Stormwater pollution is a huge problem that we have to do something about, but sometimes when people who specialize in that field approach city planning, they miss the forest for the trees. We have to distinguish between parking and roads (which are liabilities to be limited) and buildings (which are opportunities to be grown) when we talk about stormwater overflow.
A Cooling Anecdote for a Hot Summer Day
I once wrote the S. Kingstown local government to ask that the bike path there be plowed and salted to make it safe for winter passage. The email I got was very polite, explaining that the town could not salt the path lest the runoff harm the nearby wetlands. To be sure, though, all of the roads in the entire watershed area are salted, despite being much wider, and despite the fact that other types of pollution emanate from them. To be fair to the town of South Kingstown, they are the only Rhode Island town that I'm aware of that plows paths at all, though they choose to plow only half of the path, and only after all the car routes have been plowed. The result, unfortunately, is that a lot is melted and re-frozen to the path before anything's removed in the first place, and it only gets worse over time as the half of the path that is un-plowed melts and freezes some more.
Anyway, you can gather that this is a pet peeve of mine. I definitely think we should protect our wetlands, but I also think that we would do so more efficiently if we focused less energy on car infrastructure and more on transit and biking options.
Sea Level Rise Has to be Fought with Density
Enter a mostly great story in Eco RI News about a related issue: sea level rise, and how to deal with the huge amount of water that might soon inundate the I-195 land and other locations throughout the state. The article makes a whole bunch of a great points, but there were a few that I wanted to take issue with. Pulling a passage from the article:
These watersheds are already impacted by dense development and large expanses of impervious surfaces, such as roads and roofs. Water-quality impairments in surface waters have been linked to watersheds with impervious cover as low as 10 percent. The Providence River watershed is about 30 percent impervious surfaces and the much-larger Narragansett Bay watershed is about 14 percent. The Providence River is on the Rhode Island 2012 list of impaired waters for nitrogen, dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform. (my italics)
I think it's misleading to focus on percentages in this context, because the percentages mask the real problem. As with many Rhode Island statistics, the percentages used to talk about our state's density make a lot of sampling errors, and don't distinguish between important things like whether a place is completely paved over with parking lots, or whether a place is dense with buildings and people.
In a separate article I wrote a bit about this on RI Future, but I'm going to keep hammering at this idea until I get a receptive audience from the environmental community at large. If you look at percentages of impervious surface, who comes out on top (as in, least harmful)? It's Warwick and Cranston. Who is actually responsible for the worst pollution? Warwick and Cranston. It's exactly the opposite if you take the places with the highest impervious surface percentages. The very highest in the state is Central Falls, with nearly 70% coverage. But Central Falls has a very low per capita coverage, and also has the lowest in the region for absolute impervious coverage. So the people of Central Falls, stacked on each other in triple-deckers, are polluting less not more.
Take a look at the Warwick Mall overlaid over downtown Providence in the great image that GCPVD created, back during the first debates about parking and congestion in regards to the potential downtown stadium:
|Greater City Providence shows the Warwick Mall overlaid with Downtown Providence. All impervious surfaces are not created equal.|
No New Parking!
The point I tried to make in the RI Future article was different than the one Jef Nickerson was making: here he's pointing out how silly it is that people complain that there's not enough parking nearby to have a stadium, when in fact there are several parking garages within the same walking distance that one would have to cover if they parked at the edge of the Warwick Mall parking lot. But the point is related. Look at how unproductively the Warwick Mall uses land. It's not at all the same thing to put a building down with a roof as it is to build a road or a parking lot. Roads and parking lots are inherently obligations with huge costs that can never be balanced with the benefits they bring, except by ruthlessly limiting their expansion. A town like Warwick is fundamentally unsound. Every intersection has to have four or six lanes of traffic. Every crossing requires hundreds of thousands of dollars of light signals. Every commute, even to things within a short distance, requires a car--and in turn that means requiring parking in every location so that people can go from lot to lot, like fat bumblebees in search of nectar. War(wick) is hell; it's true.
But that brings me to my second passage from the article:
Boyd [a sea level rise expert] said that  flooding — caused by an offshore low-pressure system that produced wind speeds of up to 53 mph and occurred during a moon tide — is representative of 3 feet of sea-level rise, likely before 2100, that will render current Waterplace Park walkways impassable except during the lowest tides.
He said any development project proposed for the I-195 district — or any other coastal development, for that matter — should incorporate at least 3 feet of sea-level rise into the design. Buildings should be elevated, with perhaps some parking space underneath, and utilities installed up high.
Really? We're going to fight climate change with parking? Ugh. Such a lack of imagination!
Not only does adding more parking make it more likely that people will drive from the perspective of creating more space to put cars, but it also pretty much obliterates the pedestrian realm, by making things unpleasant and uninteresting to walk through. Already we have too many curb cuts to get cars in and out of parking lots and garages in downtown, but even those who are imagining a future around climate change expect the same?
Learn from Houston
The difference between parking and buildings is not an academic point. People who tried fighting stormwater pollution in the past assumed that the problem should make no distinctions between parking lots or buildings, and what they ended up with was a lot of parking (see the Houston section around 3:50):
We have to think of a different way of doing things, or we'll always get the same result. The EcoRI article makes a lot of valid points as concerns the danger to our buildings from their low-lying locations, and hopefully we'll find smart ways to both prevent and adapt to sea level rise. But whatever we do will require more density, and less parking.