Op-ed: Use rainwater through green infrastructure

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The urgency to repair the US infrastructure is staggering.

The recently introduced Non-partisan infrastructure framework, which focuses on traditional infrastructures such as roads and bridges, makes it clear that cities and towns need creativity to solve more than one infrastructure or climate problem at the same time.

Cities can, for example, retrofit road surfaces when rebuilding roads in order to directly absorb rainwater and urban floods through climate-friendly design. In other words, the solution to storms and floods does not lie in upgrading or expanding traditional infrastructure such as inlets, pipes and tunnels. It’s the surfaces of cities that need upgrading – and the streets are a primary target.

City streets and parking lots, which make up around 30 percent of the area of ​​a city, have to be redesigned so that they behave more like a sponge through the strong integration of nature-based design technologies such as permeable sidewalks and rain gardens.

Given that the rainwater infrastructure in the US has a degree of “D.“by the American Society of Civil Engineers and that the roads are ready for a fresh start with infrastructure funding, the time is ripe for creative solutions to problems that affect multiple infrastructure systems.

The importance of this moment cannot be overstated as climate-induced urban flooding occurs in annoying and disproportionate amounts in low-income, colored communities. A historical one Inadequacy of the traditional rainwater infrastructure is largely to blame.

Using rainwater through green infrastructure

Green infrastructure, including a healing garden and bio-retention pool, on the MedStar Harbor Hospital campus in Baltimore. (Recognition: Chesapeake Bay Program / Flickr)

I learned firsthand in the Calumet City community, just outside Chicago, that city administrators don’t necessarily want more underground gray infrastructure to help solve climate change floods. They want green infrastructure built on the surface of their neighborhoods with a focus on the driveway to accommodate their deep geography. You want everything Benefits for health and well-being of green infrastructure for their residents by creating green paths and enjoying the cooling effect of overgrown streets and commercial areas.

Although traditional underground gray infrastructure has historically been a backbone for storm management, these underground pipes and tunnels are limited, single-function technology. They are also expensive and slow to adapt to climate change. Where no water can reach the inflow, this leads to punctual flooding, often in streets, and if there is insufficient capacity in pipes and tunnels, additional blockages and bottlenecks occur, which cause sewage stagnation and overflows into adjacent waterways.

Rain doesn’t succumb to or fit into underground pipes and tunnels easily, and neither should it. Rain’s natural tendency is to seep into the immediate area where it falls. This supports natural systems and climate adaptation strategies in cities – taking in rainwater, not trying to get rid of it.

A transition from gray to green infrastructure is particularly critical for older industrial cities with aging, often combined wastewater and wastewater infrastructure that was new a century ago, but needs to rethink and intervene today. Roads with rainwater inlets are de-facto unnatural “tributaries” of these underground delivery lines. Rather than paving roads or enlarging underground pipes and tunnels, a third approach seems more appropriate – nature-based solutions can replace part of this road surface in order to naturally infiltrate water. Win-win-win.

But switching from gray to green is not just a technical solution, it is also a social one.

Community and ecological health


Sewer cleaning in Chicago. (Recognition: Seth Anderson / Flickr)

In Chicago, where I research and teach about rainwater design, polluted waterways and urban flooding occur when the city River system and the the urban area be inundated by more frequent and stronger storms. Historically, Chicago’s sanitary infrastructure has struggled to keep up with urbanization. When I moved there in 2010, mixed water overflows polluted the Chicago River and Lake Michigan annually.

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago has been building the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) to store tens of billions of gallons of untreated rainwater before it is treated and dumped into the Chicago River.

More than four billion dollars and 50 years of work will be spent on this gray infrastructure system, but when it is finally done (by 2029) this enormous infrastructure will be still won’t catch major storms and urban flooding will continue.

Because rain and cities have to be designed together—To limit runoff into these stormwater systems and make cities and people more resilient. Through the mutual thinking with water, the climate-adaptive rainwater design uses a broad knowledge of regional ecology, soils, seasons and the land itself as natural-systems Infrastructure that focuses on community and environmental health.

Large-scale gray infrastructures are often planned top-down by wastewater authorities. Instead, communities need to be directly involved in deciding where green infrastructure should be designed and implemented based on local needs and cultural preferences.

Remodel creatively

Green infrastructure in Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s Green City Clean Waters program is the first U.S. EPA-approved plan to collect two billion gallons of rain to control rainwater overflows using green infrastructure technologies rather than building tunnels. (Recognition: Leonel Ponce / Flickr)

Examples of green rainwater solutions abound. Extensive permeable roadway systems on the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, demonstrate to visitors that large storms can invade shallow gravel reservoirs and replenish groundwater. Green roads retrofitted with rainwater planters throughout Portland, Oregon, shade urban areas and absorb street runoff. Rain gardens integrated into people’s homes and neighborhoods, slowing and sucking up water along natural flow paths and lower areas. Ecological “floodable” community parks using the example of Mill Race Park in Columbus, Indiana, show that water fluctuations can be designed in our urban relaxation areas.

Living systems strategies like these can be incorporated into homes, city streets, soil, and neighborhoods to reduce high sealing and support flood-prone communities. As a practical benefit, greening above-ground infrastructure deliberately reduces rainwater ingress into pipes, which can protect aging underground infrastructure, reduce downstream impact, and reduce mixed water overflows in older cities.

Without question, the management and rebuilding of the water infrastructure that serves millions of people is extraordinarily complex and a plan for moving to a systems-based, greener rainwater approach for a city could be daunting. It’s exciting too.

For example, Philadelphia is committed to it. your Green city clean water Program is the first US EPA-approved plan to collect two billion gallons of rain to control rainwater overflows using green infrastructure technologies rather than building tunnels. It made good business sense, but it was also a choice to live adaptively on water, not against it.

While some rightly fight that the new Non-partisan infrastructure framework Plan does not go far enough to meet the need for climatic or social infrastructure and while we prepare for it major storms in climate change, we can use this moment of national infrastructure investments for creative reconstruction. Not by dismantling the same roads or laying more pipes under the city, but by retrofitting and reinvesting in the ground beneath our feet.

Mary Pat McGuire is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign, Director of Water laboratory in Chicago and Associate Editor of Fresh Water: Design Research for Inland Water Territories. She is 2020-2021 Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd project.

Banner Photo: Portland State University and the City of Portland are transforming Montgomery Street into a leafy pedestrian corridor demonstrating innovative ways of managing rainwater. (Recognition: Portland State University)



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