Minds in the Gutter

New York City is plagued by its antiquated sewer system that channels both waste and stormwater runoff into the same pipes. Anyone who has experienced subway delays due to flooding or walked by the Gowanus Canal after a heavy rain knows that our sewers are easily overloaded, a problem exacerbated by the 6,000 miles of impervious roadways that send stormwater streaming directly into the pipes. Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are responsible for a staggering 27 billion gallons of untreated wastewater — bodily fluids, trash, industrial waste, you name it — spilling into our city’s waterways. Opportunities to mitigate the problem abound in New York City and small stormwater management interventions can make a huge difference. But the implementation of even small changes can turn out to be an insurmountable challenge. Kate Zidar and the North Brooklyn Compost Project learned this the hard way — but used their defeat as inspiration to develop an interdisciplinary ideas competition, exhibition, panel discussion and continuing forum for new ideas, collectively known as Minds in the Gutter. Here, Kate Zidar explains why stormwater management is crucial to our health, our waterways and our city, and illustrates the challenges of implementing an idea when everyone likes it, but nobody has the authority to say yes.V.S. 

Photo by Flickr user niznoz

Stormwater in New York City is everybody’s and nobody’s problem. Rain falls everywhere: on public property, on private property, everywhere. But even with PlaNYC in the works and ambitious stormwater management initiatives inching closer to home via Chicago, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, New York has yet to make a dent in the approximately 27 billion gallons of stormwater-induced sewer overflow that contaminate our waterways every year.

In the summer of 2009, members of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, a volunteer-run compost pile in McCarren Park, Brooklyn sought permission to retrofit a section of vegetation on N. 12th Street to manage the stormwater from the road. Compost, in addition to literally bringing dead city soil back to life, can help absorb and detox polluted urban runoff. We had noticed a long grassy strip between the sidewalk and gutter where the old slate curb had already sunken to the level of the roadway. Here, water pooled into the vegetated area during rainstorms whereas an intact curb would have hurried the rain down to the storm drain on the corner.

Street view of site adjacent to McCarren Park

This eureka moment led to a game of “What If?” What if we took out a section of the curb and brought the water into the vegetated area on purpose? What If we planted a rain garden there? What If all gutters around the city had similar depressions in them where soil and plants could thrive and drink up some of the extra rain? What if the air was cooler and cleaner? What if the sewers no longer overflowed when it rained?

Most runoff flows directly into the city’s combined sewer, and once the stormwater is in the sewer, you’ve pretty much lost your chance to do anything useful with it. And one way or another, we have to pay: we either pay to treat it like sewage – which it is not – at the sewage treatment plant, pay for it ecologically when it overflows with a mixture of sewage into local waterways, or pay for it in that big picture way when, by breaking natural environmental cycles, we perpetuate chronic ills such as urban heat island effect. So what can we do? Interventions that might help alleviate the problem require the support and approval of multiple agency gatekeepers. The Department of Transportation has to uphold the integrity of the curb, the Department of Parks and Recreation has to sign off on planting, and the Department of Environmental Protection has to inspect specific stormwater overflow mechanisms.

In short, when North Brooklyn Compost Project became interested in testing a stormwater management strategy on a block in Williamsburg, we found that everybody liked the idea, but nobody could say yes.

Subwatershed Deliniation

Subwatershed deliniation, NYCSWCD

To get an idea of what this small-scale intervention might accomplish, we enlisted the help of experts from NYC Soil and Water Conservation to analyze the site as though it were a mini watershed. We learned that our gutter received water from just under .2 acres of roadbed, a “micro watershed” indeed. But as a 100% impervious paved area, that area can shed almost 5,000 gallons during a 1-inch storm. This is what 5,000 gallons of water looks like, more or less:

According to Dr. Paul Mankiewicz at The Gaia Institute, “every 33 gallons of water captured by natural landscapes and evaporated through green plants each day provides a ton of air conditioning, displacing the amount of energy needed, and the energy cost, of cooling urban areas. … About every ten gallons of water captured and fed to trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants can capture one pound of carbon. There is no way for plants to capture or fix carbon without this water. Stormwater capture is essential to the carbon balance of the landscape.”

Basically, we could look at the 5,000-gallon storm as a swimming pool-sized problem for our watershed, or we could see it as an opportunity to generate 150 tons of air conditioning and capture 500 pounds of carbon, and rehabilitate the soil ecology. That’s how we ended up in the gutter, contemplating the wastes of the city as something potentially incredibly productive.

