Depave our city? A lesson from Portland, Oregon

We know that some parts of Brighton & Hove are ‘risky’ when it comes to flooding and depaving may provide part of the answer. Don’t worry, we aren’t advocating digging up the whole city! 

Building Green was speaking on the subject recently at a Hove Civic Society meeting, and reflecting on the July 2014 floods – 100 properties flooded in Portslade and 300 emergency calls to East Sussex Fire and Rescue in a single morning. Now, this is ‘surface water flooding’ we are talking about – the kind where very heavy rainfall runs and collects in the hollows in the hard surfaces in our towns and cities.

Cities tend to be impermeable places – and we know that where we can increase permeability at scale, for example through landscaping, retaining front and back gardens, green roofs and other ‘sustainable drainage’ approaches, we can reduce the risk of flooding.

Come and learn more about it all this weekend – and how you can help by ‘doing it yourself’ at the workshops run by Building Green, Organic Roofs and Brighton Permaculture Trust. Not too  late to book a place!

Portslade is home to two of the first ‘rain gardens’ in Brighton & Hove. Building Green and partners have completed a study that has found enough flat roofspace in 9km2 of central Brighton – 87 football pitches worth in fact – to hold back 100 Olympic swimming pools of rainwater that our street drainage networks might struggle with during heavy rainfall events.

As we’ve reported before, there are other places that do this much, much better. Let’s learn from them.

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Victoria Recreation Ground rain garden, Portslade

One such place is Portland, Oregon – and in this blog Dusty Gedge writes about a new initiative to ‘depave Portland’ – ripping up the hard surfaces and planting stuff.

Good for sustainable drainage – but also good for visual amenity, and even crime rates potentially. A study in Chicago Illinois in 2001 in one public housing development found that robberies were down by 48% and violent crime by 56% in areas where buildings had been ‘greened’ with green walls and landscaping. Poster below. Those are big numbers – what if we could achieve 1 or 2% – still worth doing? Building Green thinks so.

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Rooftop revolution?

Councillor Robert Nemeth has called for a ‘rooftop revolution’ to do something with Brighton’s ‘wasted roof space’. Visitors to the i360 look across a pretty desolate landscape north over Brighton.

Here at Building Green we couldn’t agree more and will seek a meeting. We’re pleased to see the Aroe MSK installation on the Hilton roof, but think green roofs would be a greater contribution to the health of the city.

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Read the article in the Independent here and here.

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In London there are planning requirements for green roofs and walls on developments over a certain size. In Germany and Switzerland things are rather more established, with Government incentives that encourage greening that creates benefits for storm water management. Portland does this too, with it’s Ecoroof incentive.

That’s the gauntlet for Brighton & Hove then – develop the incentives and policies to make the city a leader in making the most of that ‘wasted space’. A hella better view for i360 tourists too!

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Some inspiration from across the Pond

So we like to think we have some great green roofs and walls here in Brighton. Well, we do – but there are lessons we can learn from others including the good citizens of Olympia WA, San Francisco CA and Portland OR.

I was lucky enough to visit this summer – here are some pictures that I hope act as inspiration. We could think, and act, so much bigger.

In the Government complex at Olympia, Washington, is a large area of green roof established on underground car parks. Food is grown for local food banks, tended by Government workers. Some lovely large squash ripening in the sun. There is a large area of wildflower mix (‘Ecolawn’) sown for insects and appearance, and is not watered. This has been established by the Department of Enterprise Services – basically the legal and procurement department!

Nearby, just outside the historic Capitol building, is an area of rain gardens that have been retrofitted to help manage storm water. They are very attractive, and feature seating to encourage enjoyment.

San Francisco Academy of Sciences has a living roof…that is so large it is a visitor attraction in its own right. Not a very good photo, so I’ve stolen one from the website and there are more here.

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Also in San Francisco were these mini gardens, usually in shopping areas, that brought planting into very urban settings, softened the street scene and provided fun features and places to relax. A ‘public parklet’ indeed!

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Portland, Oregon is well known for its approach to sustainable urban planning and design. The whole neighbourhood we stayed in (Alberta – much like Brighton in its hipsterness) has bioswales and other street level drainage built in. Basically permeable sidewalks (ownership extends to the kerb so householders plant up their strip of sidewalk however they like), roof drainage to ground level, street level swales and other features incorporated into street furniture and traffic calming. Drains are clearly marked to encourage people not to use them for disposing nasties. Much of the sidewalk strip was used to grow veggies and fruit – including a nearby pub that harvested salad crops from the street and boasted of it on its menu.

Here in Brighton, a number of partners including the Council and Environment Agency have launched a pilot ‘sustainable drainage’ scheme in Portslade. Great, but surely we could be bolder?