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 How much more can our water systems take from the toxic materials and untreated wastewater due to outdated infrastructures and sewer systems?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 I can certainly name a few: presence of impervious surfaces, lack of greenspaces, outdated infrastructures and sewer systems.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

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