Unfortunately, good intentions only get you so far. The Department of Parks and Recreation, in charge of all things vegetated, would not permit existing tree roots to potentially be disturbed or road salt to enter the soil (despite promises to excavate by hand or the rationale that the curb was already sunken). The Department of Transportation could not permit a curb inlet where cars would parallel park (again, despite the curb’s already sunken state). We offered stepping stones in response to concerns over egress, subterranean French drains in response to predictions of turned ankles on varied terrain, but finally, begrudgingly, we had to abandon the site.

In retrospect, our little project never stood a chance. Even if we arrived at a concept design that appeased both Parks and DOT concerns and still did what we aimed to do in the beginning, who would guarantee maintenance? Not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars required for construction grade drawings that the city wanted to even continue the conversation.

So who, if anyone, would be able to implement a project like this in New York City? Through the Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition, a network of local community-based organizations and environmental groups, we learned of a handful of gutter projects that had been implemented in New York City, and a larger handful that were struggling just like ours. Together we wondered, how is the implementation process influencing design? How can barriers to implementation be removed? And how can we deal with the specific design challenges related to stormwater management in the public right-of-way, a rough third of the entire city’s surface that is 100% impervious?

Minds in the Gutter

So began Minds in the Gutter, a call for submissions to anyone — professionals, students, the general public — with ideas for managing stormwater runoff from New York City roadways and sidewalks, and an exploration into what agencies and individuals are thinking about and working on these issues. We recognized the opportunity, in selecting members of our jury, to bring different voices from city government, academia, urban pedagogy and state-level green infrastructure planning to the table.

Minds in the Gutter Jury Members:
Nette Compton
, Senior Project Manager for Design at NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Design Trust Fellow for Designing Parks for the 21st Century
Karen Engel
, Green Infrastructure Coordinator at NY State Department of Environmental Conservation
Christine Gaspar, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy
Aaron Koch
, Policy Advisor for Water at the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability
Wade R McGillis
, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University
John McLaughlin
, Director of the Office of Ecological Service in the Bureau of Environmental Planning and Analysis for NYC Department of Environmental Protection
Margaret Newman
, AIA, LEED AP, Chief of Staff for NYC Dept Of Transportation
Alexandros E. Washburn
, AIA, Chief Urban Designer for NYC Department of City Planning

We also recognized the opportunity, in requesting designs from the broader community, to grow that table of voices and expertise. Dozens of submissions, representing hundreds of individuals, came in, exceeding our expectations in many ways. We received everything from the back-of-the-envelope sketch to the future perfect renderings of architectural firms. Some minds were focused in on the sidewalk, the curb, street trees and catch basins, while others addressed entire street corridors. Some minds tackled a gutter they traversed every day, while others build prototypes with intent to travel almost anywhere. (See p. 2 for a gallery of submissions selected by the jury.)

Today’s results of Minds in the Gutter are interesting for the designs themselves but also for the underlying community they reveal, representing all five boroughs and many different points of view. What if we could all get to the table when decisions about the public right-of-way are made? What if, similar to the DOT’s Plaza Program, where inspiration for new plazas are taken from community groups who then participate in their stewardship, you could request that your bus stop go vegetated, your street tree be paired with a cistern, and your “NO Parking Anytime” spot be permeable? Would urban design get better, become more attuned to local needs and values, or would the curb crumble in the great cacophonic tradition of Babylon? What if all these small requests stitched together into widespread stormwater management strategies for each of New York City’s local watersheds? At the very least, we can continue to grow the virtual table, and continue to collect your ideas for the gutter. Stay tuned at www.mindsinthegutter.org.

Click through to page 2 to view images from Minds in the Gutter submissions selected by the jury with commentary by Kate Zidar.

The first viewing of the Minds in the Gutter designs will take place on Earth Day, Thursday, April 22, 6:30pm at the Museum of the City of New York. Deborah Marton, Executive Director of the Design Trust for Public Space, will moderate a panel discussion about the submissions, featuring some of the competition’s jurors, exhibiting designers and representatives of the S.W.I.M. Coalition. For tickets and event info, click here. Minds in the Gutter was made possible by the New York City Environmental Fund.

Kate Zidar is an Environmental Planner working on soil, water and food issues in New York City.  She coordinates the Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition, teaches at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, and runs the North Brooklyn Compost Project.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

Pages: 1 2

2 Responses to “Minds in the Gutter”

  1. great effort. keep it up. it will make a difference.

  2. As someone who watched the ocean meet the bay during Hurricane Sandy, I am convinced one of the big reasons the water did not
    recede as quickly in some areas than in others was because of proper drainage (but how could I prove this?).

    You ought to take your message to the people who have been affected by waters that appear to linger a lot longer than they should be and then ask them to take your message to the politicians.

    There is strength in numbers.
    Good Luck!
    M. Najeddine

Leave a Reply