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Restoring the Urban Environment


The Problem

As in most cities, metropolitan Boston’s water cycle has been radically altered. Drinking water is piped in from 65 miles away, sewage is piped out to Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor, streams are now buried and pavement prevents rainwater from seeping into the ground. These changes increase flooding and pollution, and impact groundwater levels. The loss of streams and floodplains parallels the region’s loss of open space and green corridors. The best way to reduce water problems in urban areas is to design cities so that they mimic the way nature handles water.

Massachusetts receives about 45 inches of precipitation every year. In the natural environment, almost half of this rainfall filters into the ground, and nearly all the rest returns to the sky as water vapor. In cities, we have paved over the ground and cut down many of the trees that turn water into vapor. The result: well over 50 percent of the rain in a typical year quickly becomes polluted stormwater runoff. Developed areas are designed to collect and discard rain quickly, dumping runoff in rivers through storm drains. Bigger storms overwhelm the system, resulting in flooding and, depending on the infrastructure, combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows.

To make rain once again an asset that replenishes aquifers, and to reduce the pollution from stormwater and the risk of flooding from storm events, CRWA is working to reengineer urban landscapes to function more naturally. By designing natural green corridors and infrastructure that can soak up water and carry it slowly through the city, “Blue Cities” designs also enhance neighborhoods and connect existing open spaces.

How CRWA acheives Blue Cities®

Restoring urban greenscapes and natural hydrologic function is at the heart of CRWA’s Blue Cities Initiative. Using historic maps as a starting point to understand how rainwater once functioned before urbanization, Blue Cities analyses evaluates opportunities for restoration that work with, rather than against, natural hydrology. CRWA evaluates soil types, historic groundwater flow, and historic versus constructed drainage patterns. This information forms the basis for retrofitting buildings, streets and parking lots to capture and treat runoff, connect isolated greenspace, and create greenways – in effect, mimicking historic natural conditions.

CRWA’s work includes partnering with others to build and monitor our demonstration projects, modeling the potential impacts of large scale Blue Cities designs, and training other environmental advocates, local residents, and municipal officials. CRWA has begun to expand Blue Cities nationally, and we will be working in new cities and training new partners in the coming five years.



Blue Cities Resources

Download a PDF of the
Blue Cities Guide

Order a full-color hard copy of the Blue Cities Guide at the CRWA Store

Current Blue Cities Projects

Blue Cities® Educational Resources

Charles River Municipal
Phosphorus Reduction Program

Newton Conservators Newsletter: Building Blue Cities, June 2012

Project Manager

Pallavi Kalia Mande
Pallavi Kalia Mande
Director of Blue Cities
Staff Bio
781.788.0007 x232 |
Blue Cities® Guide

CRWA's Blue Cities approach and early work in the City of Boston is fully detailed in the Blue Cities Guide: Environmentally Sensitive Urban Development. This guide was produced with funding from The Boston Foundation and the Cabot Family Charitable Trust.
Blue Cities Guide

"Blue Cities® is a new paradigm
for the urban environment, solving problems with techniques that
improve today's environment and protect tomorrow's."

- Charles River Watershed Association

Blue Cities® Training and Consulting

CRWA offers Blue Cities training and consulting services to environmental organizations, community groups, municipalities, government agencies, consulting firms, and property owners on a fee for service basis. Please
contact Pallavi Mande, Director of Blue Cities, to learn more about these opportunities.

Blue Cities® Projects

As part of our Blue Cities Initiative, CRWA is actively working with communities in our watershed and beyond to design resilient, water-friendly Blue Cities. Click on the links below to read more about CRWA's Blue Cities Projects:

Subwatershed Scale Neighborhood and Street Scale Site Scale

CRWA's Educational Resources


Travis after


Funding for Blue Cities projects includes support from:

Barr Foundation DCR Mass DEP
Harvard Allston Partnerhip Fund
The Jesse B. Cox Charitable Trust
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Ladd Family Foundation
George H. and Jane A. Mifflin Memorial Fund

American National Power through
Foundation for MetroWest
River Network Logo
HUD through MAPC DHCD grant through Allston Brighton CDC
Waltham Watch Factory Melnea Cass Redesign

Last updated January 6, 2013s