Blue is the new black, I hope.

“Blue space as an urban design term stands for visible water. Harbour front parks, rivers, ponds, lakes, ports, canals, fountains, etc. are all counted as blue spaces. It is an important physical and aesthetic element of landscape design.”

Urban Design and Public Health – What is Blue Space?

As discussed in the article reference above, most “blue space” in contemporary cities or developed areas is represented as polluted, often hidden or ignored water resources. Bringing these assets to the forefront of our physical environment can have many benefits, for the people and the environment.

I have been fortunate enough in my career to work with forward thinking planners and landscape architects, but there have also been instances where considering the water on-site to be a amenity versus a liability, have been more challenging.

Daylighting streams, removing them from underground culverts/pipes, and returning them to open air flow conditions has been happening in isolated situations for the past few decades. In some situations, local water resources are managed to create the illusion of a free-flowing system, yet controlled to prevent flooding and damage. One of the most notable examples being the Riverwalk in San Antonio, TX.

There is something about being near water that is certainly calming and creates a feeling of being connected to your surroundings so much more than a completely hardened landscape. Ironically, even the most obviously man-made water features are pleasing and draw people to them. Growing up in southeastern Virginia, water was everywhere, but so were people, industry, and military installations. Even with the dubious distinction at one time as one of the most polluted waterbodies in the US, the Elizabeth River (seen below from Portsmouth Seawall) always drew me in.

The cooler air, the birds are overhead, and the movement of the surface in the wind all provide a sensory experience that have resulted in over 40% of US residents living on or near the coast or a shoreline!

It is not challenging to see, from the graphic above alone, that changes to our shorelines, water levels (sea, rivers, lakes), and surrounding landscapes will affect most Americans. Yet, at the end of the day the draw is too strong to resist. We really can’t seem to help ourselves.

Aside from choosing to live within close proximity to water, our ability to manage stormwater effectively, in terms of quality and quantity, are grossly lacking. Stormwater Best Management Practices, often a misnomer in many ways, leave much to be desired in terms of protecting the receiving water resources…aka the stream or river that bears the brunt of all of the runoff generated from our parking lots, roads, roof tops, sidewalks, etc. There is a common misunderstanding that preserving some vegetation along these water ways (i.e. buffers) is a cure-all for excessive stormwater input…that is simply not true. It has it’s own benefits, and any vegetation that can be preserved in the urban/sub-urban environment should be, however, all that “extra” water (often polluted) wreaks havoc on our streams and rivers, from the headwaters to the sea.

Thankfully, there are ways to greatly minimize these negative impacts. There are technologies that can be used to significantly reduce runoff and the associated negative impacts to natural water courses. And as a BONUS, many of these practices can be built and incorporated into a development in such a way as to include “blue space”, create an amenity, and allow the water to work for us and not against us. Terminology such as Low Impact Development (LID) practices are how these practices are defined and can be described as such:

LID reintroduces the hydrologic and environmental functions that are altered with conventional storm water management. LID helps to maintain the water balance on a site and reduces the detrimental effects that traditional end-of-pipe systems have on waterways and the groundwater supply. LID devices provide temporary retention areas; increase infiltration; allow for nutrient (pollutant) removal; and control the release of storm water into adjacent waterways.

Whole Building Design Guide

So here’s my plug…this is totally doable for new developments and even retrofit opportunities exist all over. The residents need to insist on it, push their local planning boards/commissions or who ever approves plans and methodologies in your area. This is important for a community as a whole and it’s natural resources, often including impacts to drinking water supply/water quality issues, as well as private property damages that can occur from traditional methods of stormwater management.

Curb cut to allow water to enter bio retention area and infiltrate versus entering a pipe underground

Let’s bring the blue back into our environment, and reap the benefits from an economic, aesthetic, and environmental perspective. We have the technology!

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