2021 Workshop

Pit or Paradise: Rain Gardens and Civic Responsibility

A rain garden in the Sligo Park Hills neighborhood (left), and a 2018 lawn sign in Wheaton Woods (right), both in Montgomery County, Maryland. [Dan Reed, Greater Greater Washington]

On a summer day in a Maryland suburb, bees browse a miniature canopy of coneflower in a garden tucked between a street and sidewalk. The garden bed slopes gently inward from these hard surfaces, forming a basin six inches deep. A storm rolls through. An opening sliced into the curb channels road runoff into the bed, where it slows, pools, and sinks into the ground. The runoff is dirty: it carries oil leaked from cars, road salt, and fertilizers washed out of nearby lawns. The basin’s plants and soil take up and bind the pollutants. Without the curb cut and the garden, untreated runoff would flow into storm drains, through underground pipes, into nearby streams. Urban streams receiving such runoff are often impaired: they struggle to support aquatic life and can sicken people swimming in them.1See definition of “impaired water” under the Clean Water Act at the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The plant-filled street-side basins, or rain gardens, seem like benign solutions to such pollution, protecting the environment both nearby and at the scale of the watershed, as well as yielding benefits in public health and equity among disparate neighborhoods.

The installation of rain gardens, like any other intervention in the built environment, is inherently political.

Yet the installation of rain gardens, like any other intervention in the built environment, is inherently political. Rain gardens challenge aesthetic norms associated with residential streetscapes, and force upstream communities to take responsibility for the downstream pollution they create. The disruption to norms, and resulting disagreements concerning responsibility, sometimes stimulate opposition to the projects. Such opposition, in turn, presents a challenge for designers seeking to implement rain gardens widely.

Under amendments made in 1987 to the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency requires municipal governments, such as Montgomery County, Maryland, to mitigate stormwater pollution. Many landscape architects advocate the use of rain gardens to meet these requirements. Kevin Robert Perry, a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, testified before Congress in 2021 about the promise of these and other forms of green infrastructure.2Perry sought to leverage support for federal funding sources. The bill he supported, “The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021,” was introduced in the House in March 2021 but had not passed as of July 2021. See “ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure,” THE DIRT: Uniting the Built and Natural Environments, American Society of Landscape Architects (April 22, 2021). Public perception of rain gardens, however, is considerably less unified. In Montgomery County, for instance, many residents are supportive — but in 2017 and 2018, others in three neighborhoods mounted opposition to municipal projects.3See Scott Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens,’” ABC7,  Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., (March 2, 2017) and Dan Reed, “Montgomery Residents are Fighting Plans to Build Rain Gardens,” Greater Greater Washington (April 12, 2018). The skeptics worried about the rain gardens’ appearance, effect on property values, and safety. During a community forum, local politicians called the gardens “pits of death,” citing fears about people falling into the basins and children drowning in stormwater. (Engineers typically design the gardens with a four-to-eight-inch ponding depth that drains within 72 hours.) The County cancelled projects in all three neighborhoods.

From New York City to Chicago to Seattle, news coverage echoes these concerns.4See Sarah Maslin Nir, “To the City, a Pollution Fighter. To Some Residents, an Eyesore,” The New York Times (March 23, 2017), David Giuliani, “Rain Gardens Opposed In Western Springs Subdivision,” Patch (November 13, 2020), and Lisa Stiffler, “Six Tips for Selling Green Stormwater Solutions: First step for a successful rain garden: Earn the public’s support,” Sightline Institute (September 27, 2012). Resistance often stems from disagreements over who is responsible for addressing pollution in the first place. Road runoff, according to one Montgomery County resident, should be the responsibility of local government, not homeowners.5Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’ Many feel aversion to official impositions on their streets and yards. Though rain gardens are installed within the street right-of-way — that is, on city property — homeowners tend to perceive the streetscape as a neighborhood space under their dominion. The right-of-way often extends into what appears to be part of individual front yards. Research shows that residents have strong attachments to their outdoor spaces, and often feel socially pressured to maintain a particular appearance in front yards especially, to communicate their compatibility with the neighborhood at large.6See Elizabeth M. Cook, Sharon J. Hall, and Kelli L. Larson, “Residential Landscapes as Social-Ecological Systems: A Synthesis of Multi-scalar Interactions between People and Their Home Environment,” Urban Ecosystems 15, no. 1 (2012): 19–52; and Joan Iverson Nassauer, Zhifang Wang, and Erik Dayrell, “What Will the Neighbors Think? Cultural Norms and Ecological Design,” Landscape and Urban Planning 92, no. 3 (2009): 282–92. Despite this sense of neighborly responsibility, some feel that the burden of pollution mitigation is not theirs to assume; as one County resident complained, “the pollutants that were filtering off into the bay are now sitting in my side yard.7Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’

