You would think that in a metropolis as technologically advanced as New York City, keeping our clean water separate from our poop would be something we figured out a long time ago. But unfortunately, combined sewage overflows (CSOs) -- which occur when heavy rainfall causes excess stormwater to mix with untreated wastewater in our waterways -- are a major problem that NYC has actively been trying to solve. One proposal that's been getting a lot of attention comes from architect Ate Atema and his team, and involves an affordable system of bioswales called Street Creeks that could be installed throughout the city. We recently heard from Atema about the idea, and how it could be implemented. Read on to see what he told us and watch him speak about Street Creeks in a video of his TED Talk on the project.
INHABITAT: What is Street Creeks and why did you decide to start it?
Atema: Street CreeksTM is a gravity-based, low-tech, low-cost strategy I’ve developed with a great team to manage urban storm water and thereby prevent combined sewage overflows and reduce street flooding. Street Creeks emulates natural hydrological and biological systems as much as possible in dense urban environments to use storm water as the valuable resource it is, instead of mixing it with our sewage as we now do!
I started Street Creeks because I wanted to explore how to integrate ecology with human needs at an urban scale. As an architect I was trained to think across scales, from a door handle to a city, but in practice my work was focused on designing at the scale of offices and homes. I’d been hearing more and more about the notorious pollution of the Gowanus Canal and that seemed like a great local problem to solve. So at the beginning of 2011 I found a competition that was looking for solutions to urban-scale problems, and put together a team to see where we could go. We didn’t win, but we realized we’d come up with a strategy that seemed really viable but nobody had quite done before, so we kept going with it and it started building a momentum of its own.
INHABITAT: What are CSOs?
Atema: Combined sewage overflows, which occur when our combined sewer system (which combines residential and commercial/industrial sewage with storm water) gets overloaded. Whatever volume of this poop and rain cocktail the sewage treatment plant can’t handle overflows, untreated, into our waterways. This adds up to over 27 billion gallons of this cocktail dumping into New York City’s waterways every year…it’s a huge problem.
INHABITAT: Can you explain the current problem with stormwater management?
Atema: A couple biggies are 1) we put our poop in the same pipes as our storm water, which as I mentioned above, regularly overflow into our waterways. This is bad for our waterways, and wastes storm water, which is a hugely valuable resource. Just ask anyone in California these days. 2) The current system uses a lot of pumps to move water around, which requires a lot of energy to run, and makes it vulnerable to grid disruptions from storms or heat waves, which we’re probably going to see more and more of. 3) Storm drains can clog pretty easily, which lead to street flooding after a good rain.
INHABITAT: Can you tell us a little about the design for Street Creeks? How would they work?
Atema: We keep storm water out of the combined sewer system by collecting it in channels next to the curb that run downhill to the nearest body of water. We also divert the “first flush” of runoff – which contains the majority of surface pollution – into shallow tanks that feed into little gardens on every block called “bioswales” that are designed to clean the water. This allows the remaining, much cleaner water to flow downhill much like it would a natural watershed. By keeping the storm water out of the sewer pipes, the sewage treatment plants can focus on treating sewage, and we can use the storm water as the valuable resource it is. And the system is designed to use gravity to move the water (as our city’s amazing water supply system does), which keeps parts simple and operating energy use near zero.
INHABITAT: Would Street Creeks also add to street-level aesthetics in addition to managing stormwater?
Atema: Yes. The channels themselves are subtle since they’re flush with the road surface and cars would often be parked on the grates that cover them, but the bioswales are great opportunities to add vegetation to each block, as well as seating and lighting. Our goal is to locate the bioswales near neighborhood social gathering spots like community centers, cafes, or schools whenever possible so people can gather at them and see them as an integral and valued part of their daily lives. The new parks the city is building are really raising the quality bar for urban design – it’s super encouraging and the High Line is a great example of this – and we would want Street Creeks to be executed at that level, even though it’s a much more low-key intervention from a pedestrian’s point of view.
INHABITAT: How close is Street Creeks to becoming a reality? What needs to be done to take the project to the next level?
Atema: We’re having pretty high-level conversations with the NYC government now to see where we might be able to install Street Creeks pilots. The city is looking to make room for innovative approaches to helping them solve some of the environmental challenges we face, and we hope we’ll be able to help them with that. If they decide to support Street Creeks, that will take it to the next level, and help show that NYC is a global leader in innovative green infrastructure, as we should be!
The NYC DEP is currently rolling out an ambitious program of “right-of-way bioswales” across the city to help capture and infiltrate street runoff to reduce the amount of water going into the combined sewer system. This is a great first step towards reducing CSOs and street flooding, and we hope Street Creeks will be a powerful new tool to add to the DEP’s toolkit to help solve these problems.
INHABITAT: How can people support Street Creeks?
Atema: There are two things people can do: 1) tell your elected officials about Street Creeks and that you’d like to see it used as a key part of the city’s storm water management strategy, and 2) join our mailing list by going to www.streetcreeks.org and signing up. The more awareness and community support we can build, the better chance we’ll have to make Street Creeks a reality and create a smarter, cleaner city for all of us!