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 How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems?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 I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems.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

Cover

Should the Experiment City Be Revived?

I find it fascinating how the writings and sketches of visionaries like Le Corbusier, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Clarence Perry, to name a few, have influenced the development of cities around the world. I think that is the reason I was drawn to planning and engineering: I love how visions and ideas become tangible.

In late February, I had the opportunity to watch Chad Freidrich’s documentary “The Experimental City.” The film is about the Minnesota Experimental City (MXC): a planned domed futuristic city for 250,000 residents to be placed in the isolated woods of Swatara, Minnesota. Envisioned by Athelstan Spilhaus, a scientist and futurist comic strip writer, the purpose of this experimental project was to tackle the problems affecting urban centers in the 1960s (and today): pollution, segregation, sprawl, and aging infrastructure. The city was supposed to pilot the latest technologies in communications, transit, pollution control, and energy supply, learn from the mistakes, and ultimately, provide solutions to create more livable cities for the 21st Century.

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by  Athelstan Spilhaus' "Our New Age" comic. Source: Archdaily

“Our New Age” Comic (1966) by Athelstan Spilhaus. Climate change was identified as a future problem by Athelstan Spilhaus’ “Our New Age” comic.
Source: Archdaily

Things did not quite go as planned despite the support from public and private stakeholders (spoiler alert!). To Spilhaus and his backers’ surprise, the community of Swatara and many environmental groups, like the Izaak Walton League, rallied against the project. MXC was seen as a source of pollution; not a way to tackle it. As such, Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency did not grant a permit and the project ran out of funding. MXC became a thing of the past.

However, after watching the movie, I wonder: should MXC be revived? Personally, I do not like the idea of having a domed, segregated city placed in a pristine environment. I do believe that these unspoiled areas should be conserved for the public’s enjoyment. However, I like the idea of establishing pilot cities in previously impacted areas, such as brownfield sites, to evaluate the effects of new technologies at a faster rate.  This will not be an easy task. It will require strong public-private partnership and community support as well as regulatory oversight.

We are faced with many challenges, such as the effects of climate change and aging infrastructure, which require the development of new technologies such as autonomous vehicles. Pilot cities may promote the proper advancement of technologies and its consequences at a faster pace. There is always a risk in experimentation. However, trial-and-error is how humankind has advanced over the years.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges

LAGI Willimantic_Presentation (1)

Imagining Art for a Site in Willimantic, CT

I love public art, especially art that is functionally integrated into infrastructure. I believe that public art has the capacity to activate public spaces, generate conversations, and educate the community.

During the past months, I have had the amazing and unique opportunity of using my engineering and urban planning skills and combine them with my love for public art. In December 2017, our team -composed of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, Gray Organschi, PUSH Studio, and Nspiregreen- was selected to be one of the three groups to participate in the final round of the Land Art Generation Initiative (LAGI) Competition. The purpose of this competition is to imagine, create, and develop an art piece for a specific site that captures energy from nature and cleanly converts it into electricity. This artwork should also be constructible, use market-available technologies, and respect the natural ecosystem of the design site.

Our specific challenge was to envision a public art piece for a parcel in Willimantic, Connecticut, located 30 miles southeast from Hartford. Willimantic is commonly known as the Thread City given its history with threading manufacturing in the 19th Century. In fact, the old Smithville Cotton Mill used to be located on the property and used hydropower as its source of energy. Today, Willimantic has a vibrant cultural scene and is home to Eastern Connecticut State University.

The 3.4-acre triangular site is a blank canvas as seen in the following pictures. The parcel is located beside the downtown area, just a few minutes from the town’s commercial area. The site is owned by the Willimantic Whitewater Partnership and was recently remediated for the presence of petroleum hydrocarbons. In addition, the site grading provides beautiful views of City Hall and the rapids of the Willimantic River. The site also includes a stretch of the river, a deteriorated dam (installed when the site used hydropower), and a retaining wall.

lagi

View from south side of the site towards City Hall (left) and view of amphitheater, river, and change in grading (right). (Picture owned by Gray Organschi)

After doing research, visiting the site, having a series of internal discussions, and talking with the community, we developed Eddy Line (an eddy line is the shear plane between two directions of water). As seen in the following pictures, our proposed design is a vertical structure, visible from many areas of town, that captures the water currents seen in the river, as well as the movements of threads in historic textile processes, while harkening back to the smokestacks of old textile factories. On the south side of the structure, a 1,250 square feet array of flexible thin-film solar panels capable of generating 94 MWh of energy annually is being proposed. Some of this energy will be used to power LED panels at the back of the structure which will change in color, allowing the community to know how much power has been generated. In the addition to the public art piece, our team is proposing an overlook and an amphitheater. With this design, we hope to transform this blank space into a place for the community of Willimantic to enjoy, create recreational and economic development opportunities, and trigger conversations around renewable energy, especially solar.

The winner of the competition will be officially announced on April 24 (here is a link to all three proposals). It would be amazing to continue seeing this vision come to reality. Regardless of the results, this has been a unique opportunity personally and professionally. In addition, it makes me happy that towns are embracing public art and their cultural heritage for placemaking, economic development, and building community.

Jimena Larson is an environmental engineer and urban planner from Bogota, Colombia interested in water, infrastructure, and urban design challenges.





BEGIN NOW

TELL US ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING PROJECT!



We would love to help you with your sustainability goals.
GET STARTED