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Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Richard Carson - RTX3DKUO

The Impacts of Heavy Rainfall on the Environment

The recent rain events this past week caused extreme flash flooding throughout the Northeast region. Parkways, streets, and metro or subway stations in New York, Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Massachusetts flooded leaving motorists, pedestrians, and commuters stranded and exposed to horrid conditions. I have become worrisome, not particularly of the increase in the intensity and frequency of torrential downpours, but of our current incapacity and mismanagement to handle all of this water. Every time we face intense rain, I have to think to myself: What towns or streets will face flooding? Who would want to walk through a transit system with murky water past their ankles with absolutely no knowledge of what bacteria or toxins lurk in that water? How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems? Are we really placing public and environmental health, safety, and the quality of life for all as a top priority? Climate change has brought an increase of rain intensity and frequency. Rainfall intensity is the measure of the amount of rain that falls during a period of time while rainfall frequency is the amount of times it rains during a specified period of years. An increase in air and water temperature brings an increase of precipitation.  But we cannot isolate climate change, we must also pay close attention to the factors that it engages with. I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems. All of these factors exacerbate flooding and can be detrimental to our water systems.

Impervious Surfaces…

The large surface area of impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots, and roofs, that have replaced our natural landscape, do not allow water to infiltrate into the ground and speeds up the process of rainwater runoff entering the drainage systems. The runoff and the pollutants collected from impervious surfaces are either turning into floods or entering our water systems at a faster rate than it can be managed.

Lack of Greenspaces…

This kind of ties in with impervious surfaces. I think it’s safe to say that the more impervious surfaces we create, the less access to greenspace we have. Greenspace is extremely crucial. It provides benefits such as reducing and filtering polluted stormwater runoff, reducing soil erosion, and improving air quality. When we lack greenspace, we have to deal with a lot of preventable challenges. With a lack of soil and vegetation to absorb and filter the rainfall, we experience flooding and overloaded sewers. With a lack of vegetation, we experience an increase in air temperature (Note what I stated earlier about the effects of an increase in air temperature).

Outdated Infrastructures and Sewer Systems…

The outdated infrastructures and the combined sewer systems were built only to hold a certain capacity of rainfall. In addition, transit systems and roadways aren’t effectively updated or repaired. Poor management leads our infrastructures to dilapidate and become swamps. In the recent floods, water leaked through the concrete vaulted ceilings of the WMATA Capitol South metro station. In a few of New York’s subway stations, water entered through the ceiling and stairways flooding the stations. Combined sewer systems are typically found in older cities. When the capacity of the system is surpassed, the untreated wastewater and stormwater runoff flows into our waterways or can back up into buildings through the pipes or overflow from the storm drains onto the streets.

 

GW Parkway

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

GW Parkway at DCA

Flooding on the George Washington Memorial Parkway

Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax

Flooded street on Martha Custis Drive in Parkfairfax, Virginia

Capitol South Metro_02

Water leaking through concrete vaulted ceiling in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Capitol South Metro

Flooding conditions in Capitol South Metro Station, WMATA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_03

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_02

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Flooded NYC Subway Station_03

Flooding conditions in NYC Subway Station, MTA

Now What…

With climate change there will be an increase of storm intensity and frequency, but how do we plan and design for worsening conditions? As the climate changes we must adapt our habits, the way we design, and our management of infrastructure. Stormwater management practices are used to reduce stormwater runoff, control flooding, reduce erosion, and improve water quality. These practices include green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), flood control reservoirs, and tunnels (SMART Tunnel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the Deep Tunnel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin addresses flash flooding and stores millions of gallons of overflow and sewage). Green infrastructure can be used to not only address our stormwater issues but to beautify our communities by creating healthy environments. Just imagine walking, driving, or riding your bike down a green street filled with a canopy of trees, native vegetation, GSI interventions, enhanced sidewalks, public art, and other street design features. A green street utilizes green infrastructure, improves public health and safety, and can even yield economic benefits.

We also have to contemplate all of the paved vacant lots or unused parking lots. For an example, malls all over the United States have an immense amount of parking.  What can we do with these spaces? These are opportunities to implement green infrastructure and green spaces for public spaces that can incorporate activities, pop-up spaces, farmers markets, etc.

In addition to the stormwater management practices, the timely repair and maintenance of infrastructure needs to be a requirement or else it will not function properly. Also, funding should be appropriately allocated to ensure that the proper solutions are identified and instated.

The strategies will not be the same in every location because the approach should be acclimated to the specific needs of that region based on in-depth analysis, research, and community engagement. However, with careful and purposeful consideration and action we can move in the right direction. I leave you with this: How can you be a part of the movement to create safe, equitable, and sustainable infrastructures and communities?

 

Jazmin Kimble is a Geo-Designer, Urban Designer, and Architectural Designer from Long Island, NY. She has a passion for empowering and planning adequate, equitable communities through the lens of Geodesign, Urban Design, Community Development, Sustainability, Environmental Solutions, and Community Engagement. Jazmin believes the culture and the history of a community is what makes it unique. This approach allows her to design with communities from a holistic viewpoint.

23_unclog-drains

Protect Your Drains

Let’s be honest, we are ALL guilty of rinsing dishes or throwing leftovers or scrapes into our “garbage disposal” in our sinks. After all, if that’s not what it’s meant for, why do we have them? Garbage disposals are great additions to homes. For example, they:

  1. reduce the use of plastic trash bags that end up in landfills and waterways
  2. reduce food waste in landfills, which helps reduce greenhouse gases like methane
  3. send wastewater to water treatment plants where it is then recycled into fertilizer and other energy sources

Despite its benefits, it turns out that garbage disposals are not a trash can substitute. Although it may be convenient, disposing certain things through the sink and garbage disposal does more harm than good to your plumbing, expenses, and to the general quality of water. For example, grease should never be poured down the drain. When fats and grease cool, they solidify, thus creating blockage in the system. Also, grease and water do not mix. If a food item is covered by grease the grease builds up over time making it harder for the water to pass it through the system. On a neighborhood scale, pouring grease in your drains affects  the sewage, water pressure, and water quality for you and your neighbors.

Try to avoid disposing the following into your drains and garbage disposals for the sake of your expenses and the health of the region:

  1. Grease – for the reasons stated above.
  2. Pasta and Rice- When exposed to water, they expand, meaning they will clog your drain.
  3. Bones- The thickness and strength of a bone can reduce the strength and sharpness of the blades and eventually ruin your disposal.
  4. Seeds, apple cores and other solids- these items are too solid for the disposal and, like the bones, can break down your system.
  5. High-fiber foods and egg shells- The fiber in foods like celery, kale, potato peelings and asparagus can entangle the blades, thus slowing down the equipment and dulling the blades.
  6. Hair- Like fibrous foods, hair can get tangled in the drain, creating more blockage, slowing down the equipment and dulling the blades.
  7. Coffee Grounds- This tends to get caught in the drain trap.
  8. Non-food items- The quickest way to ruin your system is to place plastic items such as utensils, plates or even napkins into the garbage disposal. If is harder for such items to pass and can destroy or back up a system.
  9. Chemicals- Though household cleaners and items like bleach and paint are liquids, they can cause damage to the drain. Also most contain toxic chemicals that are then passed into the water system and are much harder to filter.

So what is safe to go down the drain? Below are things most disposals and drains are equipped to handle:

  1. Water- It’s a best practice to rinse your drain and disposal first before running food through it.
  2. Liquids and soft foods- It’s important to specify here that chemicals are inappropriate. Juices, vinegar,milk, etc are ok. As far as foods, blend or chop up the food as much as possible. The consensus is that if it’s smooth or soft enough for a baby to eat, then it is ok for the drain.
  3. Ice- this may help break up any build up in the pipes while also giving it a good rinse.

Key takeaway: Do not place non-food items into the garbage disposal. This will save you money, time, and frustration within your home and extend the longevity and quality of the regional water and sewer system. Remember, every small action has large scale consequences for the region and individual alike.
For more information on how to protect your drains, check out sites like the North Texas “Defend Your Drains” Program or your city’s recommendations on composting, recycling and waste management. And in case you forget, check out this infographic by 1st call drains at http://www.1stcalldrains.com/news/12-things-never-put-drain/.

Drainage Clearance

Drainage Clearance

Christie Holland is an urban planner from St. Louis, MO interested in community development, transportation planning, infrastructure, and urban design challenges. 

 

understandingdeaf

ADA and The Built Environment

Much of the built environment in America was designed for able-bodied males.  Thankfully the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was put into law in 1990.  That is less than 30 years ago.  Imagine how difficult it was and is for anyone who is not able bodied enough to traverse urban spaces whether it be entering a building or simply leaving a curb to cross the street. Despite the progress made with this act, the ADA falls short of creating environments that accommodate all users.

The specific accommodations I am referring to are those that are for deaf or hard of hearing people.  Most ADA accommodations in the physical and built environment apply to those who are physically and visibly disabled to where they are unable to have the same physical motion as a person who is able bodied.  This leaves people who are kinetically able-bodied, yet still disabled, at a disadvantage.  Consequently, deaf or hard of hearing people are forced to navigate a sensory world where the design caters to those who are capable of hearing.  This serves as a challenge for them as many of the people who belong to the deaf community utilize sight, touch, and spatial awareness to orient themselves.

What does planning for the deaf look like?

There are several keys to planning for the deaf community.  One of them is maximizing sensory reach in public spaces.  When sight is your main tool of observing your surroundings, it is important that your vision is not obstructed or impaired.  Solutions to these issues could appear in the form of making sure that spaces at night are well lit so that deaf people can properly see each other while communicating with one another through American Sign Language (ASL).  Because deaf people use their hands, face, and body to communicate, they need to be able to clearly see with good lighting and minimal physical obstructions.

Two additional keys to planning spaces for deaf people are space and proximity.  Deaf people need space to communicate.  Space is a necessity so that a person may stand at a good enough distance to view the entire message.  This is also important if there are groups of people communicating using ASL.  Space is important so that everyone in the group may be able to remain engaged in the conversation through proper viewing of the person leading the discussion.  An example of how this can be executed is by constructing sidewalks in urban spaces that are wide enough to accommodate groups who are communicating with their bodies.

What’s Good for the Disabled, is Good for Everyone

The built environment must be inclusively designed for everyone who interacts with it.  If we keep people with disabilities in mind, we can successfully accommodate able-bodied hearing people as well.  ADA accommodations are not prone to disadvantaging able-bodied hearing people, so making changes in how we design can only improve our communities.

For more details on planning for the deaf as well as the DeafSpace project by Hansel Bauman of hbhm Architects, visit https://www.gallaudet.edu/campus-design-and-planning/deafspace .

 

Greg Grant is an Urban Planner from Houston, TX who is interested in planning equitable transportation and environmental solutions for communities.  In his spare time he enjoys cooking and DJing, but not at the same time.





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