• Sat. Dec 4th, 2021

These Simple Design Schemes Can Help Combat Climate Change for Coastal Cities

Rain gardens, little watercourses with rainwater burbling over gravel fringed with a variety of water-loving plants, are becoming a more common sight along sidewalks across America. Amid the asphalt square miles of urban America, these mini islands of engineered nature—technically bioswale—are among several natural-system solutions that work hard to manage stormwater runoff.

That task may seem prosaic but they are changing city dwellers’ relationship to water. After all, water is more insistently a presence in peoples’ lives as rising seas invade shoreline communities and torrential rains grow fiercer and more frequent, with storm sewers sometimes erupting out of manhole covers in turbid fountains.

Yes, we can rip out the storm drains and put in bigger pipes. We can build high walls along coastlines—if only we could afford to do these things. Nature is coming to the rescue: “Green infrastructure,” that is, engineered by hydrologists, plant biologists, ichthyologists, and landscape architects. As these experts inject nature into streets, parks, and beaches, our awareness of water’s impact on our senses and bodies grows. It’s almost been hard not to become an aficionado of these jolts of natural beauty—flowers, butterflies, the breeze-riffled surface of a pond—amid the freeway and parking lot urbanism people have built.

If one were to walk recently along the edge of Seattle’s Elliott Bay, they’d see construction crews planting new esplanades with strips of native trees and plants laced with trails and bioswales—momentary natural solitude steps from skyscrapers. It’s part of the Waterfront Seattle park, designed by James Corner, founder of the landscape architecture Field Operations. Returning sites to “predevelopment conditions” (in the new parlance), even ones where nature was obliterated 170 years ago, is part of the climate adaptation playbook.

Between a pair of wharves, the firm placed tousled mounds of gravel to form a pebbly cove. The beach is already strewn with driftwood. It has sprouted native plantings and welcomes gulls. Beneath the waves the bay bottom has been contoured to offer sustenance and hiding places for migrating juvenile salmon.

The First Avenue Water Plaza in New York City, designed by landscape architect Scape.

Photo: Ty Cole