Rain gardens in Forest Glen and Montgomery Knolls, both Montgomery County, Maryland. [Alex Whee Kim]

Admittedly, research on the public reception of rain gardens is limited. Yet a robust body of work focused on behaviors related to residential yard management does suggest some values likely fueling homeowners’ concerns. This research reveals a correlation between components of the landscape (e.g., monoculture lawns) and social values (e.g., civic responsibility, mastery over nature, economic status).8See Cook et al.; Larissa Larsen and Sharon L. Harlan, “Desert Dreamscapes: Residential Landscape Preference and Behavior,” Landscape and Urban Planning 78: 85-100 (2006); Nassauer et al.; and Eliza Pennypacker, “What is Taste, and Why Should I Care?” Design + Values CELA Conference Proceedings IV (1992): 63-73. Conventional landscaping requires frequent maintenance to ensure an unchanging, controlled appearance. The grasses and perennials typically used in rain gardens are less frequently trimmed, which keeps costs manageable and maximizes environmental benefits. But grasses may be perceived as overgrown, neglected lawn: a resident of Portland, Oregon, told a researcher, “if they can plant some nice flowers, I will support. If wild grass, it’s ugly.”9See Glyn Everett, J.E. Lamond, A.T. Morzillo, A.M. Matsler, and F.K.S. Chan, “Delivering Green Streets: An Exploration of Changing Perceptions and Behaviours Over Time Around Bioswales in Portland, Oregon,” Journal of Flood Risk Management 11 (2018): S973-S985. When not in flower, perennials may resemble “weeds” and suggest a lack of care. A news segment in Montgomery County showed the basins in March, before new growth had appeared: they look dreary, filled with last season’s brown foliage.10Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’”

Resistance often stems from disagreements over who is responsible for addressing pollution in the first place.

Rain gardens thus demand a cultural shift, and there may be strategies for making that transition less upsetting. The landscape-architecture scholar Joan Nassauer posits the concept of “cues-to-care,” which suggests that integrating familiar symbols of care, or “orderly frames,” into less familiar but more ecologically functional landscape elements, or “messy ecosystems,” will increase public acceptance. 11See Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames,” Landscape Journal 14, no. 2 (1995): 161–70. Though such symbols vary regionally, design solutions for rain gardens might involve arranging plants in recognizable patterns, ensuring four-season interest, and selecting plants to avoid overcrowding. Replanted rain gardens in Montgomery County now use these techniques. 

It remains true, however, that even an aesthetically acceptable rain garden forces residents to confront their contributions to downstream pollution. Seeing murky stormwater up close can be unfamiliar and unpleasant. Stormwater pollution is usually hidden by underground infrastructure, and also abstracted by scale; pipes convey runoff to faraway streams. In many cases, downstream communities adjacent to polluted waterways in urbanized watersheds are poorer and more racially diverse than their counterparts upstream. But such relationships may be too attenuated for people to grasp clearly.

