Imagining Sustainable Streets

by Grace Molino '18
July 2, 2015

Grace is a TRI-Lab summer intern at Clean Water Action.

See below for links to posts from the other TRI-Lab Fellows.

“The siding is all new so the fire must have been recent,” said Rachel Newman-Greene, the guide of our walking tour from West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation. I looked where she was pointing in an alley between two houses. The new siding on one house twisted and drooped like tangled ribbons. The other house had scorch marks up to the roof.

“Probably a trash fire,” Rachel continued. “You can see all the mattresses in the back.” Six mattresses were piled in the back of the alley along with other garbage. A bag of seashells lay near us and, as I walked over to get a closer look, I stepped on a piece of circuit board already stripped of any valuable metals.

Illegal dumping is common in the West End of Providence. The street we were on, Parade Street between Cranston and Hollis Street, looks typical: houses close together, paved yards, little green space.

As interns at Clean Water Action, our group of five Brown students is creating a map of the West End, which incorporates factors such as heat island effect, impervious surfaces, and flooding issues, with the goal of identifying locations where green infrastructure will hold maximum benefit for storm water management. This street highlighted all the issues we’re studying.

Despite the damage, I saw huge potential for this street. Part of our research is studying how other cities handle storm water; my research focuses on Philadelphia, PA. The day before our tour, I happened to watch a video on a project in Philadelphia that occurred on a street similar to this one: narrow, little greenery, and lots of pavement. During rain, water filled the street and the basements of people’s homes. But the street was too narrow for typical green infrastructure projects such as bioswales or street plantings. As a result, the city installed something unique to mitigate the flooding: porous pavement.

Porous pavement looks like typical asphalt but allows water to flow through to a drainage basin beneath. This not only filters the water before allowing it to flow into the ground, but also prevents runoff into the combined sewer-storm system. When it rains, the combined system can get overwhelmed and raw sewage flows into the rivers surrounding Philadelphia. Green infrastructure projects handle water before it enters the system, so that this revolting event doesn’t happen.

Providence also uses a combined system that's overwhelmed at even an inch of rain in 24 hours. Walking down Parade Street I noticed that the sidewalks were too narrow for tree plantings. Instead, I envisioned installing porous pavement to handle the rainwater and runoff from houses and paved yards. I imagined bump-outs into the road for trees to absorb water and provide a cooling effect. This careworn street could become a model in Providence of how to manage storm water and restore our waterways to healthy conditions. All it takes is some reimagining and a committed city.