Sharing Stormwater Management Responsibility with the Community
McCarthy Garden in Kansas City (Source: www.rainkc.com)
A tag line like "10,000 Rain Gardens" is meant to grab attention, imply abundance, and inspire images of a garden on every lawn. And it does; in the past year, Kansas City has received abundant of praise for its initiative to inspire homeowners, businesses, and community groups to install small-scale, attractive stormwater BMPs in their yards.
Ten thousand is a large number that may seem daunting to some, but Scott Cahail, Environmental Manager at the Kansas City Office of Environmental Quality, does not want people to get hung up on the numbers. The Initiative is about more than just rain gardens. It includes other "green" approaches like rain barrels and green roofs. He points out that the initiative is not a government program where crews come in and install rain gardens for citizens. Rather, it is a marketing initiative that empowers the public with ideas, technical guidance, practical advice, and real world examples from which to build. The Initiative is based on a wealth of press coverage and educational opportunities that inform the public about the problems posed by urban stormwater runoff and the solutions to which each citizen can contribute.
Background and Program Highlights
Kansas City's citizens and officials are well aware of flooding and runoff problems. In September 1977, Brush Creek, which flows through Kansas City's famous Plaza area, surcharged its banks and swept people and cars off a bridge. Twenty-five people lost their lives and nearly $50,000,000 in damages were incurred (NOAA, 2006). Afterward, Brush Creek was channelized to contain higher flows, but there was still pressure to reduce safety risks and mitigate property damage from flooding.
The City needed to address its aging infrastructure, not only to help prevent catastrophic flooding, but also to improve stormwater quality, reduce the incidence of combined sewer overflows, and meet environmental regulations. The price tag for addressing all of the region's infrastructure needs through engineered solutions was staggering: approximately $2 billion to address water quantity issues alone.
In May 2005, as part of a regional stormwater management planning process called KC-One, an interdepartmental stormwater committee was brainstorming ideas for possible solutions to the stormwater and overflow control issues. One of the committee's participants, from ASTRA Communications, was involved with the public education component of the KC-One process. When the rain garden idea was mentioned, the representative from ASTRA brought it to the attention of the Mayor Kay Barnes, who was immediately on board with this gree approach to stormwater management.
Visitation Church Rain Garden in Kansas City (Source: www.rainkc.com)
With early support from the top, Kansas City's stormwater managers were able to develop and implement the 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative fairly quickly. The initial media campaign roll-out occurred in January and February of 2006 and included television and radio spots showing interviews with garden experts, as well as print ads, stories, and editorials in local newspapers. The City's key messages for the media campaign were to stress the importance of keeping water on the property, reducing turf areas and the maintenance and inputs associated with them, and creating an attractive landscape feature. The City was aware of statistics that showed gardening was a common pastime, so they thought the Initiative would appeal to a broad audience. People would hear "gardens" and think, "Hey, I like gardening.what's this about?"
One of the most cost-effective tools employed by the City is the Web site for the Initiative, which is designed to offer citizens and other audiences a comprehensive suite of information about rain gardens in particular and stormwater management in general. The site acts as a clearinghouse of information pertaining to the 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative: resources, news items, technical information, examples and photographs, background information, and more. The site reaches a broad audience "on demand" and can be maintained and augmented at a relatively low cost. Even though the media campaign has ended, the site still has more than 2,000 hits per week and more than 100,000 visits per year.
The 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative is just one manifestation of a larger green movement underway in Kansas City. Public opinion surveys indicated that citizens and business leaders wanted to address water quality concerns using a greener, more regional approach with more public involvement. Several members of a wet weather solutions community panel also insisted on a greener approach to augment engineered solutions.
In addition to the push for greener infrastructure, the City has undertaken an effort to promote stream protection and restoration. The Office of Environmental Quality is working with the City Planning and Development Department to update the City's development code with stream buffer requirements for the first time in more than 50 years. The process has involved both the public and representatives of the development community. Their plan is to implement a three-zone stream buffer system that incorporates use restrictions in areas closest to the stream and includes habitat restoration where needed. The buffer width would expand to encompass adjacent environmentally sensitive areas such as registered wetlands, slopes greater than 15 percent, and significant stands of vegetation.
Weatherby Lake Garden in Kansas City (Source: www.rainkc.com)
Future outreach efforts for the 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative will focus on schools and churches to get community groups more actively involved in the initiative. Along these lines, the City established a charity program called "Garden Angels" that allows individuals, businesses, and groups to donate funds to construct rain gardens for schools, non-profit organizations, and neighborhoods.
The City also hopes to identify redevelopment projects where rain gardens and other green infrastructure can be incorporated into plans, especially since businesses are increasingly aware of the benefits of being "green."
The City is in the process of installing several demonstration projects, and they plan to implement rain gardens on City properties as well. Right now the building that Cahail works in does not have a rain garden, though they planned to add them as part of a project to overhaul the building's parking lot (the funding for the parking lot project was delayed, which hindered the installation of the garden). The City is also working on plans for a green roof in collaboration with Steve Apfelbaum of Applied Ecological Services in Broadhead, Wisconsin.
Feedback and Lessons Learned
In retrospect, the timing for the media roll-out was not ideal because Kansas City experienced a dry year in 2006, and several months passed before interested citizens could begin installing their gardens. Also, though support from the Mayor's office expedited the development and launch of the Initiative, some of the additional deliberation inherent in the bureaucratic process could have been directed towards polishing the approach and increasing buy-in at lower levels of the City's organization.
At first, citizens expressed some confusion about rain gardens and how they function. There was some negative reaction to the need to water a "rain" garden in the early stages of plant establishment, for example, and some misunderstanding of the difference between rain gardens and water gardens (city representatives had to clarify that rain gardens did not involve ponds, pools, or other standing water). The media campaign was helpful in dispelling some of these myths by showing photos of installed gardens and describing their functions and features.
Cahail implemented his own rain garden as a do-it-yourself project in June 2006. He estimated his investment for materials at approximately $300. Critiquing his own work, he feels that the design may include too many plant varieties. He also noted that installing edge stones significantly improved the garden's appearance and made it look more designed and intentional. This year he plans to direct more flow to the area from a downspout because the garden has more capacity than anticipated.
Discovery Center Parking Lot Rain Garden in Kansas City (Source: www.rainkc.com)
From a program development standpoint, Cahail suggests that other communities give careful consideration to decisions that are made along the way, ensuring that expectations are realistic and above all that the approaches taken are defensible. He also emphasizes the power of the Internet to reach a broad audience.
All told, Cahail is very happy with the progress Kansas City has made with the 10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative. He is reminded of its success daily by the wealth of national attention and requests for information he receives from other communities looking to emulate the program. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
10,000 Rain Gardens Initiative Web site
This Web site describes Kansas City's initiative and includes background information, news articles, technical resources, and rain garden examples and photos.
Grow Native! Web site
This Web site includes information about plants native to the Missouri area and how natives can be incorporated into landscapes and gardens.