Whimsical stormwater sounds like a contradiction in terms – but somehow this past weekend it was a reality, thanks to Park(ing) Day Plus+ and the imaginations of four environmentally-minded landscape designers. Extended to a two-day affair in Seattle this year, Park(ing) Day is an international event that temporarily reclaims street parking areas for pop-up “parklets” in the name of creative placemaking, community health and urban design.
The Little Collective’s modular mobile rain garden camped for two days in the street parking area in front of the 12th Avenue Arts building on Capitol Hill. The garden consists of a series of raised boxes, filled with compost and plants, through which simulated “rainwater” flows (generated by pedaling on a stationary bicycle!). The water is then cleaned as it passes through the biofilter base layer of the garden. Moreover, the plant life of the rain garden offers upstream habitat to important pollinators like bees.
Talks at the parklet site about local stormwater projects clarified our rainwater problem. Christin Hilton of the Nature Conservancy explained that urban stormwater is the #1 polluter of the Puget Sound. When rain flows through the streets and into the storm drains, it draws hydrocarbons, sediment, trash, fecal coliform, heavy metals and other nasty stuff with it. This is bad news for downstream organisms like salmon. Regarding Seattle’s iconic rain, Christin observed: “What makes our city so beautiful and lush is also a problem for us because of all of our impermeable urban surfaces.”
Designer Hilary Ratliff explained that the modular rain garden is an interim intervention and a prototype. In the next phase of their mobile rain garden design, they want it to pick up storm water directly from the street, taking the garden a step beyond simulation and making it functional. The long-term goal would be to permanently integrate bioretention facilities into the streetscape. In the meantime, the modular version offers a means to raise awareness, educate, and above all, to dream. As Hilary put it: “Streets aren’t just for cars – they’re about possibility.”
The trick, then, is to ensure that creative placemaking isn’t something we relegate to one (or two) days a year. What kinds of permanent change might a mobile rain garden inspire? Or a streetside tool library, a tea party on the curb, a public board game station, or any other of the fifty pop-up parklets we saw at this year’s Park(ing) Day? These streets are your streets. How would you like to use them?