Addressing Stormwater from the Comfort of my Back Yard

Rain garden turtle_ACrisostomo

I recently moved house and now that I have a garden, I’ve been thinking about the right way to manage the garden to do what’s best for local stormwater management by helping keep rainwater out of the sewer system and either saving it to water plants or letting it soak slowly into the ground. Of course, I do this type of thing for a living, but what about for people who don’t think about it everyday? How do people get information on how to do what’s right on their properties? Or when local governments or water utilities need private property owners’ help, how do they get people interested at all?

Last month, I had the honour of presenting some of the findings of the research I led in the US on just this question at the International Water Association’s Water Efficiency conference. The conference was a chance for industry leaders from around the world to discuss leading research on everything from water rates, water efficiency and drought to smart technology, water reuse and behaviour change.

As with most things having to do with behaviour change, successfully changing the way people manage their land to help improve the greater environment can take a lot of effort. The research I did was on how to encourage adoption of small-scale stormwater techniques, such as sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), on private properties, found that more work and investment in the fundamentals of behaviour change, programme management and building relationships is needed to get the scale of private property participation we need to address flooding and sewer overflows more broadly.

When local agencies want to involve private property owners in being part of stormwater solutions, they can generally resort to requirements or encourage voluntary measures. Much like the UK’s forthcoming standards for SuDS, requirements tend to focus only on new construction and large developments, whereas voluntary measures can reach retrofitting of existing properties and individual parcels. These programmes can include financial incentives, such as grant programmes, cost-share, discounts, and fee credits, as well as non-financial programmes, such as giveaways and award programmes.

The research looked at programmes across the US and Canada that use voluntary methods to encourage property owners to install SuDS on existing properties, and assessed these types of programmes by comparing their effectiveness, identifying the variables that affected success and ultimately establishing more nuanced ways of approaching private property stormwater solutions.

When it comes to working with local communities on becoming part of the stormwater solution, four key lessons rose to the top. These had less to do with specifics of the technology of SuDS or complicated financial mechanisms and more on how to better engage communities.

First, there have to be clear goals behind the programme and they need to inform the approach to communicating with potential participants. For example, if counting the number of litres of water kept out of the sewer system is most important, then more work has to go into making private actions predictable, reliable, and consistent over time with clear design guidelines or performance-based requirements, long-term monitoring, maintenance, and inspections. If the goal is about education and awareness, those technical aspects may be less important and focus should be on reaching a broad audience with consistent information and developing strong communications tools like signage, educational literature and informational events.

Second, successful programmes include a personal, customized approach, which ideally comes through one-on-one interactions with property owners. Properties and conditions are different, so solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all and people don’t always know which solution is best for their property. Working together with property owners improves awareness of the problems and potential solutions, increases participation, encourages a sense of ownership and leads to stronger projects. A common way to do this is through property or site assessments, which allow for bespoke recommendations that can be more cost-effective, tailored to level of interest and knowledge and more professional applications, making for more successful projects. In some cases, this is all property owners need to go ahead and invest on their own, allowing programmes to focus financial assistance on those who don’t have the means.

Working individually with property owners takes a lot of people power, which local agencies may not have. The third key lesson has to do with partnering to spread impact. Partners can add capacity by specializing in particular topics, geographic areas, or parts of the process chain. They often have the advantage of being able to build local relationships, focus more on property owner goals rather than regulatory mandates, can be more flexible and less bureaucratic and have more freedom to experiment with innovative techniques. These partners can range from neighbourhood groups and local charities with established local relationships to social enterprises or environmental charities with expertise to private contractors or landscape designers with established businesses to even creating new jobs.

Finally, it’s important to learn from mistakes and improve programmes along the way. Successful programmes understand there isn’t one answer and use formal and informal feedback to improve. Few programmes do extensive data collection or program evaluation, but even informal feedback is helpful and those that listened to feedback, addressed problems and made changes got better outcomes.

For my garden, as a renter, I’ll probably end up with a water butt to save water for use on the plants. But for the rest of London’s gardens, advocates for SuDS, particularly as an alternative or supplement to costly hard infrastructure, can use the lessons from this research in the US to cost out and plan for approaches to scaling up local SuDS adoption and management.

Though SuDS technology is not quite ready to be sold as out of the box systems the way water efficient fixtures are, there is an opportunity to learn more from water and energy efficiency to more effectively address behaviour change in stormwater. To help people help the broader environment, we need to invest in the social side of stormwater management, including efforts on behaviour change, programme design and evaluation and improved outreach and communications.

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One thought on “Addressing Stormwater from the Comfort of my Back Yard

  1. Pingback: Room for more action in the London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan | River & City

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