Stormwater: The Sexy New Design Challenge

St. Ferdinand Homes II & Triangle Park, Arbolope Studio, 2019. (Courtesy of Arbolope Studio)




Just as we whoosh away the fluids that leave our bodies, we whoosh away the fluids dumped upon us from above. Like sewage, stormwater is swiftly ushered out of sight. It gushes into the gutters, ditches, drains, and underground pipes whose engineers saw it only as a problem to be eliminated.

Until now, the likelihood of foul backups and geyser floods hinged on the diameter of the smallest tube. Water was sped away from cities in ugly concrete channels—wreaking all sorts of havoc downstream, in neighborhoods too poor to have any political say.

But the age of conquest is over. Today’s zigzag of droughts and deluges is forcing us to see water more humbly.

“Our roads, our houses, our pavement are all impervious surfaces, and we just completely disrupt the way a natural hydrological system works,” says Irene Compadre, lecturer in landscape architecture at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. “And that literally trickles down through the watershed and puts a lot of strain on our river systems. We want to get rid of stormwater as quickly as possible.”

We want it invisible; she wants to see and use it.

Six years ago, Compadre founded Arbolope Studio, a studio that shoots for high design and social and economic resiliency. She wants solutions that can slow or absorb stormwater and also be beautiful, interesting throughout the seasons, and full of biodiversity and pollinator habitat.

There are all sorts of creative solutions we never dreamed of until we had to. Green roofs—who but the Vikings puts sod on the roof? Bioswales—curving channels filled with plants—that can slow down and clean stormwater. Gorgeous rain gardens that can capture and use it. French drains that empty puddles and water plants. Designers are having a field day coming up with new ways to move deluges of water to the places that need water—and thus take the strain off a cracked and crumbling sewer system conceived in the late nineteenth century.

Simple cleverness is called for. At a luxury apartment project in Midtown, Compadre is using the Silva Cell system: “an underground structural system that supports the pavement,” allowing stormwater and tree and plant roots to spread beneath it. You’ll see a planting bed and not realize the roots are under the sidewalk.” That means trees, which need, on average, a 10-foot by 10-foot by 3-foot-deep bed, can stretch out their roots, stay healthier, and absorb more rainwater. Genius. “But a developer doesn’t automatically think, ‘Structure for my sidewalks! More soil for my trees!’ People don’t see the cost of the old way of building and ‘managing.’ So to the typical builder or homeowner, a solution like this just seems like an additional cost.”

The profit motive is always short-term. And it leads to such ugliness. What developer is willing to remove a few parking spaces to add a big shade tree? Nobody measures the increase in profit when customers are cooler and calmer and happier, soothed by beauty, maybe even subconsciously aware of the difference each tree makes for humanity’s future.

“We need a way to quantify ecological resilience,” Compadre says simply. “Because there is a cost to society when you have none.”

Arbolope was the St. Louis-based landscape architect for the East End project I walk through every week at Wash.U. Compadre was thrilled by the university’s willingness to do more than “manage” (with traditional solutions that are fast becoming unmanageable) the presence of stormwater.

“All of the parking garage is a giant green roof,” she says happily. “You would never know a garage was underneath. All the big gathering areas for people, bicycles, and art have permeable pavers.”

I squint, trying to remember what they look like. “You can tell because there’s a bigger gap between the pavers,” she explains, “and it looks beautiful. You wouldn’t even know that it’s capturing all the stormwater in this gravel bed underneath, and that percolates out. And if there’s too much water, there are bell-and-whistle systems to capture it.”


East End Transformation & Tisch Park. Michael Vergason Landscape Architects, Arbolope Studio, 2020. (Courtesy of Arbolope Studio)


She also works, along with other Wash.U. faculty members, on the new Peace Park the university is developing in the College Hill neighborhood. “People are trying to monitor wildlife and habitat before and after, property values before and after. They are doing air monitoring and soil testing.” Bit by bit, quantitative evidence will arrive.

This subject is sexier than I expected. Listening to Compadre, it is easy to picture a city buzzing with pollinators, abloom with flowers, filled with wildlife. Rushing stormwater that is as pretty as a waterfall—and kept out of the streets where it now mixes with oil and toxic runoff and gurgles ominous threats in the throat of the storm sewer. Why did we make stormwater so sinister? One would think that we were ashamed; that at some level, we knew we were mucking things up.

I ask her how she keeps going, confronted daily by news of environmental degradation and irreversible damage. Her laugh is one syllable, more wry than amused. “Depends on the day. But it helps knowing that in just six years, we have already physically changed areas in the St. Louis landscape. We can physically measure how we are affecting the world. And we put so much love into those spaces, it has to have some kind of aggregating, snowballing effect for good.”

They are making a concrete difference. No. Not concrete. Permeable. Even our metaphors need to change.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.