Rethinking Runoff: How Stormwater Can be Harnessed for Better Design

The term “stormwater” does not evoke positive imagery for many people. It’s likely that the term conjures polluted water, pipes, and ponds rather than artful design features. However, the need for stormwater management has only become more important as the frequency and severity of storm events has grown. Over the past 20 years, this topic has become the focus of city officials and community leaders around the world, triggering calls to action and increased regulation to support the better management of water.

To meet regulations without compromising design quality, designers have had to think creatively. Artful Rainwater Design (ARD) is a rebranded, specialty focus of stormwater infrastructure and provides insight into creative stormwater design strategies that yield both community amenities and meets regulatory needs. This ARD approach suggests that not only can we achieve improved utilitarian benefits from this form of engineering but, when integrated as a featured design element for open space, stormwater management can also provide an added amenity to the community.

A typical approach taken by stormwater management facilities is to move a large amount of rainwater quickly and within a centralized location. However, a recent shift has been made towards smaller interventions that divert water flow and treat stormwater on-site, at the source. ARD can also reduce pollutant loads and capture rain for reuse while still safely controlling and containing water. This strategy combines the utility of stormwater management with the amenity of placemaking by focusing on the rain itself. From this approach have come many creative projects that use rainwater as a resource by celebrating rain as well as managing runoff.

One project that has transformed my own perception of rainwater is Canal Park in Washington, DC. Located on 3 acres of what was previously a parking lot for district school buses, this park not only captures, treats, and reuses rainwater, but also serves as an educational tool and community amenity. Designed by Philadelphia-based design firm OLIN, the park features an ice-skating loop, interactive water fountains, seating areas, and open spaces that are programmed with public events like movie screenings, fitness classes, and farmers markets.

Canal Park in Washington, DC

The park’s stormwater management system is designed to collect 100 percent of rainwater from the three-block length of the park and hold up to 80,000 gallons of water from neighboring rooftops and city blocks. Linear rain gardens run along the edge of the park and highlight a site-wide rainwater collection system that captures and collects runoff in cisterns under the ground. This water is treated and used for water fountains, irrigation, and an ice rink, satisfying up to 95 percent of the park’s water needs.

The linear nature of the park allows visitors to flow through the site, following the process rain makes as it travels through rainwater planters, down fountain skimmers, into the underground cistern, and is eventually repurposed back within site. By managing stormwater on-site there is an opportunity to educate and engage visitors regarding rainwater issues. Signage is often used to promote awareness of stormwater best management practices. This landscape allows visitors to discover how water is being managed on site, watch it’s process, and learn about the environmental importance of water management.

By making rainwater central to a project instead of an afterthought, ARD transforms stormwater facilities into places for people. Rethinking runoff and celebrating rain will allow us to take back the land that was once reserved for utilitarian purposes and make spaces for people to come together.

Image 1: Jan-Willem ReusinkCC BY 2.0
Image 2: Payton Chung / CC BY 2.0

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