensity rainfall and other extreme weather events that will impact water management at Cornell. The Land Team will advocate for the inclusion of green infrastructure components in campus projects and attempt to study, document, and interpret the specific effects of different green infrastructure projects to capture runoff on campus. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™ should be considered as a standard for site development and maximizing green infrastructure at project sites on campus.

In 2014 the Land Team will be collaborating in the creation of a bioswale and sidewalk along entire south side of Tower Road. On-street parking spaces will be converted to an 8’-wide sidewalk with structural soil underneath connecting to the bioswale, and a 5’-wide planted bioswale will be constructed with curb cuts to allow water into the bioswale. The Urban Eden class will landscape the bioswale in the fall. Groups of woody plants, mostly low growing shrubs, will be used on site. There will be three replicates of five different groups of stormwater tolerant shrubs along the road. These were chosen based on the research recently completed by Master’s student Ethan Dropkin (see The goal of this project is to evaluate the growth and efficacy of these shrubs over time, and to collect data on water quantity and quality after construction of the bioswale and sidewalk is complete.

Woody Shrubs for Stormwater Retention Practices
Woody Shrubs for Stormwater Retention Practices

Other green infrastructure projects focus on long term soil remediation after construction to improve the chemical, biological, and physical properties of soils and allow for improved plant growth. Measurements before and after remediation can document the beneficial effects of these projects on soil health and biomass production.

Where soil compaction is necessary under pavement and along sidewalks, structural soils have been used to provide a medium for tree growth, as well as a base for turf that improves storm water and snowmelt infiltration, while resisting snowplow and de-icing salt damage in the winter and early spring. These practices may reduce the need to repair miles of sidewalk each year. Examples of these practices on the Cornell campus can be measured and interpreted.

There are also numerous green roofs, rain gardens, and bio-swales on campus. Some of these will be developed into water detention and filtration systems in addition to providing habitat for birds and pollinators. The ability of green roofs to mitigate storm water while creating habitat and improving roof membrane performance will be measured.

Existing green infrastructure projects at Cornell that could be inventoried and interpreted for the greater campus community include:

  • Thirteen years of soil remediation and landscape development conducted by the “Creating the Urban Eden” class. Research is underway to evaluate the effects of soil remediation and plant growth over time.
  • Three depths of structural soil including a control have been replicated along a stretch of Tower Road and tall fescue sod planted. The objectives are to evaluate the effects of snow plowing and deicing salt on the turf grown.
  • Tree growth in structural soil on campus.
  • Low-mow turf areas on campus.
  • Proposed water filtering, habitat-enhancing bio-swale behind Rice Hall and existing bio-swale by Plantations Nevin Welcome Center.
  • Acoustic monitoring of birds in different planting schemes.
  • Green roofs, bio-swales and rain gardens to conduct research with controls.

These projects can be used for research as a source of data and potential innovative solutions. They can also serve as interpretive sites, to enhance student and community understanding of green infrastructure and its value to the campus.

Potential partnerships with the City of Ithaca and the Town of Ithaca are also possible. The City maintains a street tree inventory and uses Forest Service metrics that quantify ecosystem benefits provided by the trees and associated green space. Several research projects are on-going in the City, such as the use of Cornell University Structural Soil, identification of stress tolerant trees, and use of porous pavements and structural soil to reduce storm water runoff and improve tree growth. Cornell and the city could work in partnership to enhance the development and use of these green infrastructure practices.

Next Steps

  • Formalize and convene the Green Infrastructure team regularly to coordinate existing efforts and collaborate on upcoming projects, such as providing stakeholder input on the Concept Plan for the Arts and Ag Quads and streetscape design for Tower Road. Input from the team could significantly influence the plan and could integrate existing projects in the vicinity of both Quads into a larger vision for how to incorporate green infrastructure into research, teaching, and outreach at Cornell.
  • Work collaboratively with the Green Infrastructure Team to develop consistent interpretive signage for campus sites. Coordinated interpretation will help raise awareness and build public understanding of the value of these efforts.
  • Identify and collaborate to obtain grant funding for priority projects to mitigate storm water runoff, improve water quality, etc. Look specifically at the Green Innovation Fund of NYS, water quality grants, Atkinson Center grants, etc.
  • Work with the Atkinson Center to host topical lunches featuring green infrastructure topics to draw in others who might be interested in collaborating on grant seeking for particular projects on campus.
  • Develop and pilot a green infrastructure tour of campus, utilizing green system signage, with multiple loops to interpret various focal points. Highlight the ecosystem values of Cornell’s open spaces and natural areas and utilize Cornell’s green infrastructure as a tool for research and education.
  • Develop outreach tours of the sustainability “trail” for municipalities, extension educators, classes, and appropriate professional and community groups.
  • Develop interpretive information for each site and create a downloadable application for mobile devices. As a visitor walked around campus, he/she could scan codes and download relevant green infrastructure education.


An engaged group of faculty and staff are actively pursuing these practices for research and teaching/interpretation purposes. Many green infrastructure practices are not cost prohibitive, although monitoring and data collection will require some modest but on-going funding. By fostering greater integration of these practices with the curriculum, students could be engaged to incorporate various green infrastructure sites on campus into a sustainability “trail.”