By Lori Catalano, ASLA, and Kelly Curl
The need to rapidly adapt to climate change has rightfully taken center stage. But the connections between climate change and stormwater management are often overlooked. Climate change impacts the hydrological cycle by increasing water scarcity and the frequency and intensity of flooding while contaminating waterways. Better managing stormwater is key to managing water resources and protecting our safety and the health of our environment.
Unfortunately, stormwater management is usually portrayed as a purely technical issue to be solved at the site. Instead, stormwater management systems should be valued as critical green infrastructure that provides design opportunities and are foundational to giving form to the broader built environment.
While stormwater management may not be sexy, it is vital to understand and integrate as part of larger efforts to protect our ecosystems and environment. The book Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain by landscape architecture and planning firm Wenk Associates argues challenges to “any city’s water supply and urban stormwater management can be addressed, in part, by changing how we manage our urban water resources as part of systems that employ the widespread use of natural technologies.” The firm, founded by landscape architect William Wenk, FASLA, has incorporated stormwater into the design of built environments and landscapes in the West and Midwest for over 35 years.
Projects in the book exemplify how stormwater, generally considered a nuisance, can be managed and integrated as a resource in the design of landscapes, making communities more livable as well as restoring ecological function and health. The selected projects range from built work early in the office’s practice to contemporary projects that explore the integration of function and beauty in managing stormwater at various project scales — from a small rain garden outside their early office in Denver to restoring the natural functioning of the Los Angeles River. In addition to cataloging projects, the author thoughtfully reflects on lessons learned, revealing both successes and failures as they suggest new approaches to create “the next generation of stormwater infrastructure, resulting in healthier urban and natural systems, making our cities better places in which to live.”
Wenk himself outlines his trajectory from a boy growing up on a farm in Michigan, to his foundational undergraduate studies in landscape architecture at Michigan State University, his observations about arid environments revealed while traveling across Europe and North Africa, and the influential work of artists, writers, and thinkers he explored during graduate studies at the University of Oregon. These experiences combine to inform the theoretical foundations for his life’s work.
He also shares his early career lessons regarding the value of urban green infrastructure that were strengthened while working closely with civil engineers. These professional experiences ultimately led to the founding of his practice in Denver, Colorado. Wenk desires to “reinvent the storm drain,” a metaphor for “expanding — down to the most basic details — the components of stormwater systems to invent new strategies for effective stormwater controls, and to promote the restoration of the natural functions of urban waterways in ways that add beauty and value to the urban landscape.”
The first part of the book explains the close relationship of water resource management to culture and technology and clearly describes the impacts of urbanization on the water cycle and the land. Explaining how positive aspects of both ancient and contemporary water management systems can be integrated to address contemporary issues of water scarcity and improve water quality, the book sets the stage to examine how urban water resources can be better planned and designed. Ultimately, successful projects restore the function of ecological systems while creating meaningful places for people to gather.
Then, the book provides a carefully curated selection of Wenk Associates’ projects that exemplify what is meant by “working water.” The scale, type, and complexity of the highlighted projects vary greatly from small site design to large river corridors. Each of the case studies, which cover sites, districts, and corridors, demonstrate the rigor of the designers’ intent. Each projects’ context, vision, design strategies, constraints, and results are thoughtfully communicated with clear jargon-free narratives, diagrams, renderings, and attractive photographs of the built work.
The third part of the book reviews the critical factors leading to the success of Wenk Associates’ built works, along with lessons learned about legal, financial, and other challenges involved in implementing natural technologies, and the profession of landscape architecture’s involvement in integrating “multiple values and functions into the city’s infrastructure” and communicating “those values to affected communities.” The lessons go further than most books on stormwater do by calling for incentivizing district-scale stormwater control systems, identifying barriers to implementations of natural technologies, and calling on practicing professionals and the public to be advocates for change.
Simultaneously, the scope of the book has limitations. Because this is a monograph, Working Water thoughtfully represents the experiences and philosophy of just one firm.
Missing from Working Water is also a stronger acknowledgement that underserved, historically marginalized communities are disproportionately hurt by the mismanagement of stormwater and that residents of these communities can play a greater role in designing a healthier and more livable environment.
The Menomonee Valley Redevelopment is an example that intentionally enriched underserved neighborhoods in Milwaukee by creating over 1,400 jobs, connecting neighborhoods with a new network of streets and green spaces, and providing access to a healthier and a cleaner river. Surely, this project included community input during the design processes to achieve these beneficial results. However, the residents and the role they played in this process are not given the prominence they deserve.
Working Water is a needed addition to the body of literature on how to integrate designed green infrastructure with stormwater management to create more livable cities for a couple of reasons. It addresses issues specific to the temperate Midwestern climate of the savanna and steppe ecosystems, while most books focus on the more humid environments of the East and West coasts. It also contributes examples of beautiful projects that demonstrate regionally appropriate responses from the drumlin-inspired landscapes of Wisconsin to the semi-arid grasslands of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Front Range.
Working Water is intentionally written as an educational resource for students, decision-makers, regulators, municipal staff, designers, developers, and community advocates. A pleasant surprise included at the end of the book is a “working water glossary” that provides the reader with a general understanding of the definitions of terms and concepts used in the book.
Wenk Associates were early leaders in the integration of stormwater design. Their work has been so successful, it is now considered common in the practice of landscape architecture. The functional requirements of successful stormwater management are so well integrated in each project that the unprecedented nature of the designs may be overlooked.
The monograph is written similarly. It is humble; it is not flashy and does not use fancy words. It offers straightforward yet beautiful graphics and diagrams with no enigmatic collages; just solid, well-crafted, thoughtful work.
Like Ian McHarg’s layering process, the incorporation of stormwater management has been so integrated into landscape architecture that it is unrecognized when done well. This collection of completed projects when assembled as a monograph, may seem simple, as though anyone could do it. But don’t be deceived, Working Water: Reinventing the Storm Drain demonstrates how Wenk Associates makes the messy and difficult work of envisioning and implementing a complex project look simple, clean, and elegant, with a vision for the future.