Minds in the Gutter, Recap


Last night I attended a panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York about stormwater management, held around the exhibition of winners in the Minds in the Gutter competition I posted about in January. Now I'll admit that the management of stormwater -- the runoff from roofs, backyards and streets -- is not the most exciting topic, but the panelists* did a bang-up job of putting the issue front and center in the debate about how to make New York City greener. (Hence the timing with Earth Day.) I've never been a big fan of lecture and discussion write-ups, so I'll just highlight a few key points that were made.
  • Most of New York City's stormwater is diverted into combined sewers (combined with the water from indoor plumbing) contributing to the once-a-week CSO (combined sewer overflow) events where the water the system cannot handle is dumped into harbors. This fact alone hinders competition organizer S.W.I.M.'s goal of being able to swim in NYC's waterways. The basic idea is to keep the stormwater out of the combined sewers, a very agreeable proposition but one hard to implement.
  • When looking at stormwater management in terms of gray and green -- gray is the hard, engineering approach and green is the soft, sustainable approach -- both need to work together. Green solutions are too site-specific to have a widespread immediate effect and gray ones are what got us to this problem in the first place, so finding more gray fixes to the gray problems will not work.
  • While the design competition only looks at public ways, the streets and sidewalks and open spaces that make up 1/3 of the city's land, one needs to think of storwmater management in terms of sewersheds, a la watersheds. If all of the winners' designs were implemented they would only provide an incomplete solution. Roofs and backyards also need to part of the solution, pointing to the need for a cultural shift (a mild one is perceived) where property owners are aware of their role and take steps towards a remediation of the problem...ideally with the help of the city/state with tax breaks and similar incentives.
  • Keep an eye on the Hunters Point South development, as well as Atlantic Yards and Columbia University's Manhattanville expansion. In particular the first will be a pilot for the Department of Transportation's implementation of stormwater capturing via porous streets, a solution held up by issues of engineering and maintenance. Since Hunters Point South's streets will be new the city can implement these new techniques rather than having to rip up old streets before they know the techniques work and can be maintained.

Visit Urban Omnibus for a two-part post on Minds on the Gutter, which includes information on the winners.

*Deborah Marton, moderator, Executive Director of Design Trust for Public Space; Nette Compton, MIG juror, Senior Project Manager for Design at NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Design Trust Fellow for Designing Parks for the 21st Century; Ed Janoff, NYC Department of Transportation Office of Planning and Sustainability; Eric Rothstein, MIG exhibitor, eDesign Dynamics; Barbara E. Wilks, MIG exhibitor, W Architecture and Landscape Architecture; Kate Zidar, Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition