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 How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems?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 I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems.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.

Picture1

Accessibility for the Disabled in Your Community

Last month when I crossed the street in Fairfax, I saw a very intriguing curb ramp that caught my attention. I noticed that the material on the slope surface is different than elsewhere. At first I was curious why it was designed that way, then I realized the material for the ramp was rougher compared to the rest of the sidewalk, and it has more friction on the surface. I assumed this is for people who are waiting to across the street and not to slip over the curb, especially on a rainy day. Also, for people who may have a physical disability, this kind of material can help the wheelchair gain more friction as they stop to check the traffic. I was surprised when I saw the detailing on the curb ramp to help people, and I started to pay attention – discovering those little nifty helpful details in my community.Picture1

 

As an Urban Planner, we need to do our best to plan for those who have a disability, making sure they can also have access to and can enjoy a high quality of life. When we deal with open space design, such as recreation areas and pedestrian routes, we need to pay more attention in these details. For example, we use Metro as our daily commute and we notice that the metro station does a really good job in providing accessibility: from going down to the train level to getting onto the train.

I found a handbook online: Accessibility for the Disabled – A Design Manual for a Barrier Free Environment.

This book mainly talked about 5 target disability categories:

(a). Wheelchair users

(b). People with limited walking abilities

(c). The sightless

(d). The partially sighted

(e). The hearing impaired

In the urban design consideration, it divided into 10 chapters:

  1. Ramps
  2. Elevators
  3. Platform lifts
  4. Stairs
  5. Railings and handrails
  6. Entrances
  7. Vestibules
  8. Doors
  9. Corridors
  10. Restrooms

The book has many details of the accessibility that we probably haven’t noticed before such as a barrier-free path for the safety and independence of disabled people; symbols of a wheelchair figure with either a square background or a square border. It gives principals about obstructions, signage, street furniture, pathways, curb ramps, etc.Picture2

 

In another article: Technological Innovations in Transportation for people with Disabilities

It talked about using technological advancement to help people with disability, and other technologies that could provide board safety and mobility benefits for pedestrians. Also, target assistive technologies to improve accessible transportation for people with vision impairment and other disabilities. There are 6 topics:

  1. Triggering a Virtuous Circle of Self-sustaining Accessibility and Transportation.
  2. Environmental Awareness for People with Visual Impairments-Gaps, Challenges and opportunities.
  3. Getting there is you are blind: Synergistic convergence of technologies to improve wayfinding.
  4. Using robotic and artificial intelligence to improve mobility and navigation of people with special needs.
  5. Opportunities and innovations in ITS and mobile technology for accessible transportation.
  6. Making technology universally accessible for all users, including those with sensory and cognitive impairments.

Accessibility in urban areas is now of more interest to me. I will continue reading the handbook but also figure out how it applies in reality.

Putting all of this into practice, Nspiregreen is currently working with the  District Department of Transportation on a project called Inclusive Transit – accessDC. The study will identify ways to give people with disabilities and aging adults in DC better access to multiple transportation services, allowing for greater mobility with dignity and independence, and easier integration in the community. I am happy to be a part of a project to make transportation options better for disabled people.

 

 

 

Micro bus in Caracas, Venezuela

Safety and Public Transportation

Last week was the first time I felt the impact of Metro’s SafeTrack on my life. The large crowds and the tight space between people on the trains made me flash back to my experience using public transportation in my home city, Caracas, Venezuela.

My experience using public transportation in Caracas goes back to more than 8 years ago. Since then, the country has faced countless changes (some good, many not that good). Because it has been quite a few years since I’ve used public transportation in Caracas, much of my observations may be outdated; however, my experience growing up using public transportation in another major world city provides me with some perspective about public transportation in the nation’s capital.

Hold your bag tight!

In my experience, moving around Caracas using public transportation was often a dangerous adventure. For me, safety concerns and public transportation could not be separated. I felt completely exposed when I was surrounded by crowds in closed spaces which happened often on public transportation in Caracas. I felt exposed to all kinds of people, crowded in small and moving spaces (buses and Metro), and this often created uncomfortable situations.

Before leaving home and taking public transportation I used to prepare for it. I dressed accordingly, with low-profile clothes and comfortable shoes, no jewelry or fancy bags (not even fake just in case someone did not know the difference). In other words, nothing that called unwanted attention. Because of the massive crowds on public transportation, I always held my bag tight. Although I was never a victim of robbery, I heard many stories of people who had items removed from their bags without them noticing.

While the District’s transportation system isn’t the poster child for safety, the massive crowding during Safe Track reminded me that I do not take the same level of preparation and precaution when using the Metro system. Furthermore, the alternatives to Metro are often safer here than the alternatives in Caracas.

“Camionetas” – An informal transportation method

Unsafe micro bus loading

Passenger getting in a “camioneta”

Using “camionetas” was quite an experience. The space inside was tight and they were usually crowded.  To request a stop there was no cord or button, you had to yell loudly “LA SIGUIENTE PARADA POR FAVOR” (“The next stop please”), and hope that the driver heard you.Because of the rapid and exponential growth Caracas has experienced in the past few years, the public transportation has collapsed. To move around the city, I along with thousands of people, used “camionetas” as a main transportation mode. These micro buses were affordable and connected many areas of the city that were not covered by Metro and other public transportation modes. They were often overcrowded, dangerous to people and the environment.

Although they had established stops, they were not strictly enforced by their drivers or even police. Since they were smaller than regular buses, they moved faster in traffic and with more frequency; therefore, transporting more people to their destinations in less time. The amount of passengers they carried, as well as the uncontrolled and unregulated loading and unloading of passengers put many lives at risk. People used to jump to get on the micro buses while they were moving. Bus drivers also let people jump out in the middle of the street instead of waiting to get to the next stop.

Unsafe micro bus unloading

Passenger getting off a “camioneta” in the middle of the street in Caracas

Camionetas were also a significant source of pollution because the majority of the microbuses were old and produced large amounts of exhaust. In addition, the particularly loud honks contributed to the noise pollution on the streets.

Since I have been working at Nspiregreen in the District, I greatly rely on Metro to commute to work. Next week, my commute will be significantly impacted by SafeTrack; however, it gives me great relief and comfort knowing that there are safe alternatives for public transportation. While I still have to be vigilant, I am more comfortable here than in Caracas using my electronic devices to get me through what might be a frustrating commute to work.

 

Fabiana I. Paez has a background in Geography and Cartography. She is passionate about creating visual designs to communicate and engage people in social and environmental causes.





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