Parks and urban land could solve stormwater challenges

Chris Nordstrom, PLA, ASLAFor the 14th consecutive month, the monthly global temperature record has been broken. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), June’s combined average temperature was 1.62 degrees above the 20th century average. Only two spots on the globe had lower than average temperatures; no land areas experienced record cold readings for the month. It has been 40 years since the planet averaged below normal temperatures.Whether you feel climate change is man-made or just a natural cycle, there is little debate that it’s happening. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences Assessments Program (GLISA) report that average temperatures in Michigan have increased, with the increases most noticeable during the winter seasons. This summer’s drought aside, precipitation has also increased across most of lower Michigan, primarily during the winter and fall months. Michigan experienced an increase in annual precipitation of 4.5% during the 1981-2010 period, although there was significant variability across the state; southeast Michigan saw an increase of 9.5 percent, while the Upper Peninsula fell 2.8 percent. The average number of extreme weather events, where precipitation exceeded one inch in a 24 hour period, increased by over 13 percent.These increases in precipitation pose serious problems for developed areas around the world. Extreme weather events can overwhelm stormwater systems, causing flooding, sewage overflows, and erosion-related damage. Cities with crumbling infrastructures are facing escalating costs and dwindling budgets as they attempt to find cost-effective solutions to addressing these challenges.Might parks and open spaces compliment if not outright replace existing stormwater treatment systems and facilities? The Trust for Public Land (TPL) recently released a report presenting several case studies where park facilities were used as stormwater management facilities. In some cases, the parks spurred hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in the surrounding area. Closer to home, the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources launched a program to study the use of vacant lots in Detroit to create bioretention gardens help retain and clean stormwater.At a time when park and municipal utility department find themselves fighting for precious funding, these innovative solutions could form the basis of a mutually beneficial partnership.