Local Leadership on Climate Change and the Promise of Bioretention

posted on Monday, February 1, 2021

Guest blog post by Bradley Adams, student at Drake University Law School

Recent federal efforts to address the causes and effects of climate change have been lackluster, non-existent, and in some circumstances have been backsliding. In response, some local governments have developed innovative solutions to help reduce emissions and create climate-resilient communities.

This past fall, the Elizabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University held its first iteration of the Environmental Law and Policy Hack Competition, which challenged teams comprised of law students and local stakeholders from around the country to develop strategies for local governments to adopt that can help their communities adapt to and mitigate climate change using vegetative landscapes. 

Flooding in Cedar Rapids

As part of a team made up of Drake University law students, members of the IDNR, and staff with the Iowa Environmental Council, I helped to develop a policy brief geared toward addressing the problems faced by what arguably is Iowa’s most climate-battered community: Cedar Rapids.

The main thrust of the brief is offering development bonuses to builders for incorporating bioretention practices into new subdivisions. An ideal system would be one where developers profit by being able to build taller buildings on a higher percentage of lots, maximizing the space available for sale or rent. In turn, Cedar Rapids would benefit from increased property tax revenues. The community benefits through more attractive neighborhoods and higher property values, as well as the manifold impacts bioretention has on the environment.

Simply put, bioretention is planting native vegetation in a modified soil matrix. Practices vary in size and complexity from small planter boxes to large green roofs and retention basins. The soil and plant life keep water from quickly overwhelming sewer systems during heavy rainfall events while filtering out nutrients and pollutants before they flow into waterways. Increased vegetation combats increased local temperatures caused by heat retained in impervious surfaces, a phenomenon known as the heat island effect. Heating and cooling costs are reduced through increased shade and wind diversion when bioretention systems are placed on the tops and sides of structures. The additional plant life also creates habitat for critically important species such as pollinators. Soil systems used in the process may even help trap carbon emissions.


Bioretention, however, is not a practice that comes without challenges. Weather conditions in cold climates can diminish the efficacy of bioswales and bioretention basins. High upfront costs might deter communities from considering them as an option. Systems also require dutiful attention and maintenance to ensure they are performing as intended. For these reasons, it is imperative to consider the full range of benefits offered by bioretention, and carefully adhere to best management practices put forth by the scientific community regarding installation and upkeep.

Uncertainty and upfront spending are both attendant to any measure utilized to address climate change. But it is clear by now that the cost of taking no action at all will be much greater. As a society, we can no longer afford to treat climate change as a debatable issue. Care for our living space is not something to be shunted into the “left” or “right” column of our political discourse. Our environment is the canvas upon which all of our other societal debates are colored and given meaning. Bioretention is not a panacea to treat all climate related woes, but can be one part of a larger solution to protect our homes and livelihoods. In the absence of federal leadership, the impetus is upon all of us to urge our local leaders to act on our behalf.

Bradley Adams, law studentBradley Adams is in his final year of studies at Drake University Law School, and has worked as a writing fellow for the Sustainable Development Code since 2019. He plans to practice in the field of sustainability and environmental law.

  1. clean water
  2. flooding
  3. water quality