Designers might attempt to counter rain-garden resistance through unidirectional education about these interconnections. Even so, recent research indicates that sharing facts alone is not likely to sway public opinion. Developments in science communication suggest that a more effective approach to changing behavior is engaging directly with peoples’ underlying values, attitudes, and curiosity.12See Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 355-379; Christopher Wolsko, Hector Ariceaga, and Jesse Seiden, “Red, White, and Blue Enough to Be Green: Effects of Moral Framing on Climate Change Attitudes and Conservation Behaviors,” Journal of Experimental Society Psychology 65 (2016): 7-19; and Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgement and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (2013): 407-424. Is it the responsibility of the landscape architect to address such social challenges? I would argue yes. If a designer’s version of paradise becomes a resident’s neglected pit, these public projects will not be funded and stewarded, and downstream pollution and inequities will persist. Accepting that design is political does complicate the design process, but doing so will help us to promote lasting, positive change at the watershed scale.

Notes

  1. See definition of “impaired water” under the Clean Water Act at the website of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  2. Perry sought to leverage support for federal funding sources. The bill he supported, “The Water Quality Protection and Job Creation Act of 2021,” was introduced in the House in March 2021 but had not passed as of July 2021. See “ASLA Testifies Before Congress on Green Infrastructure,” THE DIRT: Uniting the Built and Natural Environments, American Society of Landscape Architects (April 22, 2021).
  3. See Scott Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens,’” ABC7,  Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc., (March 2, 2017) and Dan Reed, “Montgomery Residents are Fighting Plans to Build Rain Gardens,” Greater Greater Washington (April 12, 2018).
  4. See Sarah Maslin Nir, “To the City, a Pollution Fighter. To Some Residents, an Eyesore,” The New York Times (March 23, 2017), David Giuliani, “Rain Gardens Opposed In Western Springs Subdivision,” Patch (November 13, 2020), and Lisa Stiffler, “Six Tips for Selling Green Stormwater Solutions: First step for a successful rain garden: Earn the public’s support,” Sightline Institute (September 27, 2012).
  5. Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’
  6. See Elizabeth M. Cook, Sharon J. Hall, and Kelli L. Larson, “Residential Landscapes as Social-Ecological Systems: A Synthesis of Multi-scalar Interactions between People and Their Home Environment,” Urban Ecosystems 15, no. 1 (2012): 19-52; and Joan Iverson Nassauer, Zhifang Wang, and Erik Dayrell, “What Will the Neighbors Think? Cultural Norms and Ecological Design,” Landscape and Urban Planning 92, no. 3 (2009): 282-92.
  7. Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’
  8. See Cook et al.; Larissa Larsen and Sharon L. Harlan, “Desert Dreamscapes: Residential Landscape Preference and Behavior,” Landscape and Urban Planning 78: 85-100 (2006); Nassauer et al.; and Eliza Pennypacker, “What is Taste, and Why Should I Care?” Design + Values CELA Conference Proceedings IV (1992): 63-73.
  9. See Glyn Everett, J.E. Lamond, A.T. Morzillo, A.M. Matsler, and F.K.S. Chan, “Delivering Green Streets: An Exploration of Changing Perceptions and Behaviours Over Time Around Bioswales in Portland, Oregon,” Journal of Flood Risk Management 11 (2018): S973-S985.
  10. Taylor, “Montgomery County homeowners upset over ‘rain gardens.’
  11. See Joan Iverson Nassauer, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames,” Landscape Journal 14 no. 2 (1995): 161–70.
  12. See Saffron O’Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, “‘Fear Won’t Do It’: Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 355-379; Christopher Wolsko, Hector Ariceaga, and Jesse Seiden, “Red, White, and Blue Enough to Be Green: Effects of Moral Framing on Climate Change Attitudes and Conservation Behaviors,” Journal of Experimental Society Psychology 65 (2016): 7-19; and Dan M. Kahan, “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection,” Judgement and Decision Making 8, no. 4 (2013): 407-424.

About the Author

Kate Cholakis-Kolysko

Kate Cholakis-Kolysko is a landscape designer, educator, and Master of Science candidate in Landscape Architecture at Penn State. Her professional interests include ecological approaches to planting design, green infrastructure, and master planning. She earned her B.A. in Architecture from Smith College, and an M.A. in Ecological Design and Planning from the Conway School of Landscape Design, and now teaches at Conway. Her current research examines the intersections of green infrastructure, landscape perception, and environmental psychology.