What are Complete and Green Streets?

Complete & Green Streets are part of a movement where municipalities, counties and states adopt policies that require road engineering and design projects to consider the everyone who uses the roadway, while addressing stormwater and other environmental issues at the same time.   

Section 11206 of the new Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), defines Complete Streets standards or policies as those which “ensure the safe and adequate accommodation of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation users, children, older individuals, individuals with disabilities, motorists, and freight vehicles.” This section of the BIL requires that States and MPOs use 2.5 percent of their planning and research funds for Complete Streets activities that will increase safe and accessible transportation options. 

Federal agencies are spending billions of dollars to improve infrastructure as climate change and its effects intensify; this includes fixing pipes, rebuilding drains and expanding stormwater systems [1]. Stormwater runoff is a pressing problem as storms become more intense and rainfall heavier, frequently overwhelming existing systems. These investments can help prevent urban flash flooding, which creates dangerous situations for roadway users. In many cases, the safety benefits can extend year-round as rainwater retention projects can serve as traffic-calming measures. 

What if your community is not currently in line for significant upgrades? In this article, we look at smaller projects you can do to make your street greener and tackle stormwater runoff issues.

Figure 1. Rain Garden in Highland Park, NJ on 3rd Ave near the intersection with Raritan Avenue.

The Problem of Stormwater Runoff

When it rains, stormwater is absorbed into the ground, filtered, and then flows into streams, rivers, or aquifers. [2] During heavy rainfalls, however, the ground is overwhelmed by water. Excess rainwater runs across surfaces and into storm sewers and road ditches. [3] On top of that, when there are large amounts of impervious surfaces, such as paved streets, parking lots, sidewalks, and building rooftops, it is hard for the ground to soak up the water. [4] The excess water is a problem because it causes adverse effects on the surrounding ecosystems. Stormwater runoff carries trash, chemicals, bacteria, and other pollutants into nearby streams, rivers, lakes, or wetlands. [5] This is especially true for urban areas with high amounts of impervious surfaces. Stormwater runoff can also cause erosion and flooding, which can lead to damaged habitats, property, and infrastructure. [6] 

Stormwater Management: Green Streets

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the goal of stormwater management is to reduce stormwater runoff and to improve water quality. [7]. Stormwater management practices try to catch rainwater at its source rather than directing it into storm sewer systems. [8] This ultimately contributes to efforts to prevent pollution. 

Stormwater management comes in many forms and tackles stormwater issues on various scales. Green streets are an example of stormwater management where the design of a street includes vegetation, soil, and engineered water management systems to slow, filter, and cleanse stormwater runoff. [9] Green streets also help in absorbing carbon, improving air quality and neighborhood aesthetics, providing green connections to parks and other green spaces, and tackling other environmental issues. [10] Examples of green street elements include street street trees, bioswales, flow-through planters, and pervious pavement. [11] Green streets can also incorporate design elements that calm traffic and improve pedestrian and bicycle safety. [12] 

Green streets can be created through small projects and community efforts. For example, (En)Gauging the Water is a project that starts with a temporary intervention and becomes more permanent over time. It begins with building a pedestrian bridge with an interactive rain gauge on the railing that measures floodwater and shows the water’s depth. [13] The path along which the bridge is built includes a greenway with low-maintenance plants that can handle periods of heavy rain. [14] Another example of a green street project is DePave. DePave removes unnecessary pavement by transforming impervious driveways, parking, and streets into community green spaces and gardens. [15] 

Figure 2. Movable planter in Highland Park, NJ.

Figure 3. Rain Garden in New Brunswick, NJ on Drift Street at the Welton Street Park.

Project Ideas to Make Your Own Green Street

Here are some project ideas to make a green street in your neighborhood: 

  • Replace grass on planting strips with local low-maintenance and drought-tolerant plants to increase the ground’s ability to absorb stormwater. 
  • Look into removing impervious surfaces and replacing them with granular materials or rain gardens. 
  • Find spaces on the street to place portable rain gardens planted in boxes. Keep these boxes small to allow them to be adjusted and moved. 
  • Create a small rainwater collection system on the street. Small roof-like structures can be built and placed on the sidewalk with buckets underneath to collect the water, or they can be retrofitted to a bus stop. They can be designed to provide shelter during storms as well. 

To make a thriving green street, observe where the project would be most beneficial and what type of project would be best to manage stormwater. For example, you may notice that a puddle appears on the side of the sidewalk after heavy rainfall, so it would be best to place something like a portable rain garden in that spot. Once the appropriate project is completed, maintenance and observation are essential to make sure the project is effective. Check in with experts, local officials, and other members of the community to guarantee the project follows necessary safety measures, complies with local laws and makes local businesses, residents and road users happy. 

There are many resources available for ideas and information, such as the Global Street Design Guide [16] and Tactical Urbanist’s Guide to Materials and Design. [17] There is also a “Complete & Green Streets for All: Model Complete Streets Policy and Guide” published by New Jersey Department of Transportation in 2019 [18], providing best practices in language for Complete and Green Street policies. Eight of New Jersey’s 21 counties have adopted Complete Streets policies, along with 174 municipalities. Your town could be next!   

By Sophia Pereira & Monika Pal 



















[18] https://njbikeped.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/CS_Model_Policy_2020-R.pdf