This mid-summer photo essay covers three topics:

1. The role of design: from the bathroom to the boulevard

2. Do old bioretentions go to nursing homes?

3. A sad milestone for bioretention


The role of design: from the bathroom to the boulevard

I took this photo in the men’s room of a large corporate office building.  The message on the hand dryer, Every time you use this hand dryer, a tree smiles, is a value statement from the corporation: using the hand dryer is better for the environment than using the paper towels.  However, the actual DESIGN of the bathroom is that the paper towel dispenser is right next to the sink.  If you are one of the 70% of us that is right-handed, you wash your hands, turn to the right to rip off the paper towel, throw the paper towel into the convenient trash dispenser, and THEN see the hand dryer with the message BEHIND YOU.  Based on my empirical observations, the trash dispenser was full – you guessed it – of crumpled up paper towels.

In other words, the DESIGN does not reinforce the VALUE (aside from the fact the it took at least two rounds of hand drying to achieve a modicum of actual dryness, which is an energy use issue as well).  The “wrong” choice is more convenient and easier to comprehend.  How does this translate into other design issues: transportation and energy choices, stormwater design, landscaping decisions, and the list goes on.   In these cases, one of the roles of design is to support and reinforce the underlying values.

Here is a scaled-up example: transportation choices.  Many communities value two-legged and two-wheeled options, but the “four-wheels” are a brutish lot and difficult to overcome with nice value statements.  Policy must lead the way, but DESIGN is a strong partner.  Walking and biking must be healthier (check), more economical (yup!), but also be safe, convenient, and fun, and there must be affordable housing close to jobs so that they are viable options.  Wow. . .the design issues are a little more complicated than hand dryers and paper towels.  Maybe bikes should have signs: Every time you ride this thing, climate change frowns. 

My son, Oren, on a nice recreation and commuter trail in Michigan.  Safe, fun, convenient. . . and wildflowers!

Do Old Bioretentions Go to Nursing Homes?

The question always comes up in workshops and seminars: what happens to these practices when they get old?  Do they fail. . .does the soil media need to be replaced. . .do they need nursing home care?  The photo above was taken in 2002 when the bioretention was a sprightly young lad or lass.  This was one of the first such practices in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area, installed in the late 1990s at a high school.  It was an experiment of sorts at the time, as few specifications existed for how to build it.

Here it is in July 2019 at the age of 21.  The river birches are healthy, middle-aged adults.  Some of the ground cover needs to be converted to more shade-loving varieties, but that is part of adaptive management.  It seems that is has been cared for over the years and received plenty of nutrients from the drainage area.  Likely not all aging bioretentions are this fortunate, but it’s definitely not bound for the old age home just yet.

A sad milestone for bioretention

Back in the heyday of detention ponds, the presence of shopping carts pushed down over the steep embankment, lying broken and rusting in the pond muck, was an emblematic sign of neglect.  Our stormwater practices were not being cared for or maintained.  I recall that some of the old pond inspection checklists even had a checkbox for the presence of shopping carts.  Indeed, shopping cart debris may have contributed in some small way to the rise of low-impact development!  Photo Credit: David Lockledge

Here is a sad photo of my first sighting of a shopping cart in a bioretention practice.  The good news: it is much easier to retrieve than from the depths of a detention pond, and, based on the sign, it will only be there for 15 minutes!

Enjoy the remainder of your summer and let me know if you have any blog ideas and would like to share some content as a guest blogger: dave@hirschmanwater.com