Where do we go from here? Improve the process.

At the Board of Public Works hearing, on April 21, it looks as if the Board will rubber-stamp Lisa Coleman's plans for the greenway.  What else can you call the process, when the greenway plan is one of 56 items to be reviewed, and there is no written plan presented to the board to study before the meeting?

Yes, our Alder Chris Schmidt has been extremely helpful in answering questions and facilitating discussion, while engineer Lisa Coleman has done much extra work and made some important modifications to the original plan.  We are grateful for their dilligence and concern, which led to the following changes:
  • The plan for a maintenance road down the center of the greenway was shortened to just the eastern end.
  • The limits of the construction area will be clearly marked and there will be penalties for the contractor if additional trees are harmed.
  • The city will create a unified landscaping plan for the greenway.
  • The stream won't be buried in a pipe (but it will be buried in riprap).
  • Several dams will break up the monotony of the stone rubble that will line the channel.
  • Natural fieldstones will be used to line the channel (the riprap).
Yet a number of residents believe the project is still headed in the wrong direction:
  • The leafy, natural beauty of the wooded ravine will be spoiled with at least 65 large trees destroyed.
  • The natural stream that sometimes flows will be straightened and buried in ugly riprap.
  • No rain gardens will be incorporated into the eastern end.  We feel that rain gardens should be part of any city construction.
  • The biggest problem is that this project was planned in isolation.  There has been no effort to consider other plans upstream to reduce and control excessive runoff which is the cause of our greenway problems.
Watershed disease

The symptoms are higher costs for our municipal water supply, serious flooding, sediment creating "deltas" in the lakes, stinking algae blooms, along with dried up streams and springs.  With a patient as sick as Madison, remedial projects like the planned pipe under University Avenue will be very expensive, without addressing the cause of the problem.

With streams dried up or buried, children are loosing places to play, to exercise, and to learn about nature.

The present greenway plans are nothing more than "aspirin" for a very sick patient.  The only real cure is improvements to the entire watershed--involving rain gardens and other kinds of "green infrastructure."

The recent struggle over the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway shows that green infrastructure won't make much headway in Madison until we make changes to the process.

Historically, the process has been this:  City Engineering responds...
  1. To obvious problems--like persistent flooding at the intersection of University Avenue and Midvale Blvd.
  2. To complaints from individual citizens.  According to Mr. Ozanne at a recent meeting, burial of the stream at the east end of the greenway resulted from a complaint by his family that the stream was creeping too close to their house on South Owen Drive.
  3. In addition, Engineering makes inspections, deciding when current structures need upgrade or repair.
  4. Recently, there was a new wrinkle--the city must respond to a mandate* to reduce sediment washing into the lakes.
Items 1-3 above inevitably lead to an overly narrow focus on solving individual problems.  As Engineer Lisa Coleman said, "We'd never get anything done if we had to address the watershed."  Item 4 really requires a watershed approach, but it's still possible to imagine you're solving sediment problems with an individual project like our greenway.  Remember, repairing erosion in the greenway, plus upgrading the sanitary sewer, are the two motivations for our greenway project.

The planning and approval process needs to be reformed, to ensure that stormwater problems are viewed from a watershed perspective, with gradual improvements to watershed health as a key goal.

There's no question that making improvements to a whole watershed will be complicated--and will take a long time...20 years or more.  That's probably the reason why few in city government want to do anything but dispense aspirin.

Complex problems require a new approach

We eradicated smallpox... we flew to the moon.  That makes people think that taking a pill, or hiring an engineer, will solve all problems.   But increasingly, the most complicated problems seem impossible to solve--problems like global warming, health care reform, and .... city infrastructure that's both livable and sustainable.

There's one complex undertaking where we've succeeded--the construction of large buildings.  Every time I go downtown, I'm amazed by a new apartment building that wasn't there a few months ago.  Perhaps the construction industry can teach us how to attack other complex problems.

In his recent book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, physician Atul Gawande engagingly describes how the people working on construction of a skyscraper are able to handle unexpected problems.  The various professionals and workers affected by the problem consult in a timely manner.  They work out a solution together, then modify the construction schedule as needed.  The Checklist Manifesto is about how to solve our healthcare crisis, but its lessons can be applied to watershed issues.

To cure watershed disease, we need to bring together, with a new process, a variety of stakeholders and experts, including:
  • Stormwater engineers
  • Scientists who study lakes (limnologists)
  •  Contractors who do the work
  • Landscape architect, horticulturists, and environmental consultants
  • City officials, politicians, and lawmakers
  • Agencies like DNR & Dane County who enforce rules and grant permits
  • Neighborhood groups and other groups like Friends of Lake Wingra
  • People who educate the public (teachers, activists, reporters)
  • Business managers
  • Individual landowners
Steps needed to create a new process

First, the City needs to decide whether it wants to head in the direction of green infrastructure.  Philadelphia is now taking bold steps down this road.  Such a committment might by started by passing a referendum, or by creating some kind of city-wide panel.  Suggestions, please!  On the neighborhood level, there is a process that produces neighborhood plans.

Next, new laws are needed that create mandates.  This is a goal--really a requirement--to show where we are headed.  We already have some mandates.  For example, there's one that sets a goal for reducing the sediment load to our lakes.*  For new developments, there's a mandate administered by DNR and Dane County, saying that runoff after after a new residential development should be no more than it was before construction.  But unfortunately, we have few tools to improve the watershed within already developed areas.

Then, we need to pass laws creating an orderly but flexible process that will bring all the above stakeholders into the process.  Mandates alone, without a better process, don't work that well.  The mandate about sediment is pushing the city to repair the Hillcrest-Upland Greenway, but the resuilting plan does nothing to solve the underlying problem--to improve the watershed.

Finally, citizens have to be part of the solution.  We have to improve outreach, education, and provide incentives that encourage people to participate.

Yes, Madison has already made a tiny step in that direction with the City's rain garden program for terraces--the city does the construction, shares costs with the homeowner, and the owner maintains the garden.  It's a nice start, but construction projects all over the city are still taking place without any rain gardens (for example, the recent repaving of Midvale Blvd, or Keating Terrace).  Funds and guidelines for terrace rain gardens need to be dramatically expanded.

We need to experiment with other ways to encourage citizens to do the right thing for the watershed.  For example, if we have as many rain gardens in a neighborhood as we really need, the soil is going to get soggy sometimes.  A few basements per block might leak.  The city needs a program to either compensate these homeowners, or better, to help them upgrade their basements.

Next steps

It's time to start talking about how the Board of Public Works can be modified to incorporate input from more experts and stakeholders.

City officials need to exercise strong leadership, because with watershed disease, the cures aren't obvious to citizens.

Groups of neighbors need to work together to find small neighborhood solutions.  For example, there's a long history in Sunset Village of controversy about what happens to the terraces.  Sidewalks?  No way!  But rain gardens for street runoff?  Maybe.  Before the neighborhood planning process gets underway, a few neighbors could create beautiful rain gardens alongside several streets.  These would show we can improve stormwater management and make the nieghborhood more beautiful at the same time.  Unless we start demonstration gardens soon, the idea won't get anywhere in the upcoming neighborhood planning process, and green infrastructure will be postponed for 10 years or more.
*     *     *
*  Mandate: 40% Removal of Total Suspended Solids in stormwater runoff by the year is 2015.

This blog is an exploration of some complicated issues. If there's an error, or if you have some ideas, please let me know.  You can email me or post a comment at the bottom of the blog